For the first time in the University of Toronto’s 195-year history, the Chancellor’s convocation procession was led by a symbol of the university’s enduring partnership with Indigenous peoples.
A member of the U of T’s Indigenous community – in this case, Lindsey Fechtigalumnus of Tal University and manager of Temerty Medical School’s Office of Indigenous Health, served as Eagle Feather Bearer, a new ceremonial role that emerged from the recommendations of the Convocation Review of the ‘university.
“It’s a huge honour,” said Fechtig, a member of Curve Lake First Nation near Peterborough, Ont. “So to be in that privileged position and just have the ability to honor that, and the institution to honor our ways of knowing and doing, and our culture – the importance of that is enormous.”
Eagle feather bearers are nominated by their faculty or division and are members of both the University of Toronto community and an Indigenous community.
In many Indigenous cultures – including the Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississauga – the eagle feather is sacred because it flies closest to the Creator. It symbolizes respect, honor, strength, courage and wisdom.
The eagle feather used at convocation was presented to the office of the president by elders at the presentation ceremony for the report of the University of Toronto’s Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee, “Answering the Call : Wecheehetowin.”
Shannon SimpsonU of T’s director of Indigenous initiatives, Elder said Andrew Wesley was delighted that the eagle feather was part of the summoning ceremonies.
“He said to me, ‘I didn’t give this feather to sit on a shelf. I gave it to work here at the U of T,'” Simpson, a member of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation.
Simpson added that the addition of the eagle feather follows a number of initiatives to make the convocation more inclusive for Indigenous students, including a land acknowledgment and approval of a protocol allowing graduates to wear traditional aboriginal regalia in lieu of an academic gown when summoned.
A description of the importance of the eagle feather in many indigenous cultures and its use in the summoning ceremony was included in the spring summoning program.
On stage at Convocation Hall, U of T President Meric Gertler described the feather as an “appropriate and meaningful” addition to the ceremony.
“I was deeply honored to receive an eagle feather as a token of the university’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,” he later said. U of T News. “We take this commitment very seriously, and the addition of an eagle feather bearer to the front of the Chancellor’s procession expresses the University’s deep respect for Indigenous communities and cultures.
The following photos illustrate the historic addition of the eagle feather and eagle pen holder to U of T graduation ceremonies this year.
(Photo by Steve Frost)
Michael WhiteU of T First Nations House director and member of M’Chigeeng First Nation, participates in a smudging ceremony with Fechtig – who wore a traditional ribbon skirt and blue and white First Nations House stole Nations – and Simpson before the motorcade.
“In terms of calls to action for truth and reconciliation, the inclusion of a smudging ceremony and the carrying of the feather is a strong signal to graduates, alumni, Indigenous faculty – any person involved in the summons – that we are here,” White said as he presented Fechtig with tobacco – nasema- recognize the effort and responsibilities that come with carrying the pen. “For me, as an Indigenous person, working in the Mississaugas of Credit and Haudenosaunee territories, as an Anishinaabe, [means] that we are represented, that there is reflection and consideration for us.
(Photo by Steve Frost)
Simpson, wearing a black robe and black mask, stands near the University of Toronto’s eagle feather and mace, a staple of convocation ceremonies since he was introduced to the University Board of Governors (now the Board of Trustees) by Lieutenant Colonel Eric Phillips in 1951. “I think the fact that [the Eagle Feather] leading the procession was so important and so necessary,” Simpson said. “It wouldn’t have had the same impact if it was in the middle of the procession. This lets Indigenous students know they really matter and are seen.
(Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)
The next day, Riley Yesno, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, carried the eagle feather at another graduation ceremony. An Anishinaabe student from Eabametoong First Nation in northern Ontario, Yesno has written on Indigenous, environmental, youth, and LGBTQ2S+ issues for outlets ranging from Maclean’s review at the Toronto Starand delivered an impassioned speech in the House of Commons on missing and murdered Indigenous women.
(Photo by Steve Frost)
The eagle feather is displayed in its case in front of the University of Toronto mace. “It’s a very important step forward,” Fechtig said of the inclusion of the eagle feather. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but just having this important recognition, including this piece in a traditional procession and disrupting the norm, is a good way forward.”