The walls shook with their stomping feet, reads a message from Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children & Youth. Irwin Elman was writing about his experience at a Feathers of Hope Forum last March, where more than 100 youth from 62 northern First Nations communities had gathered to share their experiences of hopelessness and poverty and talk about the issues affecting their lives. They talked about their pain, frustration and anger. And as they spoke their peers watched and listened closely, encouraging them by stomping their feet on the ground when they heard a statement that rang particularly true. Making noise where they could to emphasize the importance of the words.
Well, they’ve been stomping their feet again, but this time symbolically with the release of the Feather of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan. Elman said “First Nations children and youth want an opportunity to make things better, not just for themselves, but for the generations of children and youth who will come after them.” They say they want better than neglect and marginalization, and why shouldn’t they have better? Why shouldn’t their hopes and dreams be realized?
What are they asking for? Schools, safe housing, clean water, affordable nutritious food. That they have to ask for such basic things should be our embarrassment. What are they asking us for? Services to deal with the intergenerational trauma of the residential school system, healthy adults free of addictions, good parents, good leaders and mentors. It’s what we all should be wishing for them too.
They want to go to school in their own communities, so they don’t have to be separated from their parents to get an education, away from all that is familiar to them; so they don’t become isolated and fall into that deep well of despair, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.
And they want us to help them achieve it.
They are being realistic; they know there are no simple solutions, but these young people are telling us that standing still on one spot, paralyzed to the prospect of change, is not an option. They want action. Change must begin to happen, step by step.
They release this report, said Elman, with a mixture of hope and trepidation, with a feeling of fear at what may happen to their ideas and thoughts and feelings, sent now out into the world. They want the adults to take their hands and walk with them, not re-interpret the report without their help. Inclusion is the watch-word. They want to include us, and they want reciprocity.
“Through writing the action plan, we want to drive home the point that as young people we want to be respected for our ideas and abilities, to contribute and work with our leadership, government, communities and allies to create solutions that improve the lives of young people and communities,” reads a statement from the report.
Our young people feel disconnected, from their histories, languages, traditions, identities. So, they are taking it upon themselves to re-connect where they can and have put their best foot forward with this plan. It focuses on key issues, including residential schools, identity and culture, quality education, suicide, sport and recreation, opportunity and leadership, physical and mental health, drugs and alcohol services, and the funding that all of these things require to achieve success.
They want a five-year strategy to deal with these key issues. They set a 60-day timeline for a number of things to happen, including a statement of support from the province, federal government and treaty leadership and a commitment to create the real change they envision. And how could any government deny them?
They want the conversation to continue, and to respect the work these young people have done, the discussion must not be allowed to subside. Let’s begin to stomp our own feet in support of their initiative. If we, as individuals, can do nothing else to contribute, let us insist that action is taken. Let them have the better lives they are seeking. There is no good reason not to let them have it.