By Andrea Nemtin, President & CEO
L-R: Elder Pauline Shirt, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell and Inspirit Foundation President and CEO Andrea Nemtin at the Foundations Partnering for Reconciliation Summit.
The 20th anniversary of National Aboriginal Day recently passed but we recognize Indigenous communities throughout the entire year. Furthermore, with the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, we have the opportunity to mark this milestone with more than a one day celebration—we can take action. There has been a lot of conversation pertaining to the leadership role that young people could play in creating substantive change as they are the fastest growing demographic in the country. However, we have not adequately mapped their collective capacity in order to provide them with the specific supports they need to make change.
I grew up in Vancouver, a city comprised of the third largest population of Indigenous people in Canada. In my early twenties I was a passionate activist. While working to save Clayoquot Sound, the largest intact ancient rainforest in the country, I witnessed the tenacity and brilliance of my Indigenous peers at peace camps and on the front-lines of protests.
Many years later, when I was appointed the CEO of the Inspirit Foundation, I was pleased to once again have the opportunity to work closely with Indigenous youth, this time as an adult ally. The foundation has identified reconciliation as one of our priority issue areas so I have the unique opportunity to deeply and consistently engage in conversations centered on the capacity and desires of young Indigenous change leaders. These conversations, along with research like our Faces of Canada study and the Environics study that we contributed to, have enabled us to identify and support initiatives that are truly informed by young people themselves.
For instance, new technologies have facilitated exciting forms of digital activism. Historically, Indigenous peoples have been displaced, isolated on reservations with little connection to each other and the wider society. Digital media has enabled this generation of Indigenous youth to collaborate, share resources and creatively shape their own stories. Indigenous youth like Erica Marie Daniels has used media to explore her Cree roots through video production, photography and design. A graduate of the National Screen Institute’s New Voices Program, she uses media to help young people in her community reach their full potential. Countless other next generation Indigenous youth are embracing oral traditional storytelling and contemporary forms of media to contest stereotypes and shape evolving narratives.
In addition to using digital activism to create change, I’ve also come across a number of passionate and highly skilled community facilitators. A few years ago I met Jessica Bolduc, an intelligent and fiery young woman, at the Couchiching Institute’s summer conference. Scott Haldane, the then President and CEO of YMCA Canada, brought a group of young change leaders to the conference.
Throughout the weekend I noticed special connections being formed between Jessica and her peers during meals and lingering conversations outside of scheduled programming. That same year, this small group of young people would forge partnerships with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to establish the 4Rs Youth Movement. It’s been such a pleasure to watch them facilitate cross-cultural conversations to further the goals of reconciliation.
We’re also witnessing increased movement of Indigenous youth across Canada. As they move into more heavily populated urban areas, they’re drawing strength from multiple places and parts of their identities. Early this spring one of our change leaders, Coty Zachariah participated in our video project sharing how he healed the trauma of being alienated from his roots by reconnecting with all of the parts of culture and a broad range of perspectives. As I watched his brief yet moving video, I witnessed the nuances and wide range of lived experiences of today’s Indigenous youth.
I’ve learned a considerable amount by really listening for the unique strengths of Indigenous young people. I’ve learned about the ever-evolving ways that they are engaging in digital activism. I’ve learned about the power of creating space for Indigenous youth to lead conversations. And I’ve learned that they occupy multiple intersections, which need to be responded to in different ways. These are just a few lessons gleaned from my area of work and experiences. The capacity and needs of young people from Indigenous backgrounds differ across areas of work, interests and communities. What’s common is the need to not just pay lip-service to young being our future but to actively listen and respond to their strengths. This will be a great way to create pathways for this generation of Indigenous peoples to be meaningfully included and realize the promise reconciliation.