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Andrea MacIvor says programs like WE First Voices is bringing Canada’s student communities together while making them stronger.

Handout

Andrea MacIvor sees the devastating impact of negative messaging toward and about Indigenous youth on almost a daily basis.

“I teach math, and one of the things we look at is statistics and their role in everyday life,” says MacIvor, an educator at D.R. Hamilton School in the small community of Cross Lake, Man. “But the stats about Indigenous people that these kids are inundated with show we’re low income, with high levels of incarceration, high rates of unemployment, low levels of education. All those numbers eat away at their confidence.”

MacIvor points to the Indian Act and its intentions to dismantle the Indigenous people and culture through residential schools and other racist acts as one of the starting points for the negative messaging that needs to be reconciled in this country.

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She also cites the social and economic hurdles Indigenous youth face, from lacking access to appropriate housing to crossing long distances to access medical services, a library or the Internet. “In the midst of all of this, Indigenous teens are supposed to form a positive identity of self and culture, build agency in their own lives and look to fulfill their needs from their education,” she adds.

Since she began working with WE Schools and the newly launched WE First Voices – a program that collaborates directly with educators and youth to build leadership skills and confidence – MacIvor says it has changed her perspective on how to help Indigenous students embrace their culture and their self-confidence. She believes WE First Voices is an integral part of the reconciliation process that’s taking place in Canada.

“When we have a program like this coming into our community and building a relationship with people, it’s incredibly valuable because it recognizes that these kids’ hearts and brains are just as valuable as youth anywhere in Canada,” MacIvor explains.

For her, it’s the program’s approach that sets it apart from others. “The whole thing is collaborative, which is its strength,” says MacIvor. “It’s the difference between: ‘This is what you need’ versus ‘What do you need?’” On the top of her wish list is seeing more students graduate from high school. “WE First Voices programming, which includes service-based learning, helps students stay engaged and empowers them to develop teamwork and leadership skills,” she explains. “There’s proof that students who are actively connected in a positive way to their school and community are much more likely to graduate.”

The objective of WE First Voices is to help youth thrive, and the program consults with local community leaders and elders to create a sustainable plan with a focus on their capacity and strengths. “This type of work is important in providing tools for young people to actively support each other in creating a better world, while empowering Indigenous youth to use their voices to create meaningful change,” explains Kerri Stewart, head of WE Schools.

These tools include identifying an individual’s leadership style and how to play to those strengths, incorporating Indigenous culture into the curriculum, developing a sense of belonging, identifying issues that impact Indigenous communities and developing an action plan to address those issues.

Students have taken on several projects in Cross Lake, including a decade-long recycling initiative that started with the school’s early participation with WE Day, where they were recognized and applauded for their accomplishments last year. “Now we’re working toward building a multipurpose space that will allow us to expand our recycling program and build a community garden to increase food security,” adds MacIvor.

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While the majority of the students and educators at D.R. Hamilton School are Indigenous, MacIvor stresses how important it is for all youth to hear positive messaging about Indigenous youth, to help break the cycle of negative stereotypes. “The reconciliation that’s happening with Indigenous communities and the rest of Canada is healing Indigenous communities,” explains MacIvor. “Anytime you’re connecting people, you are making the world a better place.”

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