This story is in partnership with Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF).
In 2019, more than 200 people gathered to create a birch bark canoe in Parry Sound, Ontario. Overseen by Kyla Judge — Indigenous Youth Coordinator at Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve (GBBR) and Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth (GBAY) — the birch-bark canoe was created by Indigenous youth, and named Oshkinigig, loosely translating to ‘The New Ones’.
Founded in 2018, GBAY is an Indigenous youth-led initiative. Through intentional experimentation with its grassroots programs, the organization creates safe spaces for Indigenous youth to build strong community and cultural connections, and to see themselves as stewards and protectors of the land.
“It is not that long ago that our people weren’t able to be Anishinaabae, that we were told to hide, and to bury who we are,” Judge says. “The work that we’re doing is not undoing the harm that has been done, but it’s really supporting the regeneration and resurgence of Anishinaabek brilliance and intelligence.”
GBAY’s foundation is based on Anishinaabe ininemowin — translated as ‘thought’ or ‘philosophy’. All of its projects and programs are connected to Anishinaabe aadziwin: cultural, land-based learning. Since co-creating GBAY in 2018 Dawson Bloor, Taylor Judge, and Gracie Crafts, Judge has seen the powerful impact of GBAY’s approach to program development, strengthening community resilience through inclusion, and creating space for innovation and experimentation.
What is the role of Anishinaabe ininemowin?
Judge explains that Anishinaabe ininemowin is “reflective of the places that we come from. As a team of Anishinaabek youth, it means that we are honouring the cyclical and seasonal responsibilities of our people.”
This means working in harmony with the natural environment, and not disrupting the land or the regenerative cycles of plants and animals. Anishinaabe ininemowin also means “we have a responsibility to our communities, to share the knowledge that we have,” Judge says. “One of the most fundamental teachings that we have as an Anishinaabek is that our teachings are not ours to carry alone. The knowledge we have is a gift, and it has to be shared.”
When GBAY was first being developed in 2018, Judge says, she and her co-creators shared that they had always wanted to learn Anishinaabek teachings and seasonal responsibilities. Due to the impact of colonization, “a lot of people in our families are so traumatized, [they] are unable to share the knowledge that they have — and what they remember.”
Through Anishinaabe ininemowin, and GBAY’s culturally-relevant programming, Indigenous youth have been comfortable to explicitly tell GBAY what they want out of the organization’s programming. “For us, [it was about] trying to navigate, ‘how do we move forward with that?’” For that reason, GBAY created a Youth Advisory Circle with young Indigenous people, to collectively create future programs and projects.
Judge shares that she identifies as an Anishinaabekwe, an Ojibwe woman, from Shawanaga First Nation. At 25 years old, she says she is “within the parameters of an Indigenous youth. I am the oldest person in the group at this point in time. The way that we approach mentorship and knowledge transmission is not necessarily linear or hierarchical — [just] because I am technically the oldest person, it doesn’t mean that I know everything.”
When it comes to developing programs, Judge says there is no set framework, creating a lot of room for experimentation and input from the community. “However, our end goal is always to ensure that the knowledge that we have gained throughout that whole process can be shared with someone else,” she says. This doesn’t just mean sharing administrative facts as a report, but rather, “we bring along other young people to be involved in the process, to show them the work that we want to do.”
Accessibility is an inherent, unspoken value
As well as Anishinaabe ininemowin, GBAY’s program development process focuses on the “the responsibility and accessibility piece of what it means to be Anishinaabe,” Judge explains.
When building a birch-bark canoe, for example, each person’s contributions look very different, but are considered equally important. “Traditionally, as Anishinaabek, there is not one person alone who could build a birch bark canoe — it literally takes a community,” she says. The build took a total of 19 days. “How we approached inclusion and accessibility was that we made sure everybody understood and had a connection with the canoe, and that we were very vocal about this with everyone involved,” Judge says.
Accessibility also meant coordinating transportation for youth. Judge explains that Parry Sound doesn’t have a public transportation system, creating a barrier for Indigenous youth looking to be involved in after-school programming. “Living in a rural space, transportation is a privilege that a lot of Anishinaabe people have been and are being denied,” she says.
Anishinaabe teachings put emphasis on valuing all people, intentionally making accommodations for those who need them. GBAY paid for taxis, and other times, Judge herself would drive to pick up and drop off youth. As well as this, food was offered during the canoe build, as well as containers for youth to take home left-overs, as well as shirts and sweaters. “It wasn’t just being given to a specific person who needed it immediately,” Judge says. “It was so normalized that we share gifts as much as we possibly can with as many people as we possibly can.”
As with many other organizations, COVID-19 drastically changed GBAY’s programming. Workshops were moved online: “a privilege that not everybody could afford, and have been denied systemically,” Judge says.
In response, GBAY would download workshops onto USBs and deliver them to youth with limited internet access, and calling or texting individuals to talk them through the materials. “(We were) ensuring that we were making them feel included, because it’s been so hard to really connect throughout this pandemic,” Judge says
For the past year and a half, GBAY has been approached by different organizations looking to learn how the organization kept their programming accessible during COVID-19. “Everything that we do is rooted in community, accessibility and inclusion,” Judge says. “Anishinaabek have always been at the forefront, pushing for inclusion, accessibility and equity.”
Decolonizing the approach to social research and development
The response from youth participants has been overwhelmingly positive. “Young people who have been involved and participated in our programming within areas of capacity building, leadership, mentorship and training — we’re seeing those young people securing educational opportunities in post secondary,” she says. “We’re also seeing young people enhancing their capacity in the workforce and having a sense of pride and belonging with their identities as Anishinaabek.
Judge attributes part of this success to the fact that GBAY uses Anishinaabe language in its programs. “Anishinaabe aadziwin carries a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and skills, and young people are connecting to those words, because it’s reflective of our realities as Anishinaabe people,” she says.
In contrast, Judge says, colonial terms like ‘leadership’, ‘mentorship’, and ‘training’ are “not ours. It’s very important for young people to see their realities reflected, and the more that we use our languages as Indigenous people, as Anishinaabek people — I feel that young people are more inclined to participate.”
For Judge, relationship-building and inclusion are at the core of GBAY’s work — something that other organizations can learn from when it comes to social innovation and improving programs. She adds that relationship-building is “at the core of Anishinaabe ininemowin, Anishinaabe aadziwin, and Anishinaabe life. With regards to social impact, and being in a pandemic, and what the future post-pandemic could look like — it’s about building relationships, and maintaining those relationships.”