On a smoky evening last week, 10 Indigenous and 10 non-Indigenous youth sat in the wooden pews of the Longhouse Church in East Vancouver talking about their plans for decolonizing and Indigenizing Canada.
Starting with Vancouver’s inner city neighbourhoods.
Ranging in age from 15 to 30 and all residents of East Vancouver, the young people are members of the implementation committee for “Our Place, Our Home, Our Vision: Youth Voices of East Vancouver,” the latest report from the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement society.
The report was based on input gathered from 2,000 East Vancouver youth about improving their communities, urban Indigenous self-governance and reconciliation. It includes almost 70 recommendations in nine policy areas affecting youth — especially urban Indigenous youth.
Recommendations deal with youth leadership and governance; education; housing; health and well-being; poverty reduction; climate change; Indigenization and decolonization; Indigenous self-governance; and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Meeting chairs and committee members Jessica Savoy, 25, and Edgard Villanueva-Cruz, 17, said their committee is unique in Canada.
“We’re the only organization in Canada participating in this work with youth, incorporating that youth governance and youth leadership,” said Villanueva-Cruz, a member of the Tahltan Nation. “We’re the only place in Canada working with a council of Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth [on] policy.”
The report draws context and inspiration from yet-to-be-implemented recommendations in other reports, like the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the United Nations’ declarations on the rights of children and of Indigenous people.
It even cites the 1991 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, a report issued, but never implemented, at least a decade before many on the committee were born.
Each recommendation is about improving the broader community. But the focus is always youth-centred, proposing things like leadership training for young people; ensuring youth presence on government committees; queer and trans youth access to physical and mental health care; and including the United Nations rights declarations’ in school curriculums and government policies.
Funded by the federal government’s Canada Service Corps program, the report and the implementation committee are the result of the first 18 months of a two-year ALIVE project to “engage, educate and empower Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth from the community of East Vancouver.”
During the meeting, some committee members admitted they knew little about the UN declarations.
That’s not surprising when you consider that youth are often the last people consulted on government policies that impact them and the UN commitments — like the requirement to listen to youth when making decisions that affect them — are ignored.
That’s a problem, says Savoy, a member of the Nisga’a Nation.
“Our youth are failing through the cracks of the system. The most vulnerable are dying on the streets, they’re being taken to live in homes that are not their families,’ they’re being pushed out of the education system,” she said.
“Something I know to be true is youth have the answer to what they need, and their voice needs to be listened to, and that hasn’t been the case in the many years since the incorporation of this country.”
That so many reports like this one languish on dusty political bookshelves was not lost on the young people. Nor on the provincial and federal politicians who came to talk to them at the meeting.
Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark, who is of Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree, Ojibway, French and Scottish descent, grew up in the Vancouver-Mount Pleasant riding she represents.
Growing up, Mark faced a lot of the same adversity outlined in the report, like poverty, family addiction, food insecurity and foster care.
“Raise your hand if you are an Indigenous young woman who is afraid to be raped or murdered,” Mark said, one of many questions she asked committee members about growing up Indigenous. “I’ve often said before politics, ‘If you want to get away with murder, kill an Indian.’”
While she pledged her support for the report and promised to deliver copies to every B.C. MLA, Mark said reports are not enough to make change.
“How do we make change? We have to be loud,” she said. “We have to speak up, we have to use our voice. This is a tool that people like me get to use. There are some good things in here — really good things. But I am committed to action, so please, I compel you to be committed to calls to action.”
Jenny Kwan, the NDP member of Parliament for Vancouver East, also addressed the committee, calling their report the “bible” for change in the country.
Kwan committed to sharing the report with all 338 MPs. But the committee itself has plans to approach the Prime Minister’s office and the United Nations with the report. The committee followed Indigenous protocol, showing the report to First Nations and Métis governments and organizations first.
“This is not just for East Van, but — I say it all the time — East Van always leads the way,” said Kwan. “We do the heavy lifting. But what we do here, when we make change in our community, will affect the rest of the country.”
The committee heard during the meeting that youth-led or involved movements are not new and have been powerful, such as Idle No More and the current environmental, prison and police abolition and Black Lives Matter movements.
Committee members who spoke to The Tyee said adults must listen to youth, because the only way to create positive change is working together.
“Currently, and for many decades, there has been such a disconnect between the younger generations and older people,” said Stefanie Kemerling, 19, a non-Indigenous committee member.
“I think that all people, no matter what their age or race is, deserve to be heard and taken seriously. And just because I may be, say, 20 years younger than the individual that I’m speaking to, I’m still going to give them respect, and I’m going to give them my ears and my open mind, and I expect the same thing back.”
Unlike the movement to abolish the police, for example, which calls for the eradication of police rather than reform, the report doesn’t call for tearing down current political systems.
Rather, the young people want to reshape their community, province and country from the inside out by securing a seat at the tables of power and ensuring marginalized voices are heard.
“We have to work with what we have, and reform and change the systems that we have that are harmful and racist,” said Sasha Storbl, 19, who is Mayan, Austrian and Irish. “But it depends on the scenario. The Indian Act is something that I think should be torn down and replaced with something better, not as harmful.”
Committee member Glugwe Walkus, 25, who is Gwa'sala from Port Hardy, said protests and calls for tearing systems down are important because they show the public what’s harming the people they marginalize. But they aren’t the only way to make change.
“There’s still a lot that needs to be going on behind the scenes, too, as well,” he said.
The committee’s mandate — and funding — run out in March. But ALIVE executive director Scott Clark said it’s unlikely their work will be finished by next spring. Or that they’ll stop working towards their goals.
“The same issues youth face here are the issues facing youth in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal,” he said. “People across the country will be watching what happens here.”