Message from Irwin Elman
The Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Feathers of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan
In March 2013, I had the pleasure of attending the Feathers of Hope Youth Forum hosted by my office and organized by my Community Development team and hard-working, dedicated and passionate First Nations young people. The event was also developed in partnership with Health Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the Ministry of Community and Social Services, the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care, the Thunder Bay Suicide Task Force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario.
Over the course of five days, we brought together more than 100 youth from 62 Northern First Nations communities to share their lived experiences and talk about issues affecting their lives. On the final day, the young people presented their action plan for change to government and community leaders and decision-makers. They assembled an impressive group of influential people including: Provincial Ministers and Deputy Ministers from Children and Youth Services, Education, Aboriginal Affairs and senior representatives from eight other Provincial Ministries. There was federal representation from Aboriginal Affairs, the Ministry of Health and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Also in attendance were one of the co-chairs of the Assembly of First Nations Youth Council, a Deputy Grand Chief from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, along with others who travelled from near and far to listen to what the young people had to say.
One floor above the meeting room, more than 100 First Nations youth watched the home group presentations on closed circuit televisions while they waited for their turn to present. In a show of solidarity and support, young people would begin stomping their feet on the floor every time they saw a group struggle and every time a group said something that rang true for them. There was an overwhelming emotional energy in the room and a sense of hope. These young people had bonded and together they had become ‘Feathers of Hope.’ They were read to use the power of their voices and the sound of their feet to demonstrate to everyone in the room that they were committed to change.
In my first few days as the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, two children in my mandate died. One was a school age child in downtown Toronto, which made headlines across the province. The other was a First Nations teen who had left his group home despondent and, according to his friends, leapt in front of a train. We received a call from a Kenora reporter about the young man’s death and were asked this question, “I know he is a First Nations child and he lives up here in Kenora, but do you care about him, too?” I got on a plane and flew to Kenora.
I spent time meeting with First Nations leaders and advocates to learn about the challenges faced by First Nations children and youth. I am indebted to people like Betty Kennedy, northern First Nations leadership, and Sylvia Maracle during these early days for sharing their knowledge and experience. I visited dozens of communities and met with leadership, children, youth, and elders. My office supported initiatives like Shannen’s Dream and supported a delegation of First Nations youth to travel to Geneva to speak to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The First Nations children and youth I met were remarkable as was the resolve of their communities for things to be different. I heard people speak about their feelings of hopelessness and could even see it in their faces and how they carried themselves. But under the surface, I could also see hope.
First Nations children and youth carry a wisdom that comes with lived experience. As with other children in the mandate of my office, First Nations children and youth want an opportunity to make things better, not just for themselves, but for the generations of children and youth who will come after them.
The Feathers of Hope forum is a demonstration that change can happen and that in making change history and the legacies of oppression and injustice faced by First Nations peoples must be addressed.
Feathers of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan reflects the voices of young people involved in the forum. It is based on the presentations the young people made on the final day of the forum as the walls shook under their stomping feet. The young writers do not assume they speak for all First Nations youth. They authored it humbly, working as much as possible to ensure those who attended the forum would be able to recognize their own voices. They hope that the action plan resonates with other First Nations youth.
It takes courage to name one’s own world and we owe the young people involved a debt of gratitude for sharing their experiences so that the process of change can begin. With open hearts, they have allowed themselves to connect with their history, each other and with a vision for the future. Now, they present their action plan to Ontario and Canada with both hope and trepidation.
The action plan prepared by these young people offers a way forward. It extends a hand and an offer of partnership to the adults around them. They don’t ask decision-makers to take the action plan away and make change. They ask decision-makers to walk beside them and work together to improve the circumstances of their lives. The action plan offers “steps to make hope real” and begins with actions that decision-makers can implement immediately to start making a difference. These steps alone will not solve all the challenges First Nations communities face, but it’s a start.
Letter taken from the Feathers of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan, P. 8-9.