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Youth Empowerment

How Indigenous Youth Are Building a Better Tomorrow

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Christina Green

Christina Green

Small Vessel Operator & Guardian for the Kwakwaka’wakw

shaelyn jordan

Shaelyn Jordan

Graduate of the Adult Anishinaabemowin Revitalization Program, Seven Generations Education Institute

jessica winters

Jessica Winters

Conservationist & Graduate of Indigenous Clean Energy’s 20/20 Catalysts Program

The rapidly-growing young Indigenous population in Canada is the country’s most potent hope for a better future for everyone. Given the opportunity, Indigenous youth will build a better tomorrow, on their own terms. 

Indigenous youth are the key to strong, healthy Indigenous Nations and a better future for everyone. Indigenous youth are the fastest-growing population in the country, with numbers increasing at four times the rate of non-Indigenous groups. Unfortunately, Canada’s systems and structures have failed Indigenous peoples for generations. It’s time for these systems to be transformed. Indigenous young people demand better and deserve better. But they’re not asking for new structures or systems to be built for them — only for the tools, resources, and space to build them. They have their own ideas.  

Grounded in the Anishinaabe concept of Mino Bimaadiziwin — “to live a good life”— the Mastercard Foundation has created the EleV program, now in its fourth year of operation. It’s an initiative founded on a commitment to support and empower Indigenous youth in their aspirations towards their own vision of education and employment systems that embrace Indigenous peoples, values and cultures. EleV supports these Indigenous-led transformative approaches and will highlight them to show that innovation and success are not only possible, but already happening. We can all learn from these new approaches in working towards systems change.

I always felt that a connection was missing until I started attending ceremonies and sweat lodges. I was so amazed by what I saw and learned in the sweat lodge. I can’t even put into words how powerful it was.

Indigenous voices at the helm

“On the land” learning is an important part of teaching and learning for Indigenous peoples, and yet it’s not being utilized in many education institutions. In British Columbia, the EleV program is partnered with Vancouver Island University. The partnership includes the university’s relational land-based learning cohort programs. These courses and certificates reach Indigenous youth on the land and in their communities. They bring the resources of a large mainstream educational institution to bear in a First Nations-led curriculum dedicated to preserving, safeguarding, and guiding Indigenous resources.

Christina Green of Campbell River is a small vessel operator, a guardian for her Kwakwaka’wakw people, and a graduate of one of these programs — the First Nations Stewardship Technicians Training Program. She recalls a sense of wonder at the environment the program has created. “It was so much more than I had anticipated,” Green says. “It was honestly my first ever enjoyable academic experience. It was a big awakening to the fact that I’ve been truly blessed with opportunities to learn our culture and live within it. My upbringing was very rooted in our culture and I realized in meeting others in the program that not all of the people that come from the Kwakwaka’wakw have had that opportunity.” 

With the legacy of the residential schools and Indian day schools still a living memory in Green’s family, she recognizes fully the importance of decolonizing, transforming, and Indigenizing education. “It’s so powerful, the idea of bringing First Nations people together in an academic setting, in ways we’ve never seen in our history,” she says. “I think that was something that my generation had been craving.”

A future that celebrates Indigenous values

Indigenous youth of Green’s generation are seizing the moment and meeting their Nations’ present head on. They’re taking advantage of educational opportunities and emerging careers to shape the future in their own image. Clean energy is a growing sector that connects to traditional values for many Indigenous youth. Jessica Winters, of the Inuit region of Nunatsiavut in Labrador, is a lifelong conservationist and a graduate of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Having already, at a young age, worked as a regional youth strategy facilitator in Inuit communities and as a project scientist studying marine mammals with JASCO Applied Sciences, Winters is now focused on transforming the energy landscape of her home communities as Community Energy Lead for Nunatsiavut. She came into this position as an alumna of Indigenous Clean Energy’s 20/20 Catalysts Program, a partner in the EleV program.  

“The thing I enjoy most about my job is understanding the possibilities for renewable energy in Nunatsiavut and thinking about how it might look in the future,” Winters says. “I feel important and valued to be doing this work for Nunatsiavut communities. I hope that more youth will get involved in clean energy because we need to prepare for a sustainable future. Relying completely on diesel in Nunatsiavut doesn’t fit in with our ideals as Inuit.”

Connecting to yesterday to shape tomorrow

While Winters is pushing the branches of Indigenous ideals into Labrador’s future, in Ontario, Shaelyn Jordan is tending the roots that tie her own Anishinaabe identity back to her people’s legacy. Many Indigenous languages in Canada are under threat of disappearing, and action is needed to ensure that they survive and thrive. Language is central and critical to identity and cultural continuity. There must be support for unique and innovative approaches to language retention and promotion. Jordan grew up in a home with four generations of Anishinaabemowin speakers, and was fluent in the language as a child. But, like so many of her contemporaries, as her grandparents and great-grandparents passed, opportunities to maintain a strong connection to her language grew limited, leaving her feeling untethered without knowing why.  

“I found myself very distant from the language after my great-grandmother passed,” Jordan recalls. “I always felt that a connection was missing until I started attending ceremonies and sweat lodges. I was so amazed by what I saw and learned in the sweat lodge. I can’t even put into words how powerful it was. About two weeks after my final ceremony for my physical and spiritual healing, I saw a posting about the Anishinaabe revitalization program and it felt like a sign to me specifically. I applied right away.” 

The program Jordan applied to is the Adult Anishinaabemowin Revitalization program at Seven Generations Education Institute, a partner in the EleV Program. As a graduate of the program, Jordan is now looking to become a language instructor herself and to provide stewardship in the tongue for the next generation. “No matter what was done to take our language and culture away from us, we still have it, and we’re bringing it back,” Jordan says. “I know that my grandparents and great-grandparents would be so happy to see that.”

Between all these programs and more, the generations that came before and the generations yet to come can rest assured that the future is in good hands with the generation that is here today. When provided with the tools, resources, and the space, today’s Indigenous youth are ready, willing, and capable of transforming broken systems through bold solutions founded in their values, visions, and aspirations.

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