This story is in partnership with the Canadian Roots Exchange.
Over the summer, Tia Kennedy, an Indigenous youth policy leader, got a job as a summer student at Indigenous Services Canada. She says the experience has been great — her current manager is Indigenous, and her team have set up a Seven Grandfather Teachings coffee social where, “for an hour, we bring in different people to bring in more cultural teachings,” Kennedy says.
However, she adds, not all departments within the federal government are like this. “I consider it a privilege that I’m allowed to walk in these spaces as a strong Indigenous person, and be able to speak my truth, because it’s not the case [in all departments of the federal government],” she says.
Kennedy hasn’t always felt heard in the professional spaces she’s been in. “I went through my own experiences on different advisory committees, where I felt like I was just there as a token Indian,” she says. For her, the biggest way to empower Indigenous people in policy spaces is to really, truly listen to the insights being shared, and then to use those insights when making policy decisions. “I’m really glad that I’ve been witnessing this with the federal government, but I know it’s not everywhere, which is unfortunate,” she says. While it can be rare for other departments at the federal government to be as inclusive as her team, her team is still “one piece to a big puzzle,” Kennedy says — a step in the right direction.
In May 2021, Kennedy took part in one of Canadian Roots Exchange’s two Indigenous Youth Policy Hackathons. During the learning experience, teams were given a case study with a policy problem. The result? Innovative solutions, as well as teams of Indigenous youth empowered to become policy leaders, to build a more equitable future in Canada through more diverse leadership.
One of the hackathon mentors was Dana Marlatt: a SheEO activator, poet and entrepreneur. “I found the hackathons to be empowering because it reminds us of the message, ‘nothing for us without us’, and having the opportunity to see the youth co-create the solutions for their own communities,” Marlatt says.
What’s changing in Canada (and what’s stayed exactly the same)
Since the hackathon, Bill C-15 was approved by the Senate — an act for implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canada. For several provinces, September 30th — the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — became a provincial statutory holiday, following the discovery of the unmarked graves at former residential schools.
Despite changes like these, there still isn’t much action being taken — many provinces still won’t recognize September 30th as a statutory holiday, for example — in part, because there aren’t enough Indigenous youth policy leaders at the table.
Marlatt says that, while there is “good faith happening, my only question is always the accountability aspect.” More specifically, Marlatt would like to see greater transparency about who exactly within the government is taking the lead on Indigenous issues, especially when it comes to completing the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. “A lot of words have been said, and it’s hard to find out what the current status update is on them,” she says.
When it comes to issues like this, Marlatt continues, Indigenous people “kind of hold your breath. You hope, but there’s no way that as an individual, or as a group, that we can really hold too many people accountable unless these things become transparent.”
Analysis by the First-nation led think-tank, Yellowhead Institute, found that, in 2020, only eight of the 94 Calls to Action had been implemented — down from nine in 2019. “By that rate of doing two a year, we won’t have the Calls to Action completed until 2074,” she says. “That’s a whole other generation of Indigenous youth that are going to be affected by poor policies and poor leadership.”
Alongside Kennedy, Jessica Teiotsistohkwathe Lazare also took part in the CRE hackathon. Since then, she has been elected as a Council Chief for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawa:ke – “but I prefer the term ‘Ietsenhaienhs’,” she adds.
Looking at the federal government’s current policies, Lazare says that not much has changed despite commitments made to reconciliation. “There has been a lot of ‘talk’, empty declarations and hollow affirmations. It is difficult to negotiate with Canada’s current and upcoming policies, as our concerns are pretty much falling on deaf ears,” she says.
Sharing an example, Lazare says that while Canada focuses on providing aid to developing countries, “the Indigenous folks of this land are forgotten and living in poverty, without clean drinking water and adequate housing — as if we were dirt to sweep under the colonial rug.”
Driving positive change from every front
If more Indigenous youth leaders were making key policy decisions, Lazare says “Canada would undergo radical change” on a huge variety of issues, from racism to the climate crisis.
“There’s a huge Afro-Indigenous Solidarity Movement,” Marlatt says. “The 2SLGBTQ+ community has always been embedded in our culture from a Two-Spirited perspective. [From] other lenses too, women are matriarchs — they’re respected and honored and sacred in culture.”
For Kennedy, Indigeneous youth leadership would mean transformation of how Canada treats its land and natural resources. Despite UNDRIP being implemented in British Columbia, Kennedy says, Fairy Creek valley on Vancouver Island is still being logged. Over 700 protestors have been arrested. “Right now what’s going on, where they’re throwing people in jail (for trying) to protect Mother Earth — [that] would never be happening if Indigenous policymakers were at the table.”
She adds that, while a lot of people get anxiety around climate change and the environment, “for Indigenous people, it’s not just an anxiety — it’s who we are,” she says. “Our way of being is at risk when the environment is being mutilated, like it is now.”
Despite the many positive changes that Indigenous youth leadership would bring to Canadian governments, Lazare says that the current system doesn’t support roles for Indigenous people — let alone youth. “The system is built from a foreign country’s ideologies of oppression and capitalism — it is not made to accommodate an Indigenous way of thinking.”
When it comes to policies on the environment, and natural resource extraction, Kennedy says that “it always comes down to money” — which, she explains, isn’t the success measurement used by Indigenous communities. “The way I measure success is: ‘is everyone happy? Are we making a sustainable home for Mother Earth?’ Success doesn’t mean: ‘who has the most money?’ I think that in itself needs to be really changed.”
And in terms of reconciliation, Marlatt says that it’s important that leaders in the government — or corporate Canada — “understand that there are cultural differences in the way that we [Indigenous people] engage with people.” She explains, “People need to learn how to listen to us, because we speak differently. We come from a place of our hearts and spirits and minds and bodies all being present with us when we’re in a room.”
Lazare is hopeful that things can change, and doing so will take truth and action, she says — something that would make Indigenous youth feel safer in entering colonial policy spaces, and feel empowered to make a difference through their expertise and knowledge. “There is no reconciliation without the truth, and there is no skirting around it. If we look at how many of our children were dug up behind their (the government’s) ‘schools’, we see a truth many of us knew, yet the magnitude wasn’t recognized by those outside of our Onkwehonwe circles. All of those children were our future — they were meant to have families of their own, and grow and grow and grow into generations of beautiful Onkwehonwe.”
A federal election in a year of reckoning
Political parties can’t ignore Indigenous issues as they’re campaigning for the upcoming federal election — especially with 2021 seeing the highest number of Indigenous candidates in federal election history. “It almost feels like a-do-or-die moment,” Kennedy says. “Whatever happens in this next election is going to either be really beneficial for everyone, or it’s going to be really, really bad, especially concerning climate change.”
Lazare says she isn’t following the federal election because it goes against her principles and beliefs in the Two-Row Wampum treaty, founded on the peaceful co-existence of Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations. “I’m tired of listening to empty thoughts and ideas, and analyzing legislative agendas, as I feel that most of it does not even consider Onkwehonwe perspectives and ways of being,” she says. “I will work towards my same goals for my community, no matter who is sitting in the other canoe.”
Looking to the future, Marlatt feels hopeful. “I don’t think that we’ll ever go back [to] where we’ve been, especially after Kamloops and all the grave discoveries that have happened. I think that there are only going to [be] more and more commitments and efforts [made towards reconciliation].”
For Lazare, Indigenous youth are already leaders, and are making a difference in policy — no matter how big or small. “We can speak the language of our oppressors and use our ancestral knowledge to ground us in our determination for justice,” she says. “Speak up because it’s time. Speak up for the children who couldn’t — our existence is resistance.”