What actions could end the shocking disparity between the prosperity of Canada and the deprivation of First Nations? In our series Rich Country, Poor Nations, a range of contributors argue for one idea that could make a difference.
Gabrielle Fayant co-directs the ReachUp! North Program. She plays an advisory role with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and sits on the board of the Friendship Centre Movement.
In Anishnabemowin, Gabrielle Fayant ndiizhnikaas means my name is Gabrielle Fayant.
My family comes from Fishing Lake Metis Settlement in Alberta. I grew up on welfare, in severe poverty, like many other indigenous youth. From Fishing Lake to Edmonton to Ottawa, we moved from one ghetto to another. Alcohol, drugs and gangs were always in my surroundings and I grew up thinking this was normal – that there was no hope for a better life.
I dropped out of high school, and I put myself in many dangerous situations because I didn't really care what would happen to me. My mom passed away and I fell through every crack in the system; I was in the hospital three times for alcohol and depression. My sad history is shared by thousands of indigenous youth across Canada.
Now, I am proud to be alive. I am especially pleased to say that I am now happy.
Key has been finding my cultural identity. I am grateful to those few people who reached out to me and believed in me. I have gone on to university, a major milestone, and I am giving back to youth in my community. I have worked at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation that interviewed and researched residential school survivors, where I learned about the schools and our history. Though the truth was hard to accept, it empowered me. I became active in the community, in my culture. The Anishnabe teachings of the Seven Fire Prophecy helped me see my role and my purpose.
Impatient for change, I was involved in the winter of Idle No More.
The Idle No More rallies may have stopped, but youth are still taking action on the ground. We have created the Assembly of Seven Generations (A7G), and are working with a Canadian international social enterprise called Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) to implement an indigenous youth empowerment program called ReachUp! North, partly using the ReachUp! programs DOT has deployed in the Middle East and East Africa for a decade. It will have 100 graduates by November.
For indigenous youth, a strong sense of cultural identity is key to self-confidence, positive self-esteem and success in the economy. To date, this has not been reflected in the hit-and-miss programming offered to them.
Many programs are developed by non-indigenous program and policy developers, and reflect a top-down approach where culture – the most important factor for indigenous youth development – is forgotten.
Even indigenous organizations do not take youth leadership seriously, and youth are often tokenized, or worse, ignored. Youth departments and programming are often the first to be cut.
Half of Canada's indigenous population is under the age of 30, and the youth bulge is growing. Youth committees and councils are no longer enough. What is needed are solutions that include cultural learning from a youth-led, youth-driven perspective – A7G and DOT are doing just that.
ReachUp! North has been adapted for indigenous youth with the guidance of Elders, and is localized and delivered by A7G youth leaders, with support from DOT and within a spirit of trust and freedom to incorporate traditional teachings.
With DOT, we have been able to create a safe space for Indigenous youth to take charge of their livelihoods through the use of technology.
Youth who graduate from ReachUp! North learn to transform their skills and passions into a livelihood opportunity, while also being encouraged to tap into the technological resources and support services around them. The program will be expanded to other communites in the year to come.
For some, it is simply using their phones or laptops as tools to promote their business ideas, whereas others are applying new work force and entrepreneurial skills to find jobs or start businesses, or perhaps using spreadsheets for personal budgeting.
There's Sage, who enrolled in ReachUp! North to improve his skills so that he could better promote his drum group, the O-Town Boyz. Using new business and digital skills, he has developed online portfolios of the singers, videos of performances, promotional material and business cards. Sage and the O-Town Boyz are now selling CDs and performing at bigger events and pow wows.
So if anyone is wondering "whatever happened to Idle No More," you can tell them we are on the ground working hard for our peers. We have created an organization called the Assembly of Seven Generations, we are becoming entrepreneurs and we are creating networks of like-minded youth across the country. The winter of Idle No More was a spiritual awakening for indigenous youth. We are the seventh generation, we are the new people.