Indigenous Histories of Honorary Degrees

Mary Jane Logan McCallum

Winnipeg, June 2023

Honorary Doctor of Laws, Elder, and Historian Dr. Ruth Christie speaking at the 2019 Spring Convocation, University of Winnipeg

June is Indigenous History Month. It is also the time for graduation and celebration of learning and achievement.  

Many Canadian universities now include Indigenous components and recognition in their convocation exercises.  For example, ceremonies welcome, acknowledge, and honour Indigenous graduands and many Indigenous Studies programs and Indigenous student organizations have created their own special hoods for Indigenous graduating students.  

Until about 2000, and much later at some universities, convocations stuck much more closely to the (transplanted and invented) traditions of British institutions and portrayed little, if anything, of the history of the lands on which Canadian universities were built and the people those institutions dispossessed.[1] Even within this colonial context, however, Indigenous people have a fascinating twentieth century heritage of Indigenous intellectualism that was and continues to be honoured at Convocation ceremonies, including in the tradition of Honorary Doctorates. 

I was reminded of this when researching about Reverend Enos Montour, a Six Nations Delaware United Church minister. The Spring 1975 conferral of Montour’s Honorary Doctorate from McGill was broadcast by the CBC along with an interview about his life and accomplishments. Initially, I thought that perhaps he was the first Indigenous honorary doctorate.  However, a brief survey of early honorary doctorates of the eleven Canadian universities attended and employed by members of the ShekonNeechie editorial board (McMaster, Trent, Guelph, York, Laurier, and the Universities of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Toronto, Saskatchewan, Ottawa, and British Columbia), showed that this was not the case!  Here are some of the early Indigenous recipients of honorary doctorates from those eleven universities: 


The Honourable James McKay, Metis Lawyer, Politician and Judge, Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Manitoba 


Gilbert Clarence Monture, Six Nations Mohawk mining engineer, civil servant, army officer, Honorary Doctor of Science, University of Western Ontario


Reverend Ahab Spence, Split Lake Cree Priest, Canon, Archdeacon, principal, Chaplain for the R.C.A.F., Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Saskatchewan


David Courchene, Sagkeeng, helped to form the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood and was its founding president, Honorary Doctor of Laws University of Manitoba

Adam Cuthand, teacher, RCAF Staff Sergeant, Anglican minister, Indian and Metis rights advocate, founding President of the Manitoba Metis Federation, Honorary Doctor of Divinity, University of Winnipeg


Norval Morrisseau, Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, artist, Honorary Doctor of Laws, McMaster University


Stanley Wesley McKay Sr., Fisher River, volunteered with the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre, managed the Indian and Metis Reception Lodge, first leader of the Winnipeg Indian Council, Elder, Honorary Doctor of Sacred Letters, University of Winnipeg


Gary Potts, Temagami Anishinabe, Chief, dedicated to struggle for land justice and environmental protection, Honorary Doctor of Laws, Trent University


Verna Kirkness, Fisher River Cree Nation educator, scholar, proponent of Indigenous language and culture, education policy development, Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Western Ontario


George Erasmus, Dene, president of the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories, gave testimony in the Berger Inquiry, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, co-chair, Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of British Columbia


Basil Johnston, Anishinaabe writer, storyteller, language teacher, Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Toronto

Alanis Obomsawin, Abanaki advocate for Indigenous rights, producer, director, songwriter, singer, York University 

Over the past year, we’ve heard some terms that are very rarely associated with Honorary Degrees: “Rescind” “Voluntarily Return” “Relinquish” and “Revoke.”  But let’s not let the undoing of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s eleven Honorary Doctor of Law degrees[2] by Canadian university Senate committees overshadow the achievements of Indigenous intellectuals. The METL story does not seem to have had a chilling effect on the celebration of Indigenous achievement through Honorary Degrees.  At that same group of eleven Canadian universities attended and employed by the ShekonNeechie Board,[3] thirteen self-identified Indigenous people (of a total 78 honorees) will be celebrated at Spring 2023 convocations. 

Here is how the honorary doctorate process unfolds at the University of Winnipeg. Each year, the Chair of the Senate Honorary Degrees and Fellowships Committee makes an announcement to members of the university community to nominate individuals for consideration of different honorary degrees including Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Letters, Doctor of Laws, and Doctor of Science.  Some universities extend nomination privileges to members of the public as well. Nominees must have a “clear connection to the University or to its particular work and mission.” Nominators fill out a form and gather letters of support and the nominee’s curriculum vitae and then submit the package to the University Secretary, who then submits them to the Committee. The voting members of the Committee include eight faculty representing Humanities, Sciences, and Social Sciences, three administrators, and one representative each from the Board of Regents, the Alumni Association, and the Students’ Association. These members each review the nominations and make recommendations to the Senate for approval.  

The governance system isn’t perfect; committees often lack diversity and sometimes committees do little to question the individualistic, patriarchal, and racist notions that structure Canadian institutional recognition of knowledge and merit, and this gets reflected in the decisions committees make. We see a bias towards men in the sample of early Indigenous honorary doctorates and in this year’s honorees, albeit much narrower. Certainly, many honorary doctorates have been (and in fact still are) awarded to people whose scholarship and work abetted colonialism.[4]  

However, Honorary degrees are not produced by anonymous institutions – they are the result of the University community’s input, of time and consideration by people who work at and care about the university and the questions academics and university communities are now, at least in honorific form, pushing universities to address. 

What does an Honorary Doctorate mean to the recipient and the University?  To recipients, the Honorary Doctorate bestows high honour at an important public ceremony, and they can use the title of Doctor in their name. Honorary degrees can foster relations between individuals, families and communities represented by recipients and the University itself. Last, the ceremony brings prestige to the university and associates the University publicly with qualities and reputation of the recipient. Given this, it is interesting that of the early honorees described here, many were treaty and Aboriginal rights defenders and language and culture workers. Canadian universities have much to learn in terms of governance, strategy, and their own history by learning about the contributions of the Indigenous people to whom their universities have awarded honorary doctorates. 

Below are listed thirteen Indigenous intellectuals honoured this Spring at Canadian Universities as Honorary Doctorates.[5] For a taste of a little what they might hear on the occasion, I conclude with the full transcript of the ceremony to confer the degree of Doctor of Divinity on Enos Montour at McGill University at Spring Convocation in 1975.

~McMaster University~

Pat Mandy (Alumni, McMaster University School of Nursing, 1978) – Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation nurse with a long and distinguished career championing equity, diversity, and inclusion, Honorary Degree

Dr. Annette Lee – Lakota astrophysicist who undertakes research and programming seeking to revitalize Indigenous star and earth knowledge, Honorary Degree

~Trent University~

Drew Hayden Taylor – Curve Lake First Nation playwright, journalist, author, and humourist, Honorary Doctorate of Letters

~University of Manitoba~

Mary Simon C.C., C.M.M., C.O.M., O.Q., C.D. – Inuk radio broadcaster, Inuit and Arctic rights specialist, diplomat, Governor General of Canada, Honorary Doctor of Laws

~University of Winnipeg~

Clayton Sandy –Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation Knowledge Keeper, cultural advisor, and community activist, Honorary Doctor of Laws

~University of Toronto~

Alanis Obomsawin –Abanaki advocate for Indigenous rights, producer, director, songwriter, and singer, Honorary Degree

Robert Houle – Saulteaux artist, curator, critic and educator, Honorary Degree

~University of Saskatchewan~

Gary Carriere – Cumberland House Swampy Cree and Metis citizen scientist and community leader, Honorary Doctor of Science 

Sharon Jinkerson-Brass – Key First Nation health care specialist and artist, Honorary Doctor of Laws 

~Guelph University~

Mona Stonefish – Anishinaabe residential school survivor, healer, peace activist and language and cultural leader, Honorary Doctorate of Laws

~Wilfrid Laurier University~

Gary Lipinski – Former President of the Metis Nation of Ontario, politician, Honorary Doctor of Laws

Wilton Littlechild – Maskwacis Indigenous rights advocate, politician, lawyer, and Commissioner for the TRC Honorary Doctor of Laws

~University of British Columbia~

ii naak sii pii taa kii Beatrice Little Mustache – Piikani Nation child and family advocate and care worker, Honorary Doctor of Laws 

Snxakila Clyde Tallio – Nuxalk Nation educator and knowledge keeper dedicated to language, culture, and ceremony revitalization, Honorary Doctor of Letters  


Remarks given at the conference of Enos Montour’s Honorary Degree of Divinity 


Mr. Montour was born near Hagersville, Ontario, on the so-called Delaware Line 

July the eighteenth, 1899, a proud member of the Delaware tribe, long time associated with the Iroquois Six Nations. 

The record of the founding of the Six Nations reserve on the Grand River by Chief Joseph Brant, and the services of these people to Canada both in peace and in war are traced by Mr. Montour himself and his unique book, The Feathered UELs.  And I’m happy to hear from him that a further book is on the way. 

Mr. Montour’s family roots are deep in Methodism and he fulfilled a tradition when he came to McGill University where he received his BA in 1927. The Bachelor of Divinity was first class standing in 1929.

He has had a long history of service in the ministry both to the white people and to his own Indian people in Canada: in Caughnawaga and Manawaki in Quebec; to the Six Nations at Oshweken and in New Credit, Ontario; and at half a dozen centres in Saskatchewan. 

Not only is Mr. Montour a devoted minister, he found a second and simultaneous career as a journalist and writer contributing articles as a roving reporter to the Branford Expositor, the Hamilton Spectator, and Western papers.

He is, in addition, a linguist with high achievement in Hebrew and Greek while at university, and capacity in French and German, and a love for his own Delaware and other tribal tongues. 

Mr. Montour’s outstanding memories include his personal welcome to immigrants in Canada from the Sudetanland where they were fleeing from Hitler. Another is a long service to the people of the Saskatchewan Dust Bowl when they were on relief in the early thirties.

His humanity as a person has been combined throughout with his duties as a minister and with the self-identification as an Indian. 

Mr. Montour’s scholarship was recognized in a grant from the Canada Council that enabled publication of his book in which he lovingly sets out the high merits of his people and refers only in the most gentle tones to the well-known facts of their disappointments in the white culture.

The book, like Mr. Montour’s whole work and life, is a bridge between peoples that is truly Christian. In the book, Mr. Montour says of his central figure, “The consuming passion of Hiram’s life was to lead his Indian people out into the light of the Christian gospel. He wanted to show them that the great spirit they worshiped was the same as the God of the Christian. That the prophet Handsome Lake had a counterpart in Jesus, Savior of men. This fully represents Mr. Montour’s own achievement.”

He quotes one of his brethren, Dr. Angus Leaf, who said, “Someday, we’ll be able to publish a Loyalist Indian Who’s Who. On that list, you will find Doctors of Divinity, Pedagogy, Medicine, Science, and Laws.”

It is to confirm that prophecy and to recognize the spirit and the achievements of this man that I now present to you, so that you may confer on him the degree of Doctor of Divinity, Honoris Causa, Reverend Enos Theodore Montour.

Conferral of Degree: 

To Montour through the authority vested in me by the Senate of the United Theological College, I hereby confer upon you the degree Doctor of Divinity Honoris Causa with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. Congratulations, Dr. Montour.[6]

Acknowledgement: Xwat Anushiik to Jill McConkey for help editing and improving this essay. Happy Indigenous History Month, Jill!

[1] In recent years, there has been some effort at different post-secondary institutions to examine their institutions’ roles in colonization.  In Canada, this includes the University of Manitoba, University of Toronto, Huron College, Western University, and the University of Alberta.  This work is influenced and strengthened by critical analyses of universities’ colonial histories elsewhere, including the U.S. (“Land Grab Universities”) and New Zealand. The best of these studies do not erase Canadian universities as places of continuing Indigenous intellectual history in a story that is very much dominated by their exclusion and extermination by various means. See for example: Adele Perry, “Graduating Photos: Race, Colonization and the University of Manitoba,” in “Too Asian?”: Racism, Privilege and Post- Secondary Education by Eds, R.J. Gilmour et al, (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2012); Amy Bell, Scott Cameron, and Thomas Peace, “Historical Pedagogies and the Colonial Past at Huron University College Parts 1 and 2 ,” November 28 and December 5, 2019 Active History Website, and;  Tom Peace, “Indigenous Peoples: A Starting Place for the History of Higher Education in Canada,” 25 January, 2016, Active History Website,; Candace Brunette Debassige and Dr. Tom Peace, “Revisiting University Histories: Why we need to critically engage with the specific colonial history of our institutions,” Lecture for the Seminar Series, Department of History at Queen’s University, 29 September 2022, Available at Youtube:;  Land Grab Universities Project Website,; Aroha Harris, “The Future of History is Maori,” Te Pouhere Korero 10 (March 2023).

[2] Simon Fraser (Returned); Vancouver Island University (Returned); Royal Roads University (Returned); University of Regina (Revoked) Carlton University (Revoked); McGill (Revoked)

Thompson Rivers University (Returned); Mount Saint Vincent University (Revoked); Brock University (Returned); Osgoode Hall Law School at York University (Returned);

St. Thomas University (Returned).

[3] McMaster, Trent, University of Winnipeg, University of Manitoba, University of Toronto, York University, the University of Saskatchewan, University of Ottawa, University of Guelph, Wilfrid Laurier University, and University of British Columbia.

[4] See for example, Constance Backhouse et al, eds., Royally Wronged: The Royal Society of Canada and Indigenous Peoples (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021).

[5] University of Ottawa and York University are in the sample, but did not award honorary degrees to Indigenous people in Spring 2023.  Where possible I have specified the type of Honorary degree that the individual received or will receive; where Uniersity communication was not specific, I have used the words “Honorary Degree.”

[6] Library and Archives Canada, Montour, Enos – Interview, Accession 1980-0140 Item Number 334941, production date 1975-05-15.

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