Ava Hill tells Class of 2021 to learn from the past to build the future

When former Six Nations of the Grand River Elected Chief Ava Hill was presented with an honorary doctorate from Chancellor Hilary Pearson during Brock University’s Fall Convocation Friday, Oct. 15, it represented the completion of an important goal she set out to achieve many years earlier.

Hill, whose traditional name is Iohahatie, was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve and attended elementary school there before heading to high school in Brantford and Hagersville.

“When I graduated, I wasn’t encouraged to continue my education,” she said. “Nobody even told me it was a possibility I could consider. I had often thought about going back to school to get a degree, but with various job demands and looking after a household, I never found the time. So now to receive this honorary doctorate fills that gap that I had always regretted was left in my life.”

This was Hill’s second Brock University Convocation, with the first being in 2007 when her daughter Julie Hill (BBA ’07) graduated. Both Julie Hill and Ava’s partner Cy Standing were in the room Friday when the livestreamed Fall Convocation ceremony was filmed.

Former Six Nations of the Grand River Elected Chief Ava Hill, centre, is pictured with partner Cy Standing and daughter Julie Hill (BBA ’07) Friday, Oct. 15.

Due to public health restrictions, a traditional Convocation event couldn’t be held, so the more than 1,000 graduates were invited to watch the livestreamed ceremony and then visit a personalized Convocation Portal.

In her address to the Class of 2021, Hill said that, as an Indigenous woman and leader, she felt privileged that the degree was coming at a time when “more and more people are becoming aware of a dark part of the history of this country.”

“I believe and feel this is a clear demonstration of the commitment of Brock University to move forward with reconciliation and I’m happy to accept this degree on behalf of all Indigenous people.”

Hill said — like many others who grew up attending Indian residential or day schools — she was a quiet and timid youngster and taught to be ashamed of her heritage, rather than proud of it.

“Over the years, I vowed to myself that I would not sit back anymore and miss out on opportunities because I lacked the confidence to speak up for myself,” she said. “So I began to speak out, ask questions, listen and learn, and to establish a huge network of friends, government officials and acquaintances who I still rely on today.”

After being elected as a councillor of the Six Nations of Grand River, she served two terms as Elected Chief.

“As a woman leader, my job wasn’t always easy. I had to work twice as hard to prove I could do the same or better as my male counterparts. I’ve had to endure sexist remarks, racism, put-downs, misogyny and threats. But I persevered with the support of my family and many friends,” she said. “I always remembered I was doing it because I wanted my community to be healthy, safe and sustainable. Everything I have done and continue to do today is for the people in my community and all Indigenous people, but particularly the youth who are watching and learning.”

Hill encouraged the Brock graduates to take the time to learn about Indigenous Peoples and all cultures.

“If we all move forward in the spirit of reconciliation and learn more about each other’s culture, then perhaps we can begin to eliminate the racism and stereotyping that exists around the world today. To build for the future, we must learn from the past,” she said.

Hill urged the Class of 2021 to do what they could to make the world a better place.

“Reconciliation must inspire all of us to transform society so that our children and grandchildren can live together in dignity, peace and prosperity on these lands that we now share,” she said. “You are to be commended and have the right to be proud of your accomplishments for achieving your degrees in the global pandemic we’ve all had to deal with for the past 18 months. You have knowledge, capability, determination and the energy to fulfil the roles of the new leadership in this country.
Don’t ever forget you’re important and you do matter.”

Watch Ava Hill’s full Convocation address below:

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