Meet the Indigenous youth in Quebec who are standing up to support their communities

These future leaders are advocating for change to address issues they see affecting Indigenous people in Canada. On National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, they reflect on what the day means to them.

These future leaders are advocating for change to address issues they see affecting Indigenous people

Andrea Brazeau, an Inuk elementary school teacher from Kangiqsualujjuaq in Nunavik, began calling for the government to address the lack of internet in Quebec's north while a student at McGill. (Submitted by Andrea Brazeau)

For Andrea Brazeau, a recent McGill University graduate who is now teaching elementary school in her home community of Kangiqsualujjuaq in Nunavik, Quebec's failure to recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a statutory holiday is disappointing. 

"It's a celebration of those Indigenous people still here, Indigenous Peoples that [they] tried to erase but are still here. Yet this province I'm living in decided not to recognize any of that. And to me, that's one step back from reconciliation."

Brazeau, who is Inuk, made headlines last year after she wrote a letter to Premier François Legault decrying the lack of high-speed internet available up north.

"The pandemic has brought to the surface the need for internet in the north," Brazeau said.

"Because while everyone else in the world was turning to an online life — grocery shopping online, accessing counselling online, online education, online shopping — everything was online and they had access to it, yet we did not have access to it in the north. It was not possible because internet is very bad here," she told CBC Montreal's Let's Go.

"It's much more than just scrolling Instagram or posting a photo on Facebook. It's day-to-day tasks that we take for granted when we do have quality functioning internet. ... It connects to all areas of life now in 2021."

Brazeau says that being an advocate for people in her small Inuit community, many of whom have never travelled south, is a key part of the future she envisions for herself.

"Eventually I see myself going into positions of leadership where I can use my voice and amplify the voices of others," she said.

Andrea Brazeau wrote a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault calling for action on high-speed internet for her community. (Andrea Brazeau/Twitter)

On the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Brazeau says she will be thinking "about those children that never made it home. It's really hard to put into words how horrific it all is."

She hopes that the day will also spur reflection from non-Indigenous people and boost the calls for change.

"I hope non-Indigenous people take the day to reflect. Reflect where you are, whose land you're on and what you can do toward reconciliation. Because we need to bridge that gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people," she said.

"Indigenous Peoples across Canada, we are tired and we need help. We don't need saving, but we need allies to help us bridge that gap."

And while Brazeau's calls to improve connectivity in the north have elicited collaboration and promises from the government to invest, she says she will believe it when she sees it.

"When we look at the past, promises like this have been made, yet here we are in 2021 and we still don't have quality functioning internet," she said. 

This means people in her community struggle to do things like online banking, accessing educational resources or participating in zoom calls with health professionals. 

In March, Legault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised funding to expand high-speed internet access in the north, with the aim of connecting all households by September 2022.

Brazeau says she hopes this won't be just another empty promise.

"Maybe they need to come live up here for a week and then they would realize how bad it really is," she said.

Advocating for justice

For Brandon Montour, a Mohawk law student and president of the Indigenous Law Students' Association at McGill, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation needs to be more than a symbolic gesture from the federal government.

Speaking with CBC Montreal's Let's Go, Montour said that "there is clearly more work that needs to be done than just mandating it as a holiday," and that real reconciliation will need to come in the form of action, not lip service.

Montour helped organize a contingent from McGill to attend the march in Montreal on Sept. 30. He said it presents an opportunity for allyship and collaboration.

"We need our voices to be amplified because right now they are not being taken seriously. So I think that having non-Indigenous allies come together and represent what that day means is important because it brings out messages on a larger scale, as well as highlighting the significance and importance of [what that day means]," he said.

Brandon Montour is the president of Indigenous Law Students' Association at McGill University. (Submitted by Brandon Montour)

In his own community of Kahnawake, just south of Montreal, Montour participated in efforts to implement an alternative justice system, even before becoming a law student.

He says developing a restorative justice program there "would allow a more culturally sensitive approach and just one that is more designed and geared toward us as Indigenous people."

"Right now, in the Canadian justice system, we are overly represented [in prisons]," Montour said. "We are in a system that wasn't designed for our particular needs or our culture."

Implementing a non-adversarial court system that uses things like mediation or talking circles to settle disputes is an ongoing project, said Montour.

He's also part of the Cannabis Control Board in Kahnawake, which enacted its own laws to govern the use of cannabis in the community.

"We did assert our own jurisdiction by enacting our own law, the Cannabis Control Law, and it really provides us with the power to take cannabis into our own hands, and see that our community benefits from it and not the Canadian government."

Montour is hoping that by becoming a lawyer, he will be able to use his degree to empower his community.

"I think that the law profession lacks Indigenous lawyers and people who can advocate for our own people. And that's what led me to law school," he said.

Starting conversations about gender-based violence

Aiden Cyr, a former national youth ambassador for the Moose Hide Campaign, wears a yellow pin every day that invites people to engage in conversations with him about gender-based violence.

Originally from Winnipeg, Cyr is now in his fourth year at Concordia University, where he says he's been fortunate to connect with other Indigenous people.

Through his affiliation with the Moose Hide Campaign, a grassroots movement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous men and boys against domestic violence, Cyr has had the opportunity to have "transformative" conversations with people from across the country.

"You'd be amazed and frankly, sometimes shocked, at the in-depth, emotional stories that they'll give back to you and you have to be ready for that," said Cyr, who is Métis.

Aiden Cyr, who is Métis, is originally from Winnipeg but grew up in Ottawa. He started working with the Moose Hide Campaign when he was 15. (Submitted by Aiden Cyr)

"I wear the pin as a symbol, but also as a call to action for myself and those who know me, that I'm looking in all aspects in my life to do better to make sure that women and girls are safe."

Cyr first started working with the organization when he was 15, and says he's proud to bring that advocacy to Montreal, where he has visited schools and given talks about the issues facing Indigenous women and children in this country.

"Every six days a woman is being hurt or murdered by their partner. It's really a difficult reality to walk in and I wanted to speak that truth to everyone," he told CBC Montreal's Let's Go host Sabrina Marandola.

Now, on top of his school work, Cyr is working part time as a parliamentary Indigenous researcher for Senator Yvonne Boyer — the first Indigenous person from Ontario to be appointed to the Senate.

Cyr's research focuses on Indigenous health advocacy, including the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada.

On the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Cyr said that the day represents an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to become informed.

He says that "there's two parts to truth and reconciliation," and that "the truth has to come first."

Cyr hopes the day will spark conversations and lesson plans in schools across the country, where kids will be taught "real Indigenous history" and learn about the legacy of residential schools.

"The non-Indigenous youth, they are going to learn the most and they will get the most benefit," he added.

With files from CBC's Let's Go, Shahroze Rauf and Aislinn May