It could have been another all-too-familiar story about an indigenous child from a broken home. When he was 6, Bobby Crane sharpened a pencil at school and stabbed a bully in the shoulder. At 12, he was placed in a class for students with behavioural problems. From there, it might have been a short distance to dropping out, joining a gang and going to jail – in many parts of Canada, more indigenous youths go to prison than graduate from high school.
Instead, Mr. Crane is a successful entrepreneur in Regina, happily married with three children. The Stop Now And Plan (SNAP) program that he credits with giving him the means to change his life was created by Toronto’s Child Development Institute – one of a growing number of community organizations adapting or creating programs to make them relevant to the needs and potential of Indigenous youth. Mr. Crane was SNAP’s first youth leader-in-training.
By making clear what has happened here over the course of the past century, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is giving us a historic opportunity to put the past behind us and address longstanding injustices. A year ago, Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike served notice that government efforts to resolve deep-seated dependency and dysfunction are falling short. The Idle No More movement she helped inspire signals something else: a generation of indigenous and non-indigenous young people envision a better future for themselves and future generations. As Canada moves from a narrative of past failure to one of future possibilities, it is critical that we give more attention and support to these young leaders and the partnerships that sustain them.
Consider Erin Freeland Ballantyne and Kyla Kakfwi Scott – one “settler” and one Dene – cofounders of Dechinta Bush University near Yellowknife, which is reshaping postsecondary education by integrating academic courses with traditional knowledge. Or take the case of Youth Fusion, founded by Gabriel Bran Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant, which is reversing high school dropout rates in Quebec Cree and Inuit communities with university students who move there to work alongside local youths and educators to help make school relevant and interesting. They are changing lives and institutions on their own terms, with shared values and considerable success.
We found these and many other examples while researching Leading Together: Indigenous Youth in Community Partnership, a book produced by Journalists for Human Rights and the Tyee Solutions Society for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.
Beyond the dismal statistics, and largely out of public view, these young leaders are succeeding where others have failed because their relationships are grounded in respect and willingness to learn. This generation is technically savvy, and tuned to the possibilities of cultural shifts in the direction of greater inclusion and justice.
As the Dechinta Bush University example illustrates, these youth leaders recognize that for reconciliation to take place, mainstream society has to make room for the assertion of indigenous choice and the expression of indigenous culture and knowledge. Our research in communities across Canada found examples of partnerships to make child welfare services culturally relevant, to train young indigenous journalists, to create peer support networks for young indigenous professionals.
In all cases, these leaders are rejecting quick solutions in favour of enduring relationships designed to strengthen communities, to work through differences and to bridge culture divisions. And they are succeeding. They are creating trust and a belief in the future where before there was ignorance, fear and despair, and building the foundations for a more innovative and inclusive Canada.
After centuries of neglect and worse, we stand at a crossroads. We could keep sending thousands of people like Bobby Crane to prison at enormous cost. Or we can throw our support behind leaders and initiatives whose work, we now know, saves both lives and money.
This is what reconciliation in Canada should be about – the creation of a partnership society that builds on the best of all cultures. The philanthropic and community sectors, which do not have a long history of engagement with indigenous people in Canada, have an important role to play. Through true partnership, we can change the statistics. This is about all of us, and the kind of country we want to build together.
Erin Montour is a junior program officer for indigenous issues and Stephen Huddart is president and CEO of The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.
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