05/03/2014 04:32 EDT | Updated 07/03/2014 05:59 EDT

Struggle, determination and celebration for indigenous graduates

It was a day Dene Beaudry thought he would never see.

"Education, for me, was a dream," he said. 

Yet Beaudry graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Manitoba Saturday. 

The university held its 25th annual graduation Powwow to honour indigenous graduates.

Beaudry left school after grade eight, ending up as an adult working with young people in Winnipeg's North End, admonishing them to stay in school, and keeping them on the straight and narrow.

Then one day, one of the young men in his charge challenged him. 

"One day we were coming home from a bus ride after a hockey game," he said. "And I always preached about,  you know, make sure you go home, do your homework, get ready for tomorrow. And one of the youth turned around and said to me, 'Why don't you practice what you preach?' And I'm like, yeah, whatever. And he was like, 'No, we all know you have a grade 8 education. Why don't you go practice what you preach?' I've been in school ever since."

Beaudry was 37 years old when he went back to school, and the demands on his reading and writing skills were enormous. 

He said it was also, emotionally, an education having the tables turned on him, where once he was there to support others, now he had to rely on others to support him. 

He said it was overwhelming at times. 

"When you're running low on cash and can't afford to buy groceries, they buy it for you. When your vehicle breaks down you can't afford a bus pass, to have these people go out of their way to pick you up to drive you to make sure you attend your classes, to pay for your books."

At the Powwow Saturday, ceremonial headdresses and jingle dresses took the place of honour instead of caps and gowns. 

Deborah Young, who helps indigenous students like Beaudry complete their studies, said when she graduated she didn't go to the convocation, but she did go to the Powwow.

"It was probably one of the most powerful, empowering things that I have celebrated in my life, and it was the power of the drum," she said. It's a trek worth celebrating, she added.

"We've had three generations of my family walk these halls. My father graduated in 1967. Can you imagine, 1967? What it was like for him?"

Ovide Mercredi doesn't have to imagine what it was like.

The Manitoba aboriginal leader and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations graduated from the University of Manitoba with a law degree in 1977. 

At the time, there were only 11 other aboriginal students on campus.

"When we came, we felt alienated and isolated from the institution," he said. "There was no reflection of our people anywhere."

More Aboriginal Canadians are graduating from post-secondary education than ever before.

About 10 per cent of aboriginal Canadians have university degrees. When college diplomas and trade certificates are counted, the number jumps to 48 per cent.

It is, however, below the post-secondary education rates for non-aboriginal Canadians of 65 per cent.

Shelley Halchuk has upgraded her own education. The Dauphin River native used to own a beauty salon. Saturday, she became a dentist. She hopes to travel to northern communities in Manitoba to treat aboriginal children. 

"I think a lot of us have struggled everywhere and it means we've succeeded," she said. "We've become determined and we've gotten to where we wanted to be." 

Mercredi said indigenous people know their future is tied to education. 

"As our young people get more educated, it will make a big difference in terms of our social economic standing in the country," he said.