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Residential school survivor graduates high school at 61, says it's never too late for education

A residential school survivor in Manitoba who received his high school diploma last week says he hopes to inspire others to believe in their education goals.

"Now I can prove that an elder like me could graduate. If anybody like me can do it, they can do it," 61-year-old Glenn Courchene said.

Courchene is Anishinaabe from Sagkeeng First Nation, located 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

He received his high school diploma from the Empower Adult Education Centre, in the neighbouring community of Pine Falls, Man., on Nov. 18.

Courchene made the commitment in February 2019 to obtain his high school diploma.

"I wanted to go back to school and I wanted to complete my education, so what I did was I encouraged myself to believe in myself," he said.

As a child, he attended the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba for eight years starting in the 1960s. He also attended the day school in the community for three and half years.

At the residential school, he had only gone up to Grade 6, and he blamed the schools for him not being able to speak Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibway language, and for hurting his confidence.

"My education in the residential school, it was kind of hard for me," Courchene said.

"We couldn't learn because of what happened to us. We were abused, physical and all that. We were there to learn, not to get hurt."

Arriving early before staff

Courchene said he wouldn't have been able to finish school without the support of his friends and the staff at the Empower Adult Education Centre.

Among the staff members he gives credit to is Karen Legall, the school's work counsellor. She helps students upgrade their skills so they can take the courses that are required for graduation.

Legall said Courchene tried to give school a chance back in 2012 but didn't follow through with it at the time.

When he returned in 2019, she said, he was there at the school every day.

Every morning, Courchene walked the roughly seven kilometres to the centre from Sagkeeng to Pine Falls — often getting picked up along the way and given a ride.

Legall said he would often arrive at the school before the staff, waiting for the doors to open.

"Last year he just took off," she said, adding he really enjoyed his math studies.

"He just started coming in every day. And then we thought, you know what, let's get your Grade 12. And he was so excited and he did it."

Karen Legall, the work counsellor at Empower Adult Education Centre, says Courchene made individual dreamcatchers for the staff, as well as a heart-shaped dreamcatcher for the office. (Karen Legall)

Legall described Courchene as funny and caring and said he has shared many stories with the staff since he started at the school. She said he made individual dreamcatchers, as well as a big heart-shaped dreamcatcher for the staff at Empower.

"He really likes to share all his knowledge over the years. And we appreciate him doing that. We've learned a lot from him," Legall said.

Courchene said he plans to go to university to obtain a bachelor's degree.

"I've gone through a lot of hurt, and I respect myself for going to school. And I will never give up school because I want to keep learning."

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