New convocation regalia honours Indigenous communities

By Tracey Skehan

Convocation is a joyous and transformational event that brings together students, family, and faculty. This year, however, it will be an even more meaningful occasion at Lakehead University.

Dr. Gillian Siddall will be presiding over her first graduation ceremonies as president and vice-chancellor and she will be wearing new convocation regalia—a robe, hat, and two sashes that acknowledge and celebrate the Indigenous communities and the Indigenous lands that Lakehead University stands upon.

She will also be wearing the regalia during her presidential installation ceremony at Anemki Wajiw (Mount McKay) on May 29, 2024, and at a reception in Orillia on June 6, 2024.

“When I took on the role of president last July, I began thinking about how to design the ceremony in a way that would include a profound acknowledgement that Lakehead University’s campuses reside on the traditional lands of Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay and the Three Fires Confederacy in Simcoe County,” Dr. Siddall says.

Three exceptional artists were commissioned to make the convocation regalia, and we are proud to share the stories of their creation.

Convocation Robe and Hat

Regalia cap in Lakehead blue with purple, gold and green flowers around the brimFashion designer Beverli Barnes has been producing stunning clothing for over 40 years. “Custom design has always been my passion,” she says. Since the 1990s, Beverli has been a leader in reimagining and reinventing the robes worn by lawyers, judges, and university officials.

The process of designing a full-length convocation robe for Dr. Siddall was an exciting project, and her second collaboration with Dr. Siddall—in 2018, Beverli designed the convocation robe Dr. Siddall wore when she was President and Vice-Chancellor of the Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

The new president's robe with black breast and cuff details“Dr. Siddall was the first person I’ve worked with to incorporate Indigenous art into convocation robes—she’s a pioneer,” Beverli says. “Before then, the regalia was very stuffy and conventional.”

Dr. Siddall’s new robe is made of vibrant blue silk with black linen panels and silver piping. Indigenous artists Melissa Benson and Daanis Pelletier were chosen to make beaded sashes—one for Thunder Bay campus ceremonies and one for Orillia campus ceremonies—to be worn over the robe.

Beverli also had thistle-embossed buttons sewn on the sleeves of the robe and designed a beautiful hat with a thistle pattern embroidered around the rim to represent Dr. Siddall’s Scottish heritage. “The sashes are pieces of art,” Beverli says, “and working collaboratively with universities and Indigenous artists is a great honour for me.”

The Orillia Sash

Orillia President Convocation Sash with intricate beadingMelissa Benson, a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, has created the beaded sash that Dr. Siddall will wear for the convocation ceremonies at Lakehead Orillia.

“Beading is a visual representation of who we are, where we come from, our medicines, and how we connect to nature,” Melissa explains. “My mom passed beading down to me, and I bead as a way of storytelling and to educate people about Ojibwe culture.”

“Traditionally, we use seed beads,” she says, “but I used cut-glass beads to make the sash more sparkly.” It took Melissa well over 120 hours to complete the sash, which features floral imagery including Ontario’s provincial flower, the trillium, to represent Lakehead’s location, and a maple leaf to represent our ecological and spiritual relationship to the land. The Lakehead logo is positioned at the heart of the sash, while bees were added because of “their importance to our ecological system and because they symbolize focus, hard work, teamwork, generosity, and prosperity.”

There’s also a flower bud on the sash that has a special significance for Lakehead.

“It symbolizes how each student begins before gradually growing and blossoming as they move through their programs.”

Melissa believes that bringing Indigenous art into Lakehead’s convocation ceremonies “is a beautiful way to show truth and reconciliation with Indigenous groups in Canada.”

The Thunder Bay Sash

Thunder Bay convocation sash designed by Daanis Pelletier-HowcroftThe sash for the Lakehead Thunder Bay convocation ceremonies has been created by Anishinaabe advocate Daanis Pelletier (she/her) from Fort William First Nation.

“I wanted to connect the communities of Fort William and Thunder Bay using traditional Ojibwe beadwork focused on the plants and living things of these two places,” Daanis says.

The sash is beaded with imagery including ferns, blueberries, strawberry plants, and maple leaves, which represent Fort William Nation’s maple syrup-making tradition. The Lakehead University and Fort William First Nation logos appear at the bottom of the left and right sides, respectively, of the sash.

Daanis, like Melissa, learned beading from her talented artist mother. Today, Daanis is not only a master of beadwork—she’s also a Lakehead student studying Indigenous learning and philosophy with a minor in music.

“My mom attended Lakehead in the same program that I’m in,” Daanis says, “so I spent a lot of time on the Thunder Bay campus when I was eight or nine. She wasn’t able to finish her degree, so I want to complete mine as a tribute to her.”

“As a student and a member of the communities whose land Lakehead is on, it was empowering to make this sash,” Daanis adds. “There are many accomplished Indigenous artists, but not all of them are given opportunities to shine.”