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Indigenous youth share calls for action with senators
July 21, 2021

Young Indigenous leaders from across the country urged senators to listen to their voices and follow their lead during the recent Youth Indigenize the Senate virtual roundtable.

The roundtable was the fifth edition of the event, which is held during National Indigenous History Month. Seventeen young Indigenous leaders joined senators, who are current or former members of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, to share their stories and experiences of the pandemic and to call for action on the most pressing issues facing their peers and communities.

After three elders opened the event, youth and senators met in smaller groups to exchange questions and ideas. The conversations covered a wide range of topics including residential schools, reconciliation, resiliency, leadership, legislation, mental health, environmental justice, treaties and the Indian Act, and much more.

This year’s event was shortened due to an unforeseen sitting of the Chamber, but plans are already underway to ensure participants and senators have more time for dialogue next year.

Senators and young Indigenous leaders from across the country met virtually for the 2021 Youth Indigenize the Senate event.

Read senators’ personal reflections on these conversations:

Senators Dan Christmas (top left), Patti LaBoucane-Benson (top right) and Nancy Hartling (bottom left) listen to participants in the 2021 Youth Indigenize the Senate virtual roundtable.

Senators Dan Christmas (top left), Patti LaBoucane-Benson (top right) and Nancy Hartling (bottom left) listen to participants in the 2021 Youth Indigenize the Senate virtual roundtable.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” The recent Indigenize the Senate event proved this beyond the shadow of a doubt. Through the voices of 17 Indigenous youth, we heard the hopes, dreams, concerns, fears and ideas, and how to overcome those concerns and fears, from a cross-section of First Nations, Métis and Inuit young people.

We heard of the need for real justice for the Indigenous community. Tough questions were shared with uncommon frankness. The urgent need to address systemic racism was front and centre, with one participant asking, “Why do they hate us so much?”

We also heard compelling messages of hope. As one participant noted, “Building housing is cheaper than building prisons.”

Such wisdom leaves me wonderfully enthused about the future of Indigenous youth and their potential impact on the Canada of tomorrow. 

Senator Dan Christmas is Mi’kmaq from Membertou, Nova Scotia. He represents Nova Scotia in the Senate.

This was my first opportunity to participate in the Indigenize the Senate event and I certainly don’t plan to miss one in the future. The impressive Indigenous youth in our discussion group expressed well-reasoned and well-informed views. Their ambition and enthusiasm for the future of Canada and their place within it was uplifting, despite some of the shared, painful realities faced by Indigenous communities from coast to coast to coast. Most are journeying to reclaim their culture and are re-learning languages and traditions lost to colonialism.

As a senator, it was an opportunity to share, but more importantly to listen and learn. The leadership of these young people gives us hope for a brighter and more inclusive future where differences are celebrated and honored, rather than rejected. Until one or more of these youth joins the Senate, I will work to ensure their voice is heard and to hold government accountable in its efforts to advance reconciliation and create fertile ground for the realization of the full potential of Indigenous youth.    

Senator Josée Forest-Niesing has ancestors from the Abenaki First Nations of Wôlinak.
She represents Ontario in the Senate.

Indigenous youth are the fastest growing population in Canada. They are working hard to heal from intergenerational trauma and other adverse experiences and to reclaim, revitalize and preserve their languages, cultures and traditions. When I reflect on the stories shared by participants, as well as their heartfelt calls to action, I find hope that a better and brighter future is ahead for us. 

It is vital for senators to deepen our understanding of the diverse perspectives, needs and experiences of Indigenous youth and build relationships based on respect, reciprocity and responsibility. Our institution has a critical role to play in advancing the transformative change required to achieve lasting reconciliation. We can start by introducing and adopting co-developed federal legislation that will enable the next seven generations to grow into happy, healthy and proud adults.

Senator Brian Francis is Mi’kmaq from Epekwitk, which is also known as Prince Edward Island.
He represents that province in the Senate.

It has been my privilege to participate in every Indigenize the Senate event since its inception. The First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth in my group presented on a variety of topics, but there was a common thread: Indigenous youth have power and that power must be used to affect real change. Each youth called for tangible, concrete actions and demanded accountability and transparency from government.

These powerful presentations will continue to motivate and challenge me as I work on behalf of Nunavummiut and all Canadians. It is incumbent upon parliamentarians to make room for young leaders at the table as we develop policies and legislation that directly affect their future.

Senator Dennis Patterson represents Nunavut in the Senate.

Read some participants’ messages to senators:

An elder told me that truth is the precursor to justice. Justice is the precursor to forgiveness, with forgiveness being the precursor to healing and reconciliation. The elder also told me that they felt justice wasn't being served. And I agree. We’re in the truth phase of healing. If we want to move reconciliation forward, we need to bring about real, tangible justice, not just the performative justice that we see all around our country. We see people wearing orange, putting children’s shoes in memorials, but there’s no action behind these performative acts. We need systemic change.

Canada needs to change the way it looks at mental health, to take more of a community based-healing- approach, rather than a focus on reducing stigma. It’s not just being able to voice your feelings that affects your mental health, but it’s also whether your needs are being met. It would look like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (which borrows heavily from the Blackfoot Siksika People) and meeting those first two levels of physiological and safety needs so Indigenous people especially can pursue the higher levels and become the best versions of themselves and heal from intergenerational trauma. Poverty, crime and addiction can be reduced if people had their needs met and weren't constantly fighting and scrambling for everything that makes life worth living.

Logan Beauchamp is Métis from Alberta.

Sarah Hanson (middle left) and other young Indigenous leaders speak with Senators Dan Christmas (top right), Nancy Hartling (bottom left) and Kim Pate (middle right).Sarah Hanson (middle left) and other young Indigenous leaders speak with Senators Dan Christmas (top right), Nancy Hartling (bottom left) and Kim Pate (middle right).

My message was personal. It was about how reconciliation isn’t only about residential schools and that part of Canadian history, but also about the other policies imposed on Indigenous people. For myself, this manifests in my experience in foster care and the ongoing loss of community I face, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

In tandem with that, I shared that as much as we need to discuss our history, we also need to discuss our resiliency, especially in the climate change movement. I found a lot of allies who support environmental initiatives led by me. They are probably the largest group of people who recognize Indigenous rights and fight alongside us. I shared the initiatives that I’ve led in my work with non-Indigenous organizations, including advocating for a Youth Advisory Committee at the United National Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as well as fundraising to host webinars and sharing circles to share knowledge from northern and northwestern Ontario.

Sarah Hanson is Anishinaabe from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg in Ontario.

 It’s an absolute tragedy to find unmarked graves, but it’s not surprising to any of us. We know that this has happened, and it continues to happen. It’s devastating to hear of the loss of children, but it’s equally as devastating to know that a lot of those children survived and there are generations that are feeling the effects of surviving those terrible conditions. I spend a lot of time in Toronto where there are survivors of the schools who live in and are being evicted from encampments right now. I don’t understand why people have so much sympathy for the children who died, but not for the children who survived.

Our group also talked about equality and how it does not mean being the same. We come from different communities with different values and needs, which must be recognized in order to reach equality. We’re young, but we’re intelligent and we know what we need. You’ve just got to ask us.

Maddy Pilon is from the Métis Nation of Ontario.

Megan Shott (top right) speaks to her peers, including Maddy Pilon (top, second from left) and Senators Margaret Dawn Anderson (top, third from left), Mary Coyle (bottom centre) and Brian Francis (bottom left).Megan Shott (top right) speaks to her peers, including Maddy Pilon (top, second from left) and Senators Margaret Dawn Anderson (top, third from left), Mary Coyle (bottom centre) and Brian Francis (bottom left).

This was my first time experiencing something like this and it is rather humorous that we are here to “Indigenize the Senate” but the nominated Indigenous youth were only allotted five minutes to speak. I made sure to make use of my short time and I look forward to seeing if the senators today absorb the information they received and act on it because the time for change is now.

We have so many Indigenous youth across Turtle Island ready and willing to be at the table. I am not sure why we aren’t considered more often when we are the ones who are actively breaking generations of cycles and old stereotypes. We have the colonial degrees required to have an “educated and well-informed” opinion. I’m a registered social worker and recently completed my bachelor of social work in Treaty 8 territory.

For myself, I wanted the senators to know that the Indian Act is sexist and still a tool of assimilation. My ancestors were present at the Treaty 8 signing, in what we would now call Fort McMurray, but if I want to have kin with someone non-Indigenous, my grandchildren would be pressured to be with someone who has Indian status to keep the treaty rights that were promised in 1899. The Indian Act needs to be revisited. 

Megan Shott is a member of Fort McKay First Nation but her roots lay in Chipewyan Prairie First Nation.

Gabrielle Vachon-Laurent (top left) shares her perspective with Senators Julie Miville-Dechêne (bottom left) and Josée Forest-Niesing (bottom right).Gabrielle Vachon-Laurent (top left) shares her perspective with Senators Julie Miville-Dechêne (bottom left) and Josée Forest-Niesing (bottom right).

We want our seat at the table and we want our voices to be heard beyond the doors we leave every day. Today’s young people can speak and understand English and French, and most of us still speak our mother tongue. I take pride in that. I can express my First Nations culture through language, arts and crafts and the teaching of values.

Our voices can carry further. We have to educate ourselves before speaking, but we must also trust the survivors of the atrocities that are making headlines. We as young people can go further than speaking about addiction and alcoholism. We can educate ourselves and spark change in our communities and in urban areas.

When someone thinks they know us better than we know ourselves, we need to stand up with all the wisdom we possess. Your grandmother and mother taught you how to respect others and to defend yourself without tearing other people down. We need to remember that our elders fought with words instead of weapons.

Gabrielle Vachon-Laurent is Innu from Pessamit, Quebec.