After fleeing the wildfire that continues to plague northern Alberta, a group of high school students from the evacuated community of Anzac were given a graduation ceremony in Edmonton Thursday evening.
The community, located about 45 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray, was evacuated the evening of May 4. Prior to that, an evacuation centre had been set up at the local recreation centre to house those who had been displaced by the wildfire widely dubbed ‘the beast.’
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Community members rallied, helping to provide food and shelter for Fort McMurray residents before they were forced to flee themselves.
This year, nine students were poised to graduate from Bill Woodward School. The wildfire abruptly halted the school year, leaving them without a venue and without a way to honour the accomplishments of the students.
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The graduation ceremony was spearheaded by teachers Ashley Ethier and Anna Petley-Jones, along with valedictorian Emily Czibere.
“They [the students] just seemed down and what can we do to raise the morale? And we felt down, everybody felt down,” Petley-Jones explained.
“It started as a dinner and then we called Ruth’s Chris [Steak House] and they were amazing and very accommodating.”
The downtown Edmonton eatery served as the venue for a small ceremony and dinner for the students and their families.
“It’s for the teachers, it’s for the staff. It’s for the parents, it’s for the siblings. It’s really for our whole community,” Ethier said.
Education Minister David Eggen addressed the graduates and their families before helping to hand out diplomas.
“As it happens, it’s the first set of diplomas I’ve handed out as education minister,” he told Global News.
“And I think it’s very appropriate that it’s during this time when Albertans were tested with these fires and we proved just how resilient and what a strong sense of community we really have.”
Eggen said the province has not yet had a chance to evaluate the physical structures of the Anzac schools, though there are daily discussions to set out plans going forward.
“We’re meeting everyday, not just with affected school boards, but with the 61 school boards that absorbed about a third of the students that are now going to school in other parts of Alberta too,” he explained.
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While the last couple of weeks have been tainted by uncertainty, the students and staff took a moment to inject humour into the occasion.
Speaking at the podium, Czibere addressed her classmates: “A couple of weeks ago, if you asked me if we’d be having our grad ceremony at a restaurant in Edmonton because we’re all refugees, I’d probably question your sanity.”
With her parents watching attentively from the front row, she and her fellow graduates took their next steps. Czibere will attend post-secondary schooling in Calgary, with hopes of becoming a teacher and helping others.
“When everyone got evacuated from Fort McMurray, there was no one that I didn’t see at the rec centre helping out any way they could and my classmates – we’re all family – and family works together and that’s definitely what our community and our school is.”