The Blackfoot elder Miiksika'am — who survived the residential school system of the 1950s and became a UN peacekeeper, long-time Siksika councillor and widely admired spiritual advisor at Mount Royal University in Calgary — has received an honorary doctor of laws.
Miiksika'am, whose name means "Red Crane," said it was a special day and dedicated the honour to his wife of 53 years, Fran, a teacher who had passed away just days before.
"It makes me proud. And all the more, I stand on stage for those 215 children. Because when children go, it takes quite a heaviness, built up in our hearts," he said as he addressed graduating students Tuesday at one of eight live, drive-in style spring convocation ceremonies being held this week at MRU. He was referring to the recent discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains adjacent to a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Miiksika'am was sent at age six to the Old Sun Residential School outside Gleichen, Alta., where his name was anglicized to "Clarence Wolfleg."
"It was horrible in a sense that I could not connect with my language to soothe my pain. I couldn't cry because they told me you can't cry, so my emotions was hidden inside of me," said Miiksika'am.
Miiksika'am's mother gave some older boys "a few dollars" to protect him from some of the priests and other students.
'My spirit is still with me'
Leaving the institution is one of his better memories.
"The most happiest moment I had was when I left there and … I wasn't going back. I looked back and said, 'Well, you didn't get the best of me. I'm still alive. My spirit is still with me."'
Miiksika'am said the news out of Kamloops reawakened difficult memories for him, which he shared with students at the drive-in convocation ceremony.
"I had to think about three girls that were found not even 300 yards from [my] school," said Miiksika'am.
"They ran away from school … a heavy snowstorm hit and they were found huddled on a hilltop south of the school. A little girl in the middle, she survived, but the other two passed away."
UN peacekeeper, 10-term member of Siksika council
At some point during his 5½ years at the residential school — which he refers to only as "that place" — Miiksika'am vowed he would go on to become a soldier, as his father was in the Second World War, and then a leader of his people.
"Miiksika'am did, indeed, follow in his father's footsteps, participating in UN peacekeeping initiatives in Cyprus and in NATO European missions during the Cold War," MRU said in a release.
"I completed what I said I would do when I was seven years old," Miiksika'am said.
Later in life, Miiksika'am served 10 terms as a member of the Siksika Nation council, in addition to working in educational and healing roles with local, provincial and national organizations.
Miiksika'am has become an icon at MRU
At MRU, Miiksika'am speaks to students about restorative justice, residential schools and treaties, telling stories from his own experience or those passed down from his elders.
"He has passed on cultural rights, such as the right to smudge, to certain students and offered guidance, especially to Indigenous students who have become disconnected from their history and heritage," said Liam Haggarty, an associate professor of history and Canadian Studies.
"Although [Elder] Miiksika'am has no formal training as a teacher, I have learned as much from him about what it means to be a teacher and mentor as I have from anyone either in school or in my personal life. He epitomizes the virtue and value of education."
Miiksika'am also helped created the concept behind inni awatto (Buffalo on the Move), an art installation on campus made of carefully placed rocks from Blackfoot territory to honour the campus's Indigenous population. The boulders are lined up to face north, which is considered a place where knowledge can be attained.
University president Tim Rahilly said Wolfleg has become an icon at the institution and helped many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people with his wisdom. He said the degree is the highest honour the school gives out and the decision was made long before the news out of Kamloops.
"We have been working for a long time on trying to recognize Indigenous ways of knowing and to recognize longer service of Indigenous folks in our community," he said.
"I think the emotional weight of what's happened recently is something that is on all of our minds."
Tuesday's bestowment occurred during a morning ceremony with graduands from the child studies, education, social work and health and physical education majors in attendance. Miiksika'am had received an honorary bachelor of arts from MRU in 2016.
Other luminaries getting honorary doctorates
Miiksika'am isn't the only person to receive an honorary degree this week during MRU's drive-in convocations for about 640 graduating students.
The others being awarded honorary doctors of law for their outstanding achievements and community service include:
Louise Bernice Halfe (Sky Dancer), a residential school survivor, award-winning poet and Parliamentary Poet Laureate, who testifies to the indigenous experience (Wednesday; she's unable to join in person but will receive the degree virtually).
Hal Kvisle, a leader in the energy sector and a long-time advocate for education (Monday).
Christine Silverberg, a former Calgary chief of police who was the first woman in Canada to hold such a post, and now head of SilverbergLegal (Wednesday).
Each recipient was to address graduates and guests during separate ceremonies.
Support is available for anyone affected by residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.