Shania Okeese was about 10 seconds into her introduction when the fear took hold. After a few moments of silence an audience member shouted, “You got this!” and the room exploded in encouraging applause.
Ms. Okeese was not the last to freeze up among the 18 teenagers assembled to pitch their policy ideas to some of the most powerful people on Bay Street and the Ontario government – a daunting task, even if you're not 14 years old.
The kids were put in groups by the Junior Economic Club of Canada for its North Meets South Exchange. Four groups, each made up of a mix of kids from First Nations communities and big cities such as Toronto and Ottawa, toured Manitoulin Island and Toronto before buckling down to work on proposals in the spirit of truth and reconciliation. They presented their recommendations on counseling, public school curricula, food security and suicide prevention to provincial government officials and leaders at companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and TD Bank.
Economic Club of Canada president Rhiannon Traill said she was inspired to create the event because, while she loves Canada, it has a lot of work to do with regard to reconciliation.
“The most important issue in this country is truth and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. Our country has a wound. We have to acknowledge that,” she said.
The room before the presentations began hummed with the nervous energy of kids about to take the stage. Kids talked with their teammates, laughing a bit louder than normal and fidgeting with their phones but not really looking at them.
Before long, the first group was up. They pitched a federally funded mentorship program for Indigenous youth focused on drug and alcohol abuse issues.
“Our vision for the program is to motivate people who have been through substance abuse through traditional and modern practices,” group member Rachel Lim said.
Another group recommended the government support traditional farming practices in some northern Canadian communities, where more than half of local residents struggle with food insecurity.
One team member said the program should come with full fiscal transparency, “just to make sure the money is going where it’s supposed to go.”
The last group focused on suicide prevention for Indigenous youth, recommending an updated school curriculum with information on how to cope with mental health issues and an increase in the number of Indigenous counselors.
The group also pitched a certification program focused on needs of Indigenous youth in rural communities.
“What they require as a mental health service is not what the general public might need,” one group member said, as a result of generational trauma and the legacy of residential schools.
“These recommendations are very realistic,” said Darius Cox, adding that Ontario Premier Doug Ford “should really take this opportunity to build a strong relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
After Ms. Okeese froze up, her teammate Jonathan Arefaine stepped in to continue the group’s pitch after whispering a couple words and gently accepting the microphone. “As Shania was saying,” he continued, the group learned way more about Indigenous culture in their time with their team members than they did in school; updated textbooks with perspectives from Indigenous people themselves would help solve that problem.
The event ended with awards for four presenters for their leadership throughout the program. They were each promised a $500 donation in their name to a charity of their choice, from PwC, and a $500 bursary for postsecondary education from the Economic Club.