With addiction, poverty and homelessness in his background, the odds that Stephan Bureau would make something of himself were slim.
But the articulate young man succeeded. Not only is he graduating with honours at Ross Shephard High, he has been accepted at the University of Alberta to begin his bachelor of arts in the fall. He plans to get a master's degree in psychology so one day he will be able to help others.
Bureau, 17, was one of 24 aboriginal students honoured by the Wahkotowin (Kinship) Society June 9 at the University of Alberta's Faculty Club. Every year the society honours students who have overcome great obstacles to achieve their goals.
Award recipients are usually Catholic, but this year organizer Eva Bereti decided to include two from public schools, including Bureau and Wehkees Durocher from Inner City High.
"For me, the important thing is that they are aboriginal students and we are here to serve all aboriginal students," said Bereti, who has been behind the award presentation for the past 23 years.
Bereti is an elder who now works at Inner City High where she has seen many aboriginal students succeed against all odds. This year, four homeless students who sometimes slept in the school's hallways and bathrooms will graduate from high school.
"The purpose of this ceremony is to honour these students," she said. "Some of them don't live very good lives and still manage to go to school."
Students were showered with praise from teachers, advisors and principals during the luncheon. School representatives offered glimpses of each student, who then were awarded certificates of achievement.
Lt.-Gov. Donald Ethel praised the students for their achievements and invited them to pursue their dreams.
Guest speaker Ashley Callingbull, a 21-year-old native actress, student and 2010 Miss Canada contestant, urged students to never give up on their dreams and "to put your mark on the world."
For the most part awardees have lived lives shattered by family violence, prejudice and poverty. Some had dropped out or done poorly in school. But then they made the right move and today they are winners.
Bureau was happy to receive the award. "It's really nice to get some recognition," he smiled.
The past two years have been the hardest in Bureau's life, but through hard work he has managed to graduate with honours.
"There have been so many opportunities for me to give up but I have so many positive people in my life to help me to move forward that I just couldn't give up."
Bureau grew up without a father who left before he was born. His mother was hard into drugs and alcohol and died when Stephan was seven. For about a year he and his sister lived in several foster homes.
When Stephan was eight, his aunt brought the two siblings back into the family. But when he was in Grade 10, Stephan's aunt became severely ill and was in hospital for 14 months.
"That was a dark year," the young man recalled in an interview. Eventually his aunt died and Stephan slipped into a depression and hit what he calls rock bottom.
"I didn't have too many resources," he said. "I never had money in my entire life. We were always a really poor family."
He didn't have many role models in his family.
"So I took it upon myself to branch out and find other sources of help, like school counsellors and friends and family," he said. "I'm really blessed to have these people because they kept me on the right track."
Following his aunt's death, "I was pretty much homeless," Bureau said. He eventually moved in with his best friend and found a summer job as an intern at the University Hospital. After six months, however, his friend's family asked him to leave and Bureau became homeless again.
He ended up living with his sister, who had barely enough to care for her own baby.
"I lived with her for about nine months and that's how I managed to move through Grade 12."
Teachers and counsellors at Ross Shephard also helped Bureau with basic needs and supported him to get subsidized housing. Now he lives on his own, has a job, dresses well and is proud of himself.
Chantelle Rain, a Grade 10 student at Louis St. Laurent Junior High School, was all smiles when her school counsellor, Pam Aleekuik, spoke about her.
"We are proud to have Chantelle at Louis St. Laurent and we are happy for her that she has been recognized for her accomplishments this year," Aleekuik said.
Aleekuik described Rain as a role model for other students, one who makes every effort to succeed, comes to class prepared and on time, and is motivated to learn.
"Chantelle is a wonderful example of the type of student that is being honoured today at this level for her hard work and dedication to learning."
Rain says she is happy with the recognition. "It gives me hope for my future and it helps me realize that if I work really hard, I'll get into (university) one day."
Rain, 16, has been a foster child since age five. So far she has lived in four foster homes and says her current guardian has helped her to stay on the right track.
"It has been a good situation for me because if I live on the reserve, it's just chaos," she said in an interview. "There are too many troubles; like there is drinking alcohol and stuff like that."
Rain, an air cadet, has been at Louis St. Laurent since September.
"I think it is a great school," she said. "I love it; it's so much fun. I have a lot of friends and teachers that care for you, that help you whenever you need it."
Her goal is to be an accountant or a business manager. "I want to be an accountant because my strong subject is math. I love math; it's easy to work with."
Aleekuik described Rain as extremely motivated and said she has no doubt she will accomplish all her goals.
Wehkees Durocher lives in Edmonton's inner city with his adopted grandmother Colleen Chapman. He has been attending Inner City High for the past year and has already been accepted at the University of Alberta.
He plans to get two degrees in the next five years: a bachelor in native studies and another in education. Durocher wants to be a teacher because he has noticed the lack of aboriginal teachers.
"I rarely see native teachers, especially at Inner City, and it's something I want to change when I'm older."
Durocher was happy about the award he got from the Wahkotowin Society.
"Getting this award means a lot to me," he said. "It'll give me the necessary backup that I need to pursue my dreams and goals.
"It's an absolute honour."