Convocation ceremonies are nothing new for Lila Bruyere and Shawn Johnston. Before attending Laurier, the mother and son had earned four degrees and a college diploma between them, and they had proudly watched each other cross the stage to receive each one.
But the convocation ceremony they both attended at Laurier was different.
For the first time, both mother and son donned graduation robes at the same time. Not only did Bruyere, 61, and Johnston, 37, become members of Laurier’s class of 2014, they also graduated from the same program, the Faculty of Social Work’s Aboriginal Field of Study. By all accounts, it was a first for the university.
As rare as it is for a mother and son to graduate at the same time, from the same program, at the same university, the paths Bruyere and Johnston have taken to where they are today are even more remarkable.
It wasn’t long ago that Johnston would stop in the middle of the bridge he crossed every day on the way to his call-centre job and contemplate jumping off. “I would ask myself, ‘Would anyone miss me?’” he says.
At the time, he was addicted to alcohol, cocaine and crystal meth, and his life had hit a point where it didn’t look like things could get better.
Johnston left his home on the Couchiching First Nation near Fort Frances, Ontario, for Winnipeg at just 16 after dropping out of high school. “I faced a lot of bullying and at the time, there were so few supports for Aboriginal youth,” he says. “But school was something I always enjoyed. I always knew education was something I wanted.”
After moving to Winnipeg, Johnston tried completing his GED but fell a few marks short. He then began a decade-long decent into addiction.
After spending 30 days in a rehab centre, he kicked his addiction to crystal meth, but quickly returned to drinking and cocaine. “A few months later, I just came to a realization that I wanted something better for myself. I was serious this time.”
That was when Bruyere’s phone rang back on the Couchiching reserve.
For Bruyere, her son’s struggle was painfully familiar. A survivor of the residential school system, where she was physically abused by her instructors, Bruyere was an alcoholic by the time she entered adulthood.
“I grew up with my parents drinking and they were residential school survivors themselves, so they had problems of their own,” she says of the vicious cycle that affected so many Aboriginal families. “They had 12 of us, and every time one child left for a residential school, there was another one being born.”
A single mother, Bruyere struggled with addiction through the early parts of her three sons’ lives, but her children inspired her to get her life back on track.
“I wanted the cycle of abandonment to stop,” she says. “Being a residential school survivor, I had no idea how to be a parent, but I knew I wanted to be there for my sons. I wanted them to know who I am as their mom. So I started my own healing and kept myself in treatment.”
A friend encouraged her to pursue a Bachelor of Social Work degree through Carleton University’s distance education program. The prospect of going back to school in her early 40s seemed preposterous to Bruyere, but her friend convinced her to register. Four years later, she had earned her degree.
“I never, ever thought I would be able to do that,” she says. “And the highlight was having my sons in the crowd.”
The moment wasn’t lost on Johnston. “Watching her walk across the stage, I was just amazed,” he recalls. Although it would be nearly a decade before he went back to school himself, the experience helped fuel his desire to pursue his own education.
When Bruyere answered the phone and her distraught son was on the other end, Bruyere’s response was simple. “I don’t lecture,” she says. “I just listened to him. I told him, ‘I’ll help you out, but you have to do the work.’”
Johnston checked into the Native Horizons Treatment Centre in Six Nations First Nation. With his mother as a support and an inspiration, he started to recover.
“I always had that message in the back of my mind that I could do this because I had seen my mom do it,” he says.
In 2009, Johnston completed a two-year Social Service Worker diploma at Lambton College in Sarnia, Ontario, and then went on to complete a three-year Bachelor of Social Work from Western University in 2012.
He then enrolled in Laurier’s Master of Social Work Aboriginal Field of Study program, the first program of its kind in Canada that is rooted in the Aboriginal worldview.
At the same time, Bruyere was considering a master’s degree. Johnston’s response when his mom told him she would be joining him in class? “That’s pretty cool,” he recalls with a laugh.
Through their year at Laurier, Bruyere and Johnston discussed assignments and called each other for help. They even worked together on a project studying the effects of a residential school system on two generations of a family.
Bruyere and Johnston both hope to continue giving back to the Aboriginal community. Johnston plans on working with Aboriginal youth for a few years and is considering a PhD, while Bruyere wants to work with residential school survivors.
It’s so important we acknowledge the success stories in the Aboriginal community,” says Johnston. “I think it’s really important that youth hear these stories and think ‘Hey, if they can go to school, so can I.’”
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