Grade 12 Vanier Catholic Secondary School student Thomas Janzen poses for a photo in front of his school in Whitehorse on June 5. Janzen is one of the countless graduating students across the globe who has had to come to terms with the fact that, thanks to COVID-19, the graduating ceremonies he’s imagined for years are going to be different. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Class of 2020 finds new ways to celebrate

Parades, banners, family dinners and gifts all help mark graduation in the Yukon

Prom, cap and gown, parties — long-held traditions the class of 2020 went into the school year anticipating would mark the end of their years as grade school students.

Some were involved in the fundraising for the grad activities, some took part in the planning and many more looked forward to the moment they’d walk across a stage to accept their diploma.

Those plans are now cancelled, or at least on-hold in light of COVID-19, as students, administrators and teachers find new ways to celebrate the accomplishments of the class of 2020.

Along with June 10 being declared Yukon Graduate Day in the territory, parades, photo shoots, scavenger hunts, family dinners, doorstep gifts, banners and more are part of a long-list of alternatives happening for the 347 Yukon high school grads this year with the global pandemic putting large gatherings and ceremonies on-hold.

Grade 12 Vanier Catholic Secondary School student Thomas Janzen had envisioned this time of year being “our time” for himself and those he’s spent the last five years at Vanier with.

Haines Junction graduates line up for a photo on May 27 as part of a celebration parade through the village. (Marty Samis/Submitted)

When it was first announced that school would not resume immediately after March break, it occurred to Janzen that the ceremonies and events that are so much a part of graduation might not occur. Even through April after face-to-face classes were suspended for the school year, Janzen held out hope that the traditional grad activities would still happen.

It took awhile for reality to set in, he said.

“It hit in waves,” Janzen said, adding while it’s not the graduation he envisioned there is some comfort in knowing a cap and gown ceremony is tentatively being planned for August if gatherings are permitted at that time.

Along with rescheduling the cap and gown, Vanier also hired a photographer so that each graduate will have grad photos with their family.

As Janzen looks to the future, plans he and his friends made to travel to Australia and New Zealand are also on-hold with Janzen now planning to work for a year before he looks at post-secondary school.

Along with individual travel plans graduates like Janzen were making is the loss of the final school trips.

In Watson Lake, the graduating class spends much of their year fundraising for their graduation trip, which this year would have taken them to Costa Rica.

As principal Jean Maclean said, that means not only has COVID-19 impacted local graduation events, but also a major trip the students were looking forward to and working to pay for through spaghetti dinners, bake sales, and more.

April would have also seen a trip into Whitehorse to get professional grad photos taken.

Maclean said the community has been integral to helping the school find a new way to celebrate the accomplishments of its 11 high school graduates this year.

“It’s just a huge milestone,” she said.

In a typical year, the weekend after the school year ends would be a time to celebrate with the cap and gown and prom.

Liard First Nation and Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society also provides regalia for each grad along with hosting a dinner for the graduates of both Grade 12 and Grade 7 in the community.

Eliza Van Bibber School’s wolverine mascot cheers during a class of 2020 graduation ceremony in Pelly Crossing on May 26. (Submitted)

That won’t happen this year, but the First Nation is continuing to provide the regalia to students with a photo shoot planned in addition to the previous cap and gown photos taken at Wye Lake. A video will also be produced.

A photo of each grad from each photo shoot will be used for banners to line the Alaska Highway through town — a cap and gown photo on one side and regalia on the other — showcasing the class of 2020.

Arrangements have been made so that each graduate will get a family dinner from the local Chinese restaurant so they can celebrate with their family.

The school has also committed to holding a cap and gown ceremony when gatherings are permitted again.

Maclean said while no date is set, she’d like to have the ceremony in December when a number of the graduates will likely be in town for Christmas holidays. She noted that even if it happens next year, she’s assured 2020 grads their event will not be combined with next year’s graduation.

Similarly, the Costa Rica trip is also more on-hold rather than entirely cancelled with it now being planned for 2021.

Maclean noted with the banners and family celebrations, there are a number of other ideas coming forward that may honour Watson Lake grads in other ways.

In both Pelly Crossing and Haines Junction, parades have been held to celebrate the accomplishments of their graduates.

Eliza Van Bibber School principal Joshua Korten said it wasn’t long after in-person classes were cancelled that school staff began talking with students about how they could celebrate the school’s three 2020 graduates and the idea of a parade was born.

More than 30 vehicles including RCMP, community safety officers, the school’s wolverine mascot and more made their way around town with residents turning up to congratulate the grads from a distance.

“It was awesome, just awesome,” Korten said, adding the graduates have worked hard and the community support for them was evident.

“We need to celebrate these kids,” he said, pointing out in a typical year there would be upwards of 200 people turning out for the cap and gown ceremony.

The Selkirk First Nation also honured the graduates with gifts.

It is one of a number of ways First Nations in the territory are honouring their graduates.

The annual Yukon First Nations graduation is typically a major celebration that draws more than 700 people to the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse.

This year more than 90 Yukon First Nations grads were set to don regalia — often made by family members — and take part in the event, said Pixie Ingram, the 2020 Yukon First Nations grad coordinator.

Along with booking the entire cultural centre for the event, caterers and photographers were being lined up for the 2020 ceremony when it was cancelled.

Eliza Van Bibber School graduates during graduation ceremony in Pelly Crossing on May 26. (Submitted)

“Things were in place,” Ingram said.

While there’s been clear disappointment expressed that the ceremony won’t go ahead, people are also very understanding.

With more than 23 awards to be handed out along with gifts to the First Nations grads throughout the territory, Ingram said officials are working to recognize the grads and make sure gifts get to them.

“We’re doing what we can,” she said, highlighting plans for the graduates to have photos done showcasing their regalia while also coming up with plans to get gifts and awards to graduates in the communities.

That effort appears to be happening throughout the territory as communities and individuals continue working to help graduates mark a major milestone in life with new events, recognizing long-standing traditions won’t happen this year as they have in the past.

As Gabriella Rayo — another Grade 12 Vanier student — said, she understands why the ceremonies and prom won’t happen at the end of the school year and appreciates the effort to have the cap and gown in August, but is sad and disappointed her grad year isn’t what she envisioned.

After helping out with last year’s prom, she was looking forward to being more involved this year for her own grad and was enjoying the fundraising and planning activities that preceded the pandemic.

She said with a number of grads expected to go Outside for post-secondary school or with other plans, there will likely be fewer grads taking part in an August ceremony than if it had been held at the end of the school year.

As for her own plans, Rayo said she too had been focused on working for a few months after graduation and then travelling with friends. They were looking at travelling to Thailand and other parts of southeast Asia.

“That might be pushed back,” she said of the travel plans.

If that’s the case she will likely continue working rather than travel.

As graduates adjust their plans to a changing world, many are recognizing their resiliency and accomplishments.

As education minister Tracy McPhee stated in declaring Yukon Graduate Day: “Yukon Graduate Day is an opportunity for Yukoners to celebrate the accomplishments and success of Yukon graduating students. It allows us to come together to celebrate, support and recognize the incredible resiliency, perseverance and optimism that Yukon students and graduates have shown during their learning journeys. The Government of Yukon is pleased to recognize the many accomplishments of this year’s graduates on Yukon Graduate Day.”

Contact Stephanie Waddell at

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