Kokum, grandson proud to graduate Grade 12 together in James Smith Cree Nation

17-year-old Sage Stonestand-Checkosis and his kokum Brenda 'Connie' Stonestand, 64, attend a class together at the Bernard Constant Community School. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC - image credit)
17-year-old Sage Stonestand-Checkosis and his kokum Brenda 'Connie' Stonestand, 64, attend a class together at the Bernard Constant Community School. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC - image credit)

Grade 12 student Sage Stonestand-Checkosis walks through the hall of his school with his kokum, or grandmother, Brenda "Connie" Stonestand.

But he's not giving her a tour — she's a fellow student.

Sage, 17, and Connie, 63, are graduating together this year from Bernard Constant Community School in James Smith Cree Nation, located approximately 200 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

"It's like waking up and seeing a whole new world, all new opportunities," Connie said.

When she was younger, she endured bullying and violence in school. Connie said she and her sister were eventually forced to drop out to care for her ailing mother.

For more than a decade, Connie worked as a liaison officer and guidance counsellor at the school, which runs from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12. But she hasn't been in a classroom as a student for more than 40 years.

"I've seen a lot of students walking back and forth — how proud they were. And you know, I wish I could have had that feeling too. But I didn't have that chance," Connie said.

Helping other adult ed students

Last fall, the school started an adult education program, and Connie was the first person to enrol.

"I signed up because I really wanted to do this. This was a dream I had," she said.

Chanss Lagaden/CBC
Chanss Lagaden/CBC

When she decided she wanted to go back to school, her records couldn't be found, so the school didn't know which grade she had completed. Because of this gap, she had to take all of her Grade 12 classes from the beginning.

Connie made it a priority to attend every day from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. She said she would even go to the other adult education students' houses to pick them up.

School will open a lot of doors for them and help them look after their families, Connie said.

"I knock on a door and make sure they're coming because I want to make sure they come to school and they get their Grade 12, too," she said. "Because we're going to do it as a team."

WATCH | Kokum and grandson to celebrate Grade 12 grad together:

It's been less than two years since 11 people were killed and 18 injured at James Smith and in nearby Weldon, Sask., in one of the worst mass stabbings in Canadian history. Connie said that no matter the obstacle — trauma, addictions, poverty — education is the key to healing and a better life.

"I want to show the young people that it's not too late to go back to school, get your education, because it's the most important thing in this world," Connie said.

Hope to inspire others: principal

Bernard Constant Community School principal Codi Baptiste said this joint graduation is a rare occasion at the school.

"We're just so proud of them and I think that it's just such a wonderful thing to witness," said Baptiste.

He said that the school and community will make it a point to celebrate this special duo during the graduation ceremony on June 15.

"We hope more people will be inspired to come back to school and finish their Grade 12," said Baptiste.

Before the graduation ceremony, Connie's children wanted to do something special to honour her and her husband, Daniel Stonestand, who died six years ago.

WATCH | Kokum shows off the ribbon dress for her Grade 12 graduation:

They had a graduation dress made with the colours from her wedding day, combined with Daniel's ceremonial colours. He was a sweat keeper and pipe carrier in their community.

Connie said she cried and hugged the dress when they gave it to her.

"I want to wear these colours to honour him because I know he would be proud of me," Connie said.

Tammy Stonestand-Crain/Facebook
Tammy Stonestand-Crain/Facebook

Connie wants kids to know they can go back to school at any age.

"It's a hard life when you don't have any education. You've just got to take jobs that are just jobs," she said.

"Even though I'm old as I am, I still want to go further, to be more educated so more doors open for me."

Support from kokum, family

Sage said he's proud of his kokum, and is honoured to be graduating with her.

"Now we don't have to plan our grad parties on different dates; we could plan ours on the same day," Sage said with a laugh.

Sage said high school has had its challenges, but he has had his mom and auntie and kokum push him to keep going.

"I am pretty thankful for them, for encouraging us to get our work done," said Sage.

His mother and aunt are teachers, and his brother and cousin attend the University of Saskatchewan. They plan to host a graduation barbecue at home, and their classmates and family will join them to celebrate this special day.

Chanss Lagaden CBC/SK.
Chanss Lagaden CBC/SK.

Connie joked she is going to join her grandson at his grad after party, but then admitted she'll let him have fun with his friends instead.

Both Sage and Connie want to continue their education after they graduate. Sage said he plans to attend the University of Saskatchewan, and wants to become an actor, and Connie has dreams of her own.

"I know there's no chance for me to be a doctor, but there's a chance of me being an addiction counsellor," Connie said.

"I'm just looking forward to it."