Dressed in a cedar cap and a black gown, Alden Campbell furiously perfected his valedictorian speech in a quiet corner inside Maaqtusiis Secondary School on June 22.
He had been working on it for two days hoping to get it just right in preparation for his high school graduation ceremony.
Campbell was one of five high school graduates from Ahousaht First Nation being celebrated by family and friends who had gathered inside the school’s gymnasium on the remote Flores Island.
Adorned with a picture of Vincent van Gogh’s starry night, twinkle lights, and a crescent moon cut out, the school’s gymnasium was like a tribute to the graduates’ bright futures.
“Now that I’m graduating there’s a lot more choices than what I’ve had [before],” said Campbell.
Following his passion for cooking, Campbell landed a summer job working at a seafood restaurant in Victoria before beginning his studies in culinary arts at Vancouver Island University’s Nanaimo campus in the fall.
It’s a big transition for the 17-year-old, who has been living in Ahousaht his whole life.
When he thinks about the move, he said he’s split between feeling nervous and excited.
Campbell’s father, Floyd, beamed with pride as he praised his son’s ambitious nature.
“He’s much more focused than I was at his age,” he said.
When John Hunter, one of the graduates, reflected back on the school year, he said he was lucky to have “super helpful” friends.
The “close knit” graduating class would often stay behind after school to help each other if someone was falling behind, said Maaqtusiis Secondary School Principal Ali Herron.
In the mornings, Herron said the students would show up at each other’s houses to encourage one another to go to school.
“When any of them are going through tough situations, they’re always there to back each other up and do whatever they can to support each other,” she said.
Seeing the graduates together up on stage was “rewarding,” said Herron.
Especially after the challenging couple of years imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.
The students had to navigate school closures, scheduling changes and online learning.
“I’m super proud of them,” she said.
Vernon Brown travelled for two days from his home in Klemtu to see his son, Ashton, graduate.
Like anything in life, Brown said graduating is a choice and he’s proud Ashton “took it upon himself to make sure he graduated.”
“There’s a movement among First Nations youth,” he said. “[I’m] seeing a lot more going through college and university.”
With more opportunity for First Nations youth “in this era of reconciliation,” Brown said he’s confident Ashton is going to have a “bright future.”
Despite the small graduating class, Herron said it was important to celebrate the students’ accomplishments. It also encourages those who didn’t graduate this year to try again next year, she added.
Before delivering his valedictorian speech, Campbell was presented with the Atleo-Louie Scholarship and the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust Award for his academic achievement.
In his speech, Campbell encouraged his classmates to “keep pushing forward” as they transitioned to the next phase in their lives.
“Our paths may be different,” he said. “But we’ll always have each other’s backs.”