The national project of reconciliation will surely fail if there are not opportunities for Indigenous youth to help drive it.

Only a year and a half ago the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) captured the attention of Canadians with horrific accounts of what Indigenous people lived through at residential schools. Canada was facing, for the first time, the part of our history that had been swept under the rug.

Canadians are being given the opportunity to reflect on this information and its implications in schools, civil society, and the halls of government. The private sector, too, is digesting and reflecting on its role in reconciliation.

Survivors of residential schools have been brave enough to describe the tortures they endured as children. Although residential schools have since closed, the children and grandchildren of survivors were born into the legacy of what was done to their families. They too feel the burden of a genocide that sought to completely remove Indigeneity from their families, from themselves and from Canada.

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary with celebrations from coast to coast to coast, Indigenous communities, particularly Indigenous youth, are left wondering, what there is to celebrate?

After all, to be young and Indigenous in this country means that you’re statistically more likely to end up in the criminal justice system, to lack access to mental health supports and to be unable to finish your education. In fact, Indigenous youth are overrepresented in almost every negative statistical category that exists.

Indigenous youth are overrepresented in almost every negative statistical category that exists.

But we know this already. We’ve heard these statistics before. None of it comes as a surprise. So why haven’t things changed?

For centuries, Indigenous people have been disregarded by governments. They’ve been seen as unfit and unwilling to be partners in Canada. They’ve been left uninvited to decision-making tables, with the future of their territory left in the hands of strangers.

And though we have a government that has made sincere promises, this work is going to take time and compromise. This pace doesn’t sit right with many youth activists, who are looking for transformational changes to systems and governments.

This generation of young Indigenous people has been embracing traditions, identity and education more than any other since residential schools began. And there has been a growing sense of frustration that is turning into rage at the slow pace of progress. This is a passionate generation that is unwilling to cede the present to mistakes of the past.

This rage, and no clear path forward, leaves Canada’s future marked with uncertainty.  The fastest growing population in Canada is that of Indigenous youth, and the health of our society, not to mention our national economy, will depend on the path Canada decides to walk, now and in the years to come.

The national project of reconciliation, the new era we hope to venture into together, will surely fail if there are not clear, substantive, and meaningful opportunities for Indigenous youth to help drive reconciliation, to be heard and to be understood in their rage.

A recent Environics Institute survey shows that 79 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 29 believe that meaningful reconciliation can occur in their lifetimes. This figure alone speaks to the opportunity that exists for Canada to finally achieve now what no other generation has been able to do: to live up to the relationship that was spoken of at the time of treaty, on the basis of mutual prosperity and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

There’s a thirst for places to talk to one another. At Canadian Roots Exchange, thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth have come together — on reserves and in urban centres — to talk about all that we have in common, to dream about what reconciliation will look like for this generation, to discuss with hope and optimism the opportunity that exists today for progress to be made. Though reconciliation-based exchange programs, national youth gatherings, youth leadership development, and organizing workshops and teach-ins, young people from across Canada are already leading the way in reconciliation.

Indigenous youth are ready to share their stories, experience and their vision of what prosperity will look like for Canada. Non-Indigenous youth are seeking truth and friendship, hoping that they can understand more about Indigenous communities.

This is exactly why this generation of young people must lead the reconciliation agenda. If we are to be truly successful we will need leaders who aren’t burdened by cynicism, prejudice, and fear to be leading this work.

Millennials, though often cast as apathetic, anti-social and self-centred, have already undertaken much of the work to bring communities together, so our shot at national reconciliation is sincere.

If older generations don’t offer youth a seat at the table, then we’re headed toward a showdown: if the rage returns, we are caught in the familiar story of protest, poverty, and pain.

Reconciliation today means ensuring that the relationship is better for tomorrow. Young Canadians need opportunities to hear stories from their Indigenous peers, and vice-versa. That gathering together, sharing stories, that’s what keeps Canada together. That’s when the anger turns to tears, laughter, and healing.

Reconciliation cannot be left to government alone. No, the hard work of reconciliation is going to take all of us. It’s about following young people, as they seek a new path forward.

As we turn to the celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday, what will Indigenous youth be celebrating? Certainly not the first 150 years of Canada.

The question on the minds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth is clear. What will define our country’s next 150 years, rage, or reconciliation?

That’s for Canada to answer.

Photo: Ben Powless

This article is part of the Public Policy toward 2067 special feature.


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