Kaitlin brings Mac a message from the trees
Valedictorian with ‘a foot in each canoe’ wins standing ovation with inspiring plea for healing
She hiked a trail in the Dundas Valley and, like she often does, talked to herself, and to the trees.
Kaitlin Debicki felt it: pressure. She would soon address an audience of about 1,500 at McMaster University’s fall convocation.
Debicki, graduating with a PhD in English and cultural studies, had not even planned to attend the ceremony, but earlier in the fall, a professor urged her to. She agreed.
“OK, good,” he replied. “Because you’ve been nominated for valedictorian.”
And so she sought inspiration from the land at her feet, and weathered bark at her fingertips, so she could tell a story. Her people’s story. And her own. Her birth name was Rachel. She was given up for adoption as a newborn at McMaster hospital. Her birth mother, who is Mohawk, left a letter for a social worker to share when the girl was old enough: I cannot give you the life I want you to have.
She was named Kaitlin by her adoptive parents, Wendy and Andrew Debicki, a couple who met while attending McMaster, and married, and settled in Ancaster.
Wendy had a degree in developmental psychology, Andrew in social work.
The couple adopted four kids in all and encouraged each to embrace their own cultural
roots. Each summer the family attended powwows camping in Algonquin Park, but Kaitlin’s family was not always welcomed by natives.
Through one lens, it was beautiful, two devoted parents raising the girl. Through another: a white couple had taken, whatever the circumstances, an Indigenous child from the natural mother.
“I don’t have those feelings,” says Debicki, “but my mom often expressed guilt about that, feeling I should have been with an Indigenous family.”
As a child she was proud of her background, played it up, made-up stories about native ways for friends. In her teens she wished her skin was darker to reflect her heritage.
The more pressing challenge was her health. She had debilitating asthma that kept her at home for three years of high school. Ancaster High School educators regularly volunteered to teach her at home.
Meanwhile, when she was 13 her uncle gave her a loom and she took up beading, which helped offset the sadness of being home, and taught her to focus.
In her 20s she got stronger, healthier, and began the long road toward connecting with her past, including learning the Mohawk language at Six Nations Polytechnic.
She graduated in English and Indigenous Studies at McMaster, earned an English MA at York University and, at her father Andrew’s urging, entered the PhD program at Mac.
Her dissertation was about “reading” trees, and using these readings as a theoretical framework for interpreting Indigenous literature.
“I have a thing with trees, a connection,” she says. “I spend time hugging trees, too, and I’ve had people come up and ask if I’m OK.”
Her mother told her stories of how, when she was little and they would walk in the woods and come across a broken tree, Kaitlin would tear up, touch it, yearn to help it feel better.
Her daughter’s empathy was a beautiful quality, Wendy thought, although in some ways a painful one to bear.
Debicki married in 2015, and in February 2016, when she was 31, they had a child, a girl they named Wren.
She aspires to a career as an educator; ideally teaching at Mac, or not too far from her home in Dundas and Six Nations.
She dreams of publishing a book based on her dissertation.
And she hopes to one day to find her birth mother. (She has little information about her birth father, other than he was non-Indigenous.)
It was Nov. 16 when Kaitlin Debicki stood on stage at Hamilton Place at convocation in her black gown, bathed in stage lights.
She was not nervous. She knew her words were honest. Be a messenger, she thought.
“She:kon sewakwe:kon,” she said, which sounds a bit like saygosay-waygo. Hello everyone. “I am Mohawk Wolf Clan from the Six Nations of the Grand River. It is an honour to welcome you here today to The Dish With One Spoon territories.”
Applause from the audience, that included another PhD graduate and two Masters graduates who are also Indigenous students.
“I’ve come to congratulate you, to
celebrate our shared success, but also to tell a story.”
She invoked the oral histories of her people; of The Peacemaker who brought together nations engaged in bloody war, who had “forgotten what it means to be human,” and helped them recover their reason — their “Ka’nikonhri:io” or “good minds.”
She spoke of the Six Nations confederacy that endures through “challenges including attempted genocide.”
Debicki had struggled deciding whether to use the g-word. She felt it needed to be said, and also: “This, then, is a story of hope. A story that says nations who have fallen into seemingly unbreakable patterns of hatred, trauma and grief, can find a way back to peace.”
As someone who grew up “with one foot in each canoe” of two cultures, she found strength in several communities, “both the Indigenous ones into which I was born, and the nonindigenous ones in which I was raised as an adoptee … I am connected to an extended web of kinship that buoys me.”
Two rows from the stage, her mother, Wendy, fought back tears.
“It was the most incredibly moving thing I have ever experienced,” she says.
And bittersweet. Andrew Debicki, Kaitlin’s father, died last year, at 62.
He had been inspired by Kaitlin to work with Indigenous communities suffering from poverty and contaminated water. He contracted a virus and became sick. He died, suddenly, two weeks before she had her baby. Wendy kept thinking: he would have been so proud.
Their daughter concluded issuing a plea to students, to “join the conversation about Indigenous people in Canada. None of us can sit this one out if we want to build a healthy, vibrant future together.”
In academia, she said, learning often focuses on critically deconstructing, tearing down.
“But equally or perhaps even more importantly is building up … Please, please do,” she said, closing her eyes as she spoke, as though in prayer.
“Because our communities, our nations and our world need healing.” And finally: “Thank you.” Nyawen’kowa. She smiled. The lights were blinding, so she heard, but could not see, the standing ovation, and for one moment, the tree-loving, resilient woman with many names, creation of the ancient past and yesterday, of blood and love, had brought them all together.
Kaitlin Debicki sits amid the trees near McMaster. “I have a thing with trees,” says the woman who gave a valedictory address at Mac’s fall convocation.
Kaitlin Debicki communes with the trees near McMaster.