'Nobody ever talks for us': Young delegates find their voice at Sahtu assembly

Young delegates at the Sahtu assembly are making their voices heard: asking tough questions about governance in their communities. Now, they're asking others to join them.

Teen delegate Cody Orlias calls for more youth participation: 'my voice alone isn't strong enough'

Cody Orlias, right, listens to MP Michael McLeod respond to his questions at the Sahtu assembly gathering Wednesday in Tulita, N.W.T. At 16, Orlias is one of the youngest delegates at this week's assembly. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Cody Orlias had questions for the Sahtu assembly and he wasn't afraid to ask them.

He wanted to know what was being done about education in his community of Colville Lake, N.W.T., and why the federal government is legalizing marijuana when there are addictions problems in his small community.

When the microphone was passed his way during a question and answer session with MLA Danny McNeely and N.W.T. MP Michael McLeod, Orlias was ready. He explained the issue and asked simply: what are you going to do about it?

Orlias, 16, is one of the youngest delegates at the Sahtu assembly this week in Tulita, N.W.T. He's one of a few young people determined to make a difference in how their communities are run.

"I'm talking for all the youth back home. They never get to go to meetings like this. Nobody ever talks for us," Orlias said.

"They're always talking about youth, youth, youth, but I've never seen any youth go to meetings. I thought I should be the first one."

The assembly is being held in Tulita, N.W.T., this year. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

His own experience led to a question about the lack of education opportunities for high school students in Colville Lake. Orlias had to do some of his schooling away from home, in Norman Wells, because the Grade 12 classes he needed weren't offered.

"It's hard to do your schooling out of town," he said.

Both McNeely and McLeod took Orlias and his questions seriously at the assembly, with McNeely admitting the need for reform in the Northwest Territories school system and talking about plans for a new school in Colville Lake.

I'm noticing a generation of people who have the voice to speak.- Sidney Tutcho

Liberal MP McLeod acknowledged the problems with drugs and alcohol that exist in many Northern communities and pointed to recent statistics suggesting Northerners have the highest rate of marijuana use in Canada. But he defended the federal government's decision to legalize the drug.

"We know there's marijuana and we know there's cocaine in our communities, and that's with a zero tolerance policy," he said.

Orlias said he's satisfied with how the two responded, but his story struck a chord with others gathered in the meeting hall. For the rest of the day, other delegates referenced Orlias when they spoke about wanting to improve life for young people in Sahtu communities.

'I'm already thinking about the next generation'

Sidney Tutcho is another young person making himself heard on the assembly floor.

The 27-year-old was just sworn in as a councillor for the Deline Got'ine community government and is attending the Sahtu assembly as a member of that community's delegation. Before taking that role, he served on Deline's renewable resources council.

"I'm already thinking about the next generation, the younger generation. That's the whole point of what we're talking about," he said.

Sidney Tutcho, 27, is on the council for the Deline Got'ine community government in Deline, N.W.T. His dad is a former chief in the community and he hopes to follow in his footsteps. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

"It's hard, if there's no youth [in government]. They won't understand what's happening," Tutcho said. "I didn't even know the land claim is 25 years old [before coming here]. I didn't know that."

Tutcho is the son of a former Deline chief and hopes to follow that path. He too sees a lack of youth representation on councils and boards in the region.

"All of the people on councils, they're all 50 and up. They always talk about the 'next generation' but before my generation, I'd never seen any youth there on the council," he said.

"I believe I broke that gap, and now I'm noticing a generation of people who have the voice to speak." 

For Orlias, the key is to keep this momentum going. He wants to see more young people attending and participating in assemblies.

"My voice alone isn't strong enough," he said. "I need more youth, from every community, I need to connect with them."