Be the hero of your story – Abel Bosum receives honourary law degree

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The crowded auditorium falls silent as the speaker approaches the podium to address the graduating class of 2016. It’s a big moment but it’s one our speaker is used to. Abel Bosum has spoken all over the world, negotiated landmark treaties for the Cree, and accepted awards from the United Nations. Today he’s been chosen to receive an honorary doctorate in Civil Law from Bishop’s University and give the convocation address to its graduates.  

At the microphone, Bosum shares the story of who he is and where he comes from. How he “was born in the bush,” had home and freedom in his early life, living off the land, then having that home, freedom, and “choice” taken away by the residential school system.

“This was my reality at the tender age of five. I was swept away from my parents, away from my culture and traditions and displaced to a strange environment with strange people and strange rules.”

It’s not your typical convocation address. It’s lacking the hollow platitudes and weighty observations about the years to come. Instead it comes entirely from personal experience. It was significant for Bosum to share his story of the residential school system with the graduates, as he’s sure many were unaware of its dark legacy. On another level though, Bosum sees his willingness to share his story as a key in overcoming the traumas experienced during that chapter of his life.  

“It helps you overcome the past and heal from the pain of that moment,” he says. “It also helps me reflect and sends a message to [this generation] about what life was like back then.”

But his harrowing story doesn’t end with residential school. In fact, it’s just beginning. When Bosum returned to James Bay, after 10 long years in residential school, he was shocked to discover the destructive toll industry had taken on his home.

“Our villages – our homes – along with our graveyards were bulldozed by mining companies to make room for their exploration and development work,” he recalled. “It was clear that the mining companies were in charge and their activities took precedence over everything else. We had to relocate our homes and rebuild our villages seven times during the course of 15 years to make room for mining development. By the 1970s, we came to be viewed as squatters on our own homeland and every effort was made to make us disappear.”

Abel Bosum Bishop's University 1

It would have been easy for Bosum to fall into a pit of despair. Instead, he “embarked on a path of mutual respect and collaboration, and also, on a path of Indigenous nation-building.”

Bosum admits there was anger inside him, however. “The anger is always there. It’s how you control that anger. Sometimes the anger is what drives you to want to make that change. If I didn’t have that anger, I would have probably moved on to something else. But because it stayed there, it reminded me of what needed to be done.”

However, Bosum insists it was the voice of his people that guided him and the Cree of Oujé-Bougoumou back home. That inspiration carried him, at times, through an odyssey of more than 15 years that saw the community go from tarpaper shacks on the side of the road to an international award-winning model for Indigenous living.  

“I was fortunate enough to start working with the Cree when I was very young,” he explained. “I listened to Elders, women and youth, and I kept their dreams and aspirations with me.”

Transformation was a reoccurring theme in Bosum’s address. Transforming anger into inspiration, struggle into purpose, dreams into reality, and indeed the very act of awarding an Indigenous person an honorary degree in Civil Law is symbolic of how things have transformed in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canada – given that it was illegal for an Indigenous person in Canada to hire legal council until 1951.

Abel Bosum honorary degree

When asked about his views on the changing times and closing the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, he replied, “We’re getting there.”

He added, “The objective now is to focus our attention on where we want to be. Rather than just hoping, we can set real targets. Set targets for the kind of communities we want to have [based on] principles and values that were handed down for many generations.” 

Having learned from an early age that choice can be taken away, Bosum sees it a right and privilege. Nearing the end of his address he implored the graduates to use it “responsibly and wisely.” He echoed that sentiment later when speaking about Indigenous youth.

“They now have a choice. The choices they make today will impact their families and communities for years to come.”

Bosum believes in what the future holds for Indigenous youth. “They have all the tools around them and it can be a very exciting life for them. They can have a story to tell too. These are very positive times.”

His parting piece of wisdom for the graduates: “Be courageous – become the hero of your own story.”

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