Sometimes, the committee seeks solutions to problems plaguing Aboriginal communities across Canada — from land treaties, to housing shortages, to economic marginalization — but on this occasion success stories were the committee’s focus.
“At a time when youth suicides are sadly dominating news today, it’s important to recognize that young Aboriginal leaders across Canada have done great things that inspire their peers,” said Senator Dennis Patterson, deputy chair of the committee.
Listening to young leaders and empowering them to better their own communities is at the very heart of reconciliation.
“The Indigenous youth leaders that the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples heard this morning are partners in building solutions and strong Indigenous communities,” said Senator Lillian Eva Dyck, committee chair.
“We must listen to them. They are the future.”
Caitlin Tolley, Algonquin Anishinabe from Kitigan-Zibi, Quebec
“My ancestors were thinking of us when they met with the settlers and negotiated and agreed that we were going to share the land that we are all standing on today. I'm here to tell you today that the Algonquin are still here. I’m here today because my ancestors had the perseverance and the determination to survive, adapt and evolve through over 500 years of colonization.
As a young person, […] maintaining my culture and traditions is the most important issue impacting me. If I had the funding […] it would be to ensure that the next generation has and can still maintain our traditional teachings because we know that our languages are struggling. We know that elders are passing away with sacred knowledge. We know that the territory that we occupy is changing.
I would like to encourage leaders around this table to consider having an Algonquin elder or an Algonquin youth as an advisory, as a gentle reminder that you are a guest. I would also like to mention that leaders today need to take the time to listen more and talk less, as that is the Algonquin humble way. In my language we say "Kikinendam Nongom, Niganin Wabang," which means learn today and lead tomorrow.”
Tenille McDougall, Tsuu T’ina Nation (Treaty Seven) from Fort Macleod, Alberta
“I was a very young mum at the age of 20. I was just out of school and I had to go home because I needed the support to help me figure out what my next path was in life. What I needed was to step out of my comfort zone and join my community. I started volunteering on the early childhood coalition. I became part of this community. We provided play groups and support for parents.
I'm here because I'm an Aboriginal, but the biggest issue for me is, I really don't know who I am as an Aboriginal. I think that's the strongest thing because I'm still trying to find myself and trying figure out who my family is. It's not just about Aboriginals; it's about the whole country in itself. It's about getting to know one another, getting to understand each other's beliefs and supporting one another.”
Willie Sellars, Williams Lake Indian Band, British Columbia
“The community of Williams Lake has made national headlines with gang violence. I pride myself in being a pillar of the community in representing First Nations across the province and Canada in a good way. I coach my kids. I coach soccer. I'm more of a motivator, I guess. I coach hockey, and I guess the motto in my household is, ‘Sports, not courts.’
On top of being on council, I work in economic development with the band, and in an economy that thrives on mining and forestry. This summer we're finishing up an $8 million infrastructure project that consists of 10 commercial and 28 residential fully serviced on‑reserve lots. It includes curb, gutter, water, sewer and street lighting. Servicing this development and our reserve is our $5 million water treatment facility that was built five years ago. I can proudly say that I can drink my tap water. It is the first time in my life I have been able to say that, and I just started drinking it earlier this year.
The tricky thing about the economy is balancing the economics and the environment. A quote from a well-respected leader in B.C., Chief Clarence Louie: "The economic horse pulls the social cart." Because of the economic horse, we're able to provide a lot of services to our First Nations, a fully funded recreation department, elders group, primary school and daycare. The list goes on and on. It's those services that are helping us have a healthy community.
I practice my culture. I live in the moment, and I love what I do. For the future, I plan to keep working for my people and writing best sellers while I raise my kids, and of course kiss my wife.”
Maatalii Okalik, Inuk from Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung), Nunavut (now lives in Iqaluit)
“The National Inuit Youth Council has five priorities, and those priorities are developed by Inuit youth from across our homeland.
The first priority is Inuit language. We celebrate the fact that we do have a high retention of our language in Canada; however, we recognize that's different from region to region, depending on the connection and recent history of colonization and assimilation practices of which we are all aware.
The second priority is Inuit culture and practices. We have a unique language. We as Canadians relate to our families and our environment. With our culture and practices, we have been able to survive and continue to live in the homeland that we call home. We would like to continue to strengthen our culture and practices and stay firm as Inuit.
The third priority is suicide prevention. We have the highest suicide rate in Canada and some say in the world. I believe that is completely tied with our recent history. That is why we want to strengthen our language and culture, despite the fact that the intention was for those to disappear.
The fourth priority is education and empowerment. The better educated that we are not only in western epistemology but also in Inuit ways of knowledge, the healthier and the happier we can be and the more meaningful choices we can make, as an individual within our own families, our communities and our regions; and how we can contribute greatly to Canadian society. We do our very best to promote education attainment. We'd like to see the dropout rates decline.
The last priority is reconciliation. Reconciliation is absolutely necessary for the future of this country, not only reconciliation within our communities but also across Canada as a whole. One of the things that I'd like to see happen […] is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission call to action No. 66 come to fruition. That call to action would require the federal government to invest in indigenous youth programming specific to reconciliation as well as create a national network for best practices to be shared as we have unique histories and cultures but very collective realities as indigenous youth.”
Kluane Adamek, Kluane First Nation and of Tlingit, Southern Tutchone, German and Irish ancestry from Whitehorse, Yukon
“In reflecting on what to share with you today, the first thing that came to mind was about elevating others, supporting and building communities through culture and identity and how this starts with young people. In my career I focused on working with children and youth in the areas of education, community building and economic development in the Yukon and beyond.
The reason I feel so emotional and passionate is that in 2013, I had a young cousin – he was 18. He had just finished high school, and he had essentially the world as his fingertips. He committed suicide.
So, in a moment of darkness, hopelessness, tragedy, I sent a Facebook message out to a few friends I knew in the Yukon. There had been a number of other deaths by suicide and homicides that had taken place in the Yukon earlier that year. I send the message out and said, "What are you doing in your communities?"
The first thing we did was have a teleconference call. On our first call – there were about 10 of us – we decided we wanted to have a gathering on the landing for indigenous people in the Yukon to create a space and a place for them to talk, connect and know they are not alone when they are dealing with these challenges and moments of hopelessness, violence and substance abuse.
Fast forwarding to after the event, we had over 100 young people come. It was amazing. The momentum that was there was truly incredible. That led us to formalize as a group, known as Our Voices. I encourage all of you to like us on Facebook.
We've learned in the process that we don't need to ask permission to do these things. In fact, it's our responsibility as young people to be able to carry out these solutions. As young people, we need for the systemic challenges that we experience to be addressed, that reconciliation be at the forefront of work that we do and that young people be given the opportunity and the space to implement these solutions that we know need to be done in our communities.”
Justin “Jah’kota” Holness, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, now lives in Ottawa
“In moving [to Ottawa], I applied for the Canadian Forces military through the Black Bear program, which is for Aboriginal recruits. I graduated as top candidate and also got the Comrade Award. I figured I was good at it, so I figured I'd stick with it. The Black Bear program is the only one with a mentorship. I was privileged enough to come back the following year as mentor, and it was that experience that taught me that I want to dedicate my professional career to working with young people.
Shortly after two years of being in the Canadian Armed Forces, I realized it wasn't really for me. I have a passion for music, and I founded Un1ty Entertainment. We provide a creative environment for indigenous people to express themselves and their heritage through all forms of art, music and fashion.”
Kelly Duquette, from Atikokan, Ontario
“I grew up in a small, isolated town where unfortunately for me there wasn't much indigenous education or art programming. Growing up, I always knew of my Scottish and French ancestry, which I celebrated a lot, actually. It was when I was about 12 that I discovered my Métis ancestry, which began my journey towards reclaiming my cultural identity.
It was a really confusing time for me. I wondered why my ancestors had kept our heritage a secret for so long and why it was so crucial for the survival of our identity and our people. These questions became the motivating forces behind my involvement in the Métis community and they also influenced my field of studies.
In 2014, I was elected as the region one youth representative on the Métis Nation of Ontario Youth Council. Combined with my Aboriginal studies minor, I began to find my place within my community. I began to understand where my story fit into the larger narrative.
I have used art as a platform, a way of teaching others about my culture and my experiences as a new generation Métis. As Louis Riel said: "My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back."
As a Métis person, I have listened to both sides, the indigenous and non‑indigenous perspectives, representing a bridge between both nations. I'm determined to remain an advocate of the indigenous voice and represent indigenous peoples in the fight for legal recognition of their rights.”
Katelyn LaCroix, from Penetanguishene, Ontario
“I think you'll probably notice a theme in today's speakers. A lot of us didn't have an opportunity to learn about our cultures at birth. Some of us learned about it quite late. I learned about my culture when I was 16 after taking an Ojibwa course in high school and my dad mentioned "We have Ojibwa in our history." From there I looked into it and discovered this whole aspect of who I am, of my identity that I had never found before. I thank the creator every day that I did find it because it has become a big part of who I am.
I know not everyone has had that same opportunity. I've heard a lot of stories from fellow citizens who only discovered their Aboriginal identity in their late 50s, sometimes even 60s. I took this knowledge with me to university. I was involved in a program called the Infinite Reach Métis Student Solidarity Network. I was able to teach other Métis youth who may not have had the opportunity about their culture – our culture – and share with them the different traditional crafts that I had learned.
I think one of the greatest dangers for our youth is a feeling of isolation, whether that be from their families, friends or communities. By learning about their history and engaging with their peers, we can help to foster a sense of pride and help ensure well‑being among our Aboriginal youth.
My ancestors worked as translators, helping different groups gain understanding of one another. Like a bridge, I will also help others transition from one place to another, students moving to a new school or individuals moving from an institution back into their community.”
Jenna Burke, Mi’kmaw Nation from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
“A little bit about me: I always start off with my grandmother because she really is the matriarch of my family. She is a strong woman and a fighter. She's a residential school survivor, and she married and fell in love with my grandfather, who is a non‑native man, and, of course, she lost her status so she had to move away from her community. But she still raised some strong children and she stayed away from drugs and alcohol. She really is the reason why I am here today.
My status was granted to me through the McIvor case in 2010, so that is a recent addition to my identity, which is an interesting journey for me. I grew up not really understanding who I was. Through my involvement with the native council it changed me. I was surrounded by a lot of mentors who saw gifts in me that I didn't recognize in myself and mentored me.
I'm currently getting my bachelor of arts majoring in political science. There is no indigenous minor or major at my university. In fact, there were only two indigenous courses in the whole university, and one was cancelled the year that I went there. I joined the Aboriginal Mawi'omi Student Centre group and started to make changes by meeting with the president and figuring out how to move forward on this. There is a big push in universities to get Aboriginal students to come to university, but once they are there we need to support them. If we're not doing that, then we're doing them a huge disservice.
I'm working with the university to try to get an indigenous course. [The university] created an indigenous advisory circle. I went to the first meeting – I wasn't invited, but I heard it was going on so I crashed their meeting. I was only one of three indigenous people in a table of about 15 – and there were supposed to be more people there – at an indigenous advisory circle. So I had to speak up and say: "It's great that you are doing this, but it's wrong if you don't have at least equal representation of indigenous people. It's not going to work, and we really only have one kick at the can to make this work." Right now, indigenous issues are important and it's in the media. Everyone really seems to care. I'm scared that we only have a short amount of time to really get this right.”
Mitch Case, First Degree Midewiwin (Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge), from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
“My community, while it's often overlooked and forgotten, has played many important roles in the history of my people, the Métis nation. It's one of the oldest Métis communities in the homeland. It was a hub of activity during the fur trade and War of 1812, a war in which our community took up arms to defend itself. It was a war that Britain could not have won without us.
The Robinson‑Huron Treaty and Robinson‑Superior Treaty were concluded much to our dismay and against the protests of the First Nations leadership. Our community was left out of the treaty. Promises were made to protect our river lots, and promises were made to return a year later and sign another treaty with us. It's 160‑some years later. We're still waiting, and we're ready whenever you are.
I try to continue the Métis floral beadwork tradition. This vest I'm wearing now is made of classic Hudson's Bay Company material — the Hudson's Bay Company that used my people to create their empire — that then worked against my in Sault Ste. Marie and across our homeland when we were asserting our rights. The Hudson's Bay Company a few years ago was bought out by an American investment company, and my community is still here and we're thriving. So make of that what you will.”
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Inuk from Iqaluit, Nunavut
“I'm passionate about the arts and the potential of filmmaking to be one of the key economies for Inuit, an economy that not only provides cash income but also strengthens our language and culture while also enabling us to advocate for our people. All I want to do is talk about the strength of my industry and what I need from people like you to support it. But I have to take this opportunity to talk about a huge barrier to the success of my people, and that is housing.
I'm very happy to hear that this committee is addressing this issue and looking into it. Due to many racist policies of the Canadian government, enabled by Canadian citizens, we have a housing crisis all across the North. While we were once independent, we were forced off the land and crammed into poorly planned communities. Through coercion, lies, forced relocations, kidnapping of children, shooting of many thousands of sled dogs, restriction of hunting grounds by law and by resource development, we have a housing crisis.
My people have survived for millennia in one of harshest climates on earth. We know how to survive: we're efficient, we're resilient, and we’re creative, innovative and adaptable. Our will to live can be compared to none. It runs so deep in our bones. Our wisdom, passion and knowledge have been honed and perfected for the place in which we live. So why are we dying by our own hands at the worst rates in the world? When some of the most resilient and adaptable people on the planet are dying by our own hands, what does that say about the conditions we're living in? We have to stop the spread of trauma; we have to stem the bleeding.
If only the government would make a real commitment to public housing. I'm tired of seeing budget allocations for housing that barely scratch the surface. I'm tired of commitments that not only don't fix the problem but don't even keep up with the status quo. Enough with the allocations for housing that are just a drop in the bucket. Solve it for real. Build sustainable economies that strengthen culture and language. If the Canadian government can fix the housing problem that it created, it would allow us to do what we're good at.”
Shelby Angalik, Inuk from Arviat, Nunavut
“I wanted to talk a bit about myself to show people that as Aboriginals, we're not just the issues that we go through. I want to get rid of the stigma that we're all struggling and that's who we are. I want to talk about what I've done to get rid of that stigma, that we're not the problems that we go through.
Last semester, in January, I created a reading program called ‘Imagination's Destination’ to increase Nunavut literacy rates. I got a grant from our hamlet to get some books from Inhabit Media in both English and Inuktitut. They all have Nunavut content, with Inuit legends and myths.
This September I'm going to Brock University and I'm going to major in English. Hopefully I'll become a librarian, come back to Nunavut and expand my reading program.”
The youth leaders were also invited around Parliament to meet Senate Speaker George J. Furey, Clerk of the Senate Charles Robert and Government Leader in the Senate Peter Harder to learn more about the Senate itself.
“Each of you has been recognized as youth leaders in your communities, and having read your bios, it is easy to see why,” Speaker Furey told the group.
“You are to be commended for your accomplishments and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to meet each of you — our future leaders — most especially on the very significant 20th Anniversary of National Aboriginal Day in Canada.”
Canada owes a great deal to its Indigenous communities. Only through cooperation, understanding and respect can constructive action be accomplished. The Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples has given – and continues to give – a voice to these communities and is committed to protecting their interests in Parliament.
Beyond leaving a strong impression on the committee, which now aims to make this initiative a yearly one, the youth leaders from all corners of the country created new ties with each other and have formed an alumni group to strengthen communication between young people and across communities.