Sasha Maracle never set out to become a native community advocate, but when she saw a poster asking for young aboriginals to write an essay about issues facing their community, she decided to enter. The winner would receive a spot on a new youth working group that would help tackle the problems the contest entrants were writing about.
"I don't know why I entered," she says. "I wasn't entirely engaged in high school, but I felt like I had to put my concerns and perspectives forward regardless of whether I was selected."
The now-27-year-old graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University did win the contest because, she says, she focused on solutions instead of the problems in her Six Nations community. Not only did she become part of the working group, but she also became one of the inaugural representatives of the Ontario First Nations Young Peoples Council when it formed in 2005. She has held roles in several other First Nations groups, too.
"I never expected it to snowball the way it has," she says.
Ms. Maracle is just one of a growing number of politically active aboriginal youth who, in the past five to 10 years, have taken on responsibility for improving their communities. They are trying to persuade friends to give up drugs and alcohol and bring them and their peers out of poverty.
Young aboriginals want what every other Canadian wants – education, economic opportunities and to live a healthy life, says Laura Arndt, director of strategic development for Ontario's Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, and a Six Nations Mohawk herself.
"Why is it that everyone else has these things and we struggle for them?" she asks. "They want to have a part in asking these difficult questions."
For years, young people didn't have these discussions. Many, says Ms. Arndt, were so traumatized by their or their family's residential school experiences that it was too difficult to take on community issues as well. The focus was on helping family members heal and deal with years of abuse and cultural neglect.
Now, though, today's 20-somethings are starting to reconnect with their cultural identities and that's helping them move forward.
"They have a strength that comes with knowing who they are and understanding where they came from," Ms. Arndt says. "They're the first generation that's getting healthy."
There's something else driving this youth movement: demographics. About half of the native population is made up of people younger than 25. Because young people make up such a large part of aboriginal society, many people feel it's up to them to improve their communities.
That's easier said than done. The residential school system put a wedge between elders and young people, Ms. Arndt says. There was no framework for young people to express themselves.
But thanks to people such as Jocelyn Formsma, a 29-year-old native advocate and recent law school graduate, that's changing. She's a member of the Moose Cree First Nation and has served on several boards and councils at local, regional and national levels.
Ms. Formsma admits that it hasn't been easy to persuade community elders to listen to her and her peers, but they are getting better at articulating what they need and are more willing to speak for themselves.
"They're standing up to first nations leadership and becoming louder," she says. "People are becoming more engaged and aware."
Darrin Fiddler, a 19-year-old member of the Sandy Lake First Nation youth council, says that he too had trouble persuading elders to hear what he had to say.
Mr. Fiddler puts on talks on the dangers of prescription drug abuse, which he says is a big problem in his community. In August he's bringing in Doris Slipperjack, a popular anti-drug activist, to present a workshop at a youth conference.
It's going to take years to work through all of his community's problems, Mr. Fiddler says, but both youth and elders are paying closer attention to what's going on around them.
"Before the youth council people didn't really understand what we were going through," he says. "Now the [main] council recognizes us as leaders. If older people want to know what's happening they come and ask us and we work with them to get things done."
The more opportunities young people have to express their feelings with elders the more things will change, says Ms. Maracle.
"Young people want to be a part of this," she says. "As soon as that door was opened and the first conference was planned, people wanted to get involved."
Two things could slow such progress, however – funding and desire. Money, Ms. Arndt says, must continue to flow to youth initiatives. Young leaders often get together from across Canada to share ideas, and that costs a lot. A plane ticket from a remote northern Ontario location to a Canadian city can cost upward of $4,000.
It's also hard for young people to take on such enormous cultural, political and economic challenges. Many want to see change happen immediately, and it's easy for them to become discouraged when they face setbacks.
Still, Ms. Arndt is optimistic. Soon enough, these leaders will become community elders and then the big changes will really occur. "They'll be magnificent," she says. "Tomorrow's leaders will be informed, they won't be afraid and they'll teach their generation and the younger generation to fight for what they believe in.
"When we get there the elders in the community will have been returned to what they once were."