Indigenous youth weren’t involved in creating COVID-19 policies — here’s why that needs to change for recovery

In part two of the Canadian Roots Exchange policy hackathon, Indigeous youth share future-forward visions for COVID-19 recovery — from self-governance to economic empowerment

Why It Matters

When creating COVID-19 protocols, the government didn’t always engage Indigenous communities, leaving many Indigenous leaders out of the decision-making process. Moving forward, that has to change; Indigenous youth are Canada's fastest-growing demographic, and for full COVID-19 recovery — one that takes into account the wellbeing of Indigenous communities — young policy leaders need equal say in building a better future.

This story is in partnership with the Canadian Roots Exchange.

Living in downtown Toronto, Alex MacLeod runs Alexdals’ Creations Inc., an Indigenous, LGBT-owned arts business. They have grappled with the challenges of running a small business during the pandemic, all while taking criminology and a double major in Indigenous studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. “My primary focus is making sure that people’s rights are protected, so I wanted to look at [Indigenous issues] from a policy perspective.”

MacLeod says that certain COVID-19 policies violate Indigenous rights. They explain that in Toronto, while holding civil protests goes against physical distancing protocols, “we’re using our land, and we’re demonstrating on an Indigenous-specific issue — which is a treaty right — which you [the federal government] said you weren’t going to interfere with. Suddenly we can get fined. That’s problematic.” 

They say this kind of policy making is a result of the fact that, currently, federal government policy makers are at “stages in their life where they become less flexible to different ideas,” putting them at odds with a society that is quickly adapting to “anti-racism and anti-colonialism to more unique LGBT issues.”

MacLeod emphasizes that Canada needs a government that can adapt the same way, with youth at the table – and if we don’t? “Then it’s going to be history repeating itself over and over.”


Indigenous youth leaders are asking the hard questions 

Indigenous youth are Canada’s fastest-growing demographic, and according to MacLeod, their generation — and the one coming up behind them — are figuring out how to “blend our traditional policies along with a Western framework, that would serve best in our current time.” Indigenous youth policy leaders like MacLeod are well-positioned to not only guide COVID-19 protocols – but also lead the way to pandemic recovery. 

To analyze the government’s COVID-19 responses, and what needs to be done for recovery in partnership with Indigenous communities, the Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE) brought together Indigenous youth policy leaders, like MacLeod, for the second of its two Indigenous Youth Policy Hackathons.

One of the mentors was Yancy Craig, vice president of Indigenous and Government Relations at Indspire. For Craig, it’s important that Indigenous youth have a seat at the table when it comes to crafting policy — especially because they challenge the status quo. He recalls his early days in the federal public service, working in Indigenous social policy. When he wanted to try one particular policy approach, he was told, “‘Well, we tried that before and failed.’ My thinking at the ripe old age of 26 [was], ‘but I didn’t try and fail.’ That [is the] sense of self that I think that youth can have.”

During the pandemic, Craig has seen the impact of the digital divide, especially for Indigenous youth living in more rural areas, trying to continue their education remotely. Living in northern Ontario, youth participant Jessica Frappier was able to attend school online, completing her degree in Indigenous Environmental studies — but that wasn’t the only thing on her mind. “It’s been difficult in terms of grief,” she says. “Death is a very scary thing, even if it’s caused by COVID or not. It’s been a very weird experience not being able to gather.”

Across the country, we are seeing the mental health impact of COVID-19 physical distancing protocols. A recent survey found that 60 percent of Indigenous participants reported that their mental health had worsened since the onset of physical distancing’ — as opposed to 52 percent of non-Indigenous participants. During the pandemic, Jake Vickery — a literature graduate living in Toronto — welcomed his young son into the world. “A lot of my close-knit family hasn’t had the chance to meet him, and he’s now 10 months old,” Vickery says. “With the restrictions, it is tough for us to get together as a family and feel that wholeness.”

Vickery – whose family roots are in the Red River Métis Settlement in Manitoba — says that, when it came to COVID-19 responses, the government has overlooked the unique needs of different Indigenous populations, setting protocols that isolate communities from one other without proper consultation — including creating strict physical distancing policies, even in areas where there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19. While Vickery emphasizes the importance of stopping the spread of COVID-19, “we have to remember that community health is an important element as well,” he says. 


Canada wants to ‘build back better’ — but what does that mean for Indigenous youth?

Mentor Dana Marlatt has seen the impact of isolation on mental health first hand, living in downtown Toronto. “I’m in one of the hard hit areas,” she says. “We’ve been in lockdown for many months. What I see is a lack of community and a lack of responsibility to care for one another.” Yet, Marlatt says, after she got her vaccine and ventured outside more often, she saw that sense of unity at local Friendship Centres. “It was those Indigenous organizations that were making it feel like we were in this together.” 

With Mohawk roots from Kanesatake, Marlatt shares that her father is a Painted Feather Woodland Métis, and her mother is German.

Today, Marlatt is an RBC associate, and the co-chair of the Royal Eagles, guiding reconciliation within the bank. She’s also a poet, writing for social impact. She says that, while the government did partner with different community partners — like local Friendship Centres — to respond to COVID-19 in Indigenous communities, and created services depending on whether a person is on or off reserve, a certain cultural aspect was missed. “There’s this sense of the medicine wheel, [which is] all about having that balance between your physical, your spiritual, your mental, and your emotional,” she says. Marlatt says she wishes those values had been woven into COVID-19 policy. “There’s not an intersectional lens being taken, because the decision makers themselves are not intersectional,” she says. 

When it comes to COVID-19 recovery, Marlatt says she doesn’t see just one way forward – but she knows that Indigenous youth leaders need to be in the driving seat. “Maybe a Deputy Minister has a youth equivalent,” she suggests. “I don’t know what [recovery] looks like, but I think having [Indigenous] youth ingrained throughout an organization is when it becomes a lot easier to solve problems, because you’re solving problems with people that actually care about those problems, because those communities are their communities.”

Vickery reiterates a similar point, saying it’s important that the government creates policies in partnership with Indigenous communities. “Anytime that guidelines are brought in from the top down, it does feel a bit like a colonial approach — whereas when groups are able to build guidelines and implement them with their communities, [there is] a lot more buy-in,” he says. “It’s so much easier for the community to adapt to it because it was built for them and makes sense to them. It is their policy.” 

He adds that, because Indigenous people are the fastest-growing demographic in Canada, “Creating policy around that, and trying to structure it so that young Indigenous minds are able to flourish and have some say within their communities is so, so important.” 


Who is calling the shots for COVID-19 recovery?

For Frappier, youth will play an important role in rebuilding after the pandemic — but meaningful change will only happen if Indigenous people are empowered economically. She explains that Canada relies heavily on resource extraction for its wealth – oil and natural gas accounts for billions of dollars of Canada’s GDP —  and that those resources are being extracted from Indigenous land. “We need wealth, and we need resources — in whatever conceptualization [of ‘resources’] that is,” Frappier says. “Especially in Western terms, those resources do cost money. Indigenous people can’t continue to be excluded from the Canadian economy.”

After MacLeod finishes studying, they want to be a part of decolonizing “our government in its entirety,” they say. “We also have to decolonize all the systems that it created [from healthcare to the court system], because without being able to do that, we won’t be able to function better for both sides of this country — which is an Indigenous side and a non-Indigenous side.” For MacLeod, Indigenous youth play an integral role in this, bringing new energy and perspectives to decision-making tables.

Vickery wants to be a part of building that better future. The birth of his son “spurred inside of me the need to get out into the community to try to make a better world for the generation that is to come, because I see that there are a lot of changes that are necessary.” 

He will be joined by thousands of other Indigenous youth — including those who took part in Canadian Roots Exchange’s hackathons. Marlatt says that there are 175,000 Indigenous youth coming into the workforce in the next five years. “We are the most educated we’ve ever been, we are the most unapologetically Indigenous we’ve ever been. We are ready, and we are strong.”