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We Day

Bring aboriginal youth in from the margins, novelist Joseph Boyden says Add to ...

We Day, launched in Toronto in 2007, fosters awareness about the plight of youth in developing nations. But what about challenged youth within Canada’s own borders?

The question was foremost in Joseph Boyden’s mind when he was first approached to share his personal story at We Day last year.

The celebrated Métis novelist, a past winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s premier literary award, has long advocated for the rights of First Nations people. In his opinion, any discussion about marginalized youth must include Canada’s indigenous community.

“The fastest growing population in our country is indigenous youth, and they will remain second-class citizens until we bring them into the fold and work together,” says Mr. Boyden, who is participating in We Day events in Calgary and Halifax.

To get the conversation started, Mr. Boyden last year delivered a hard-hitting talk exposing the harm he inflicted on himself as a teen suffering from depression. It was a cry for help that many refused to hear and it symbolizes the marginalization experienced by First Nations youth today. There’s a historic reason for this.

As now fully documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, a government inquiry into the abuses inflicted on thousands of aboriginal children forced into residential schools over a 140-year period, their disadvantages are inherited.

“There is something called intergenerational trauma,” Mr. Boyden observes, “and unfortunately it is alive and well in many of our communities.”

Released to the public as an interim report in 2012 and finalized in 2015, the report traces the line of victimization down through parents and grandparents who experienced first-hand the brutal tactics of a policy designed to subjugate the sovereignty of the First Nations by undermining the indigenous family unit.

Children forced from their homes and sent sometimes thousands of miles away to live among the clergy were forbidden to speak their native tongues or practise their ancient customs. Enforcement of the rules gave rise to a litany of Dickensian punishments. But they don’t belong to some distant past. The last residential school in Canada closed its doors in 1996.

“We have a very dark part of our history that most people, until quite recently, didn’t even know about, a shameful part of our history rising from our contemptuous treatment of indigenous people,” Mr. Boyden says.

“The number of deaths that happened in these schools, and the abuse – physical, mental and sexual – was rampant.”

But as gruesome as some of its findings are, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, is more than a document of guilt. It’s a chance for forgiveness, a way to move forward with dignity from an ignoble past.

“Reconciliation is not an easy word and it’s not going to take an easy number of years,” Mr. Boyden says. “It might even take generations for reconciliation to happen.”

Canada next year celebrates 150 years as a nation. Achievements will be celebrated and mistakes also acknowledged. It’s part of maturity. In anticipation, We Day is looking to see how it can develop a domestic program aimed at indigenous youth, he says. Mr. Boyden heartily supports the initiative.

“It’s going to be grassroots in giving power to the indigenous people of our country,” he says. “It’s not We Day as saviours coming in and saying, ‘Let us help you.’ No. It will be more along the lines of, ‘Here, let us give you the tools you need to not just begin a discussion but get programs instituted in reserves that need them.’”

These programs will be directly involved in education, and that’s crucial, Mr. Boyden says.

“It evens what I call the playing field and gives due process to First Nations, Métis and Inuit. It treats them as equals, and that’s really important.”

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