Tomas Jirousek, a member of the Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta, received an honours degree in political science and was a valedictorian for the Faculty of Arts.
“Each of my peer Indigenous students who made it to this step have really overcome so much in just reaching this milestone,” said Jirousek.
The 22-year-old, who will be starting law school at the University of Toronto in the fall, said his valedictory honours brought up mixed emotions of pride and heartbreak.
“A couple of decades ago, my grandparents wouldn’t have been allowed to go to a university like McGill without losing their status. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot over the past couple of days,” he said.
He is believed to be the first student with First Nations status to receive that level of recognition from the Montreal university. In the 10 years that McGill’s special advisor on Indigenous initiatives, Kakwiranó:ron Cook, has been in his position, he said there haven’t been any other First Nations valedictorians. Last year, Métis student André Moreau graduated as the Faculty of Law’s valedictorian.
“It’s a statement on how far we’ve come but also how far we still need to go,” said Jirousek.
“I see all of these brilliant Indigenous folks who walked these paths before who were never given the opportunity to be valedictorian. It hurts me deep down that those opportunities have been denied.”
Campaign to change the Redmen name
During his undergraduate career, Jirousek was a member of the university’s rowing team and was the student union’s Indigenous Affairs Commissioner where he made efforts to educate and engage students in active reconciliation. He led the campaign for the men’s varsity sports teams — the Redmen — to change its name.
Since the late 1920s, the men’s teams had been known as the Redmen. According to the university, the name came from colours worn by the team. However, Indigenous symbols, connotations and unofficial nicknames were propagated by the press and fans. In April 2019, Suzanne Fortier, the principal and vice-chancellor of McGill, made the decision to drop the name.
“I have to really pay my gratitude forward to those students who broke that path before me,” he said.
“Every Indigenous student who held a position, represented us before I got there, every Indigenous student who made their voice heard on campus broke the trail a little bit more for the name change.”
Moral Courage in Reconciliation Award recipient
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, is a professor in the university’s school of social work. She penned a reference letter for Jirousek to be considered for valedictorian.
“I was so impressed by his leadership, the grace, wisdom, and dignity in which he led the campaign to change the Redmen name and his engagement in all forms of reconciliation and social justice issues on campus,” she said.
“I really felt that he is an example that all students should try to follow, when it comes to addressing systemic racism and systemic discrimination.”
Jirousek said he’s proud of his impact on campus. His efforts earned him the university’s inaugural Moral Courage in Reconciliation Award from Indigenous Access McGill.
“When I first got to McGill, it seemed a lot scarier. I remember watching other Indigenous students burn out because there’s so few of us in the institution. It felt almost hopeless navigating at some points,” said Jirousek.
“As I graduate, I feel like the ball is rolling faster. We’re seeing Indigenous students standing on that podium that we’ve collectively built over a couple of generations, and I feel like things are just getting better and better. I’m really proud to say I had a part in that.”