Hundreds of Grade 12 students in an area deeply affected by the April mass shooting walked across the stage to receive their diplomas and pay tribute to those they lost in the tragedy.
Missing from the graduation ceremony in Onslow, N.S. on Friday was 17-year-old Emily Tuck, a bright and talented student at the Cobequid Educational Centre who was killed with her parents Aaron Tuck and Jolene Oliver in the horrific attack two months ago.
One of Emily’s friends, 17-year-old Amielia McLeod, also lost her father, Sean McLeod, and stepmother, Alanna Jenkins.
Both students were honoured at the special drive-thru ceremony, organized in the midst of a pandemic with special physical distancing rules in place.
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“She put everyone before herself and never expected anything in return,” said Emily Tuck’s cousin, Sara Mendiuk, speaking at the podium on stage in a tribute to the young violinist and aspiring tradeswoman.
“If you had her in your life you were lucky, she would always make sure that the people around her knew they were loved and cared about. The fun we had was endless and the memories I have are forever.”
Mendiuk and her mother, Crystal Mendiuk — Emily’s aunt — travelled from Edmonton to receive Emily’s diploma and hand out a series of bursaries and awards named in her honour. Some went to female classmates who, like Emily, aspired to work in the trades.
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“She loved welding, she started to excel in school and in life and it was just really important for family to be here to honour that for her,” Crystal told Global News.
Earlier that day, she said she and Sara visited the Tuck family memorial in Portapique and the memorial at the Cobequid Educational Centre, where pictures and memories of Emily have been laid out since the shooting.
Amielia McLeod also visited her father and stepmother’s memorial on Thursday. She said the support she’s received from the community since the tragedy has been phenomenal, and Sean and Jenkins would be proud of her.
“I know he’d say he’s so proud,” she said tearfully.
“And that he’s happy for me. (Alanna would) be proud too. She’d say I’m so proud of you kiddo and they’d both give me a big hug and I know they’d be here.”
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There were nearly 400 students in the Cobequid Educational Centre’s Class of 2020. Video tributes to Emily Tuck played on a large screen in front of rows of cars, which honked their horns loudly in lieu of applause for each graduate.
Event organizers provided food, music and an impressive display of fireworks, thanks to more than $35,000 in community donations for the event, hundreds of volunteers, and coupons from local restaurants. Organizer Jim Lorraine, who hosted the ceremony at his farm, said everything was in the works prior to the shooting, but the tragedy made the event especially important.
“It became much more than just about my daughter and the graduating class of 2020, it became about Mia and really, community togetherness and showing that we are stronger together. It took on a whole new meaning,” said Lorraine.
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Amielia McLeod — Mia to her friends — said she’ll be studying criminal justice at the Nova Scotia Community College in the fall to follow in her father’s footsteps. Sean McLeod worked at the Springhill Institution for more than 20 years, and Jenkins worked at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro.
“She graduated with honours, with distinction, and she is the most determined young lady ever to make her father and stepmother proud,” said Lorraine, who has known Mia since she was six years old.