Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE) is a national organization with a mission to ‘build bridges’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in Canada, by facilitating dialogue and strengthening relationships through leadership programs, to promote respect, understanding and reconciliation.
We know Aboriginal status determines health outcomes in a disproportionately negative way, compared to those of non-Indigenous peoples. One way we can work toward changing this injustice, is through these approaches for intercultural understanding.
This past February and March, 25 Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth from Saskatoon and Toronto between the ages of 14 and 17 participated in an exchange between the two cities. They were chosen from applications outlining their commitment to reconciliation, to building a better Canada, and to mending the relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canadians that's been broken for too long.
It was the first time on an airplane for many of the youth. There was an air of excitement about the possibilities of meeting new friends, but even more about having an experience that could equip them to return to their families, peers and communities with tools to help begin very important work.
"It was striking to see their eyes being opened to what they were missing in their high school classes."
For our exchange in Saskatoon, the first outing was to a place called the Western Development Museum. It was challenging to witness the role played by settlement to displace Indigenous peoples from their land over the history of Saskatchewan, but we wanted to introduce the youth to how beliefs and values from over a century ago continue to affect Indigenous communities and relationships within Canada today. Many of the participants, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, understood this immediately and drew moving comparisons to how violent settlement was in both Saskatchewan and Ontario.
We revisited these themes throughout the week, and it was inspiring to see the students begin to articulate their understanding of colonialism and propaganda in the settlement of 'Canada's West'. Many of the youth expressed how frustrating it is, that this education is still not found in primary and secondary school curriculum in Canada. There has been a major push for this since the release of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was striking to see their eyes being opened to what they were missing in their high school classes.
We were able to celebrate Indigenous culture during the exchange by attending a pow-wow and 'drumming 101' class at the White Buffalo Youth Lodge, and a feast and round dance at Oskayak High School. It was clear from these opportunities that our non-Indigenous participants had been waiting to experience the culture. They were deeply inquisitive, but also showed a profound respect for all they were shown. We believe Canada today is the same way: largely ignorant about Indigenous values, cultures and beliefs... but perhaps ready and willing to learn, if only given the opportunity. What we saw in these intercultural experiences was generations of silence being broken.
"It shows our youth that colonial structures like Parliament can change, when Indigenous people are better represented."
The youth learned from their peers and elders at the Oskayak feast and round dance about reciprocity within Indigenous teachings and the importance of collectivism and community, in supporting one another. The recent federal election saw a record number of Indigenous people elected to the House of Commons (ten). It's important for these people to be elected and represent Indigenous voices, but also it shows our youth that colonial structures like Parliament can change, when Indigenous people are better represented.
Canada's newly elected administration has the opportunity to create real positive change in the lives of Indigenous people. For instance, Jody Wilson-Raybould has already stated she will push for Aboriginal justice reform and support a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett considers herself 'Minister of Reconciliation'. And the Liberal government is committed to a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous People. So the first question is, where to start?
The Assembly of First Nations identified a need for closing the unacceptable gap in outcomes that exists between First Nations and non-Indigenous Canadians, which the Liberal Party strongly supported during the election campaign. The Metis National Council wants the recent Supreme Court decision acted upon that includes Métis people within the definition of Aboriginal and thus gain Aboriginal rights outlined in the Constitution Act, 1982 section 35. And the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami lay out five key priorities including suicide prevention and Aboriginal Education.
"They learned the most when sharing their stories with each other."
We made sure to facilitate activities and exercises that would allow the youth participants to learn from one another, and understand the various backgrounds and experiences they each came from. With half the participants newcomers to Saskatoon, they had valuable first experiences that many 3rd and 4th-generation Canadians still haven't been exposed to.
Each of these youth came from unique backgrounds. They learned the most when sharing their stories with each other. That's what Canada must do now — talk to one another, and hear each others' stories. For instance, hearing firsthand about why a First Nations man from Saskatchewan was attending school in the nearest city instead of his home community, because the reserve school gets less money and his family wanted him to have the best education he could. They wanted him to have the best chance at a stable job, and a healthy future.
Settlers have been arriving in Canada for more than 300 years, largely ignoring Indigenous relationships with the land they came to. So reconciliation, to us, is starting to think upstream about settlement. How can we welcome newcomers to Canada in a way that respects the history of Indigenous peoples, while also working to repair current Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships?
The participants understood this was as much a problem for their generation as it had been for their parents. The difference is they were determined to find solutions together, to create a safe space to share, listen and exchange ideas. If we gave every young person in Canada this same opportunity, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, what would our country look like? Let's find out.
Davida Bentham, Amber Bellegarde, Sacha Favel and Janelle Pewapsconias served as Youth Reconciliation leaders with Canadian Roots in 2014 & '15. They are all based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and live their frames and their passions in areas of relationship-building between First Peoples and Settler Peoples. Amber and Janelle are students at the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, and Sacha works at the First Nations Bank of Canada. Davida Bentham is currently studying law at the University of Saskatchewan.