Indigenous youth in Sask. speak out about racism, hope for change

For many young Indigenous people in Saskatchewan, the shooting death of Colten Boushie has highlighted racial tensions they are all too familiar with. They are frustrated and worried that the place they call home is an unsafe place to live and raise children, and determined to turn things around before it gets worse.

There is 'so much that we have to fix in order for people to be safe and free,' says Erica Violet Lee

'As Indigenous people of Saskatchewan, we're immediately looked at as criminals, as people who are trespassers,' says student and community organizer Erica Violet Lee. (Fatin Chowdhury)

For many young Indigenous people in Saskatchewan, the shooting death of Colten Boushie has highlighted racial tensions they are all too familiar with. They are frustrated and worried that the place they call home is an unsafe place to live and raise children — and determined to turn things around before it gets worse.

Andre Bear, a student from Little Pine First Nation Saskatchewan, recalls experiencing racism at an early age.

"I remember having white friends when I was growing up, but their parents didn't like me or they would tell me to go home. People weren't allowed to play with me because I was native," said Bear.

The racist comments on social media in the past week have not been surprising to Bear, who is the youth representative for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations Youth Council. 

"People can say things are a lot different [after the shooting], but a lot of it is just the same. It's just that more people are paying attention to the racist attitudes that have always been there."

Erica Violet Lee is a student and community organizer who grew up in the inner-city of Saskatoon. She says that she hasn't paid much attention to the comments being made on social media.

For a lot of the young men that I know, the fear is different ... They're afraid of being seen as a criminal no matter what they do.- Erica Violet Lee, student and community organizer

"I know from having lived in the province for so long. I know exactly what settlers think of Indigenous people. I don't need that in my face all the time. I don't need to be reminded 'cause I know."

Lee was always taught to protect herself. She describes the fears of what it's like being an Indigenous woman living in an urban city.

"I don't want to go missing. I don't want to get killed by some guy. I don't want to experience sexual assault, while i'm just trying to walk down the street," said Lee.

She also sees a lot of the concerns that young Indigenous men have to face.

"For a lot of the young men that I know, the fear is different. They're afraid of being looked at as predators. They're afraid of being seen as a criminal no matter what they do."

"As Indigenous people of Saskatchewan, we're immediately looked at as criminals, as people who are trespassers," said Lee.

Janelle Pewapsconias spent the first half of her life in her home community of Little Pine First Nation, Sask. She moved to Saskatoon to attend university and described being pulled over by police for no reason.
Janelle Pewapsconias, a student and entrepreneur is doing her best to raise her son but worries for his future. (Errol Sutherland)

"Being brown on the wrong side of the city will get you carded," said Pewapsconias.

Pewapsconias, a student and entrepreneur is doing her best to raise her son but worries for his future.

"He's growing up in a province and territory that could potentially kill him, for having a bad tire. It's a safety concern for my brothers, my cousins and all of the men in my life," she said.

Moving forward in a place you call home

Despite the experiences they have had with racism in Saskatchewan, it is a place that they call home, that they love and are connected to.

Mylan Tootoosis is a Ph.D candidate who grew up in Poundmaker Cree Nation. Tootoosis is optimistic that things will turn around in the province, but says the work needs to happen on both sides.
Mylan Tootoosis believes that conversations about reconciliation need to happen in rural Saskatchewan as well. (Submitted)

"We live in a time where truth and reconciliation is such a big discussion. Indigenous peoples, as educators, as social workers, as community leaders, we're really hitting home with truth and reconciliation. That also needs to happen on the settler side of things. Those discussions also need to happen in rural Saskatchewan," said Tootoosis.

He suggests that the treaties that were signed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people could be used as a vehicle to bridge the relationship divide in the province.

"The intention of Treaty 6, was to co-exist peacefully on the landscape. So it's going back to … that sense of kinship. That sense of relationship building in very coherent, fundamental humane ways," said Tootoosis.

Pewapsconias is also optimistic that things will get better. She would like to see an overhaul in the education institutions from pre-Kindergarten to university. She recognizes that teaching people about Indigenous culture is a way that people can gain a better understanding of each other.

"I have hope. I always try to work towards creating a better future for my child … where he's not getting a blown out tire or having terrible things happen to him. I have hope, because I need my people to keep moving ahead."

Saskatchewan is "such a beautiful place." said Lee.

"When I travel around the world and I tell people I'm from Saskatchewan, they say ... 'Oh, it's just flat.'  And I think there's so much beauty here. There's also so much that we have to fix in order for people to be safe and free."

About the Author

Lenard Monkman

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and has been an associate producer with the CBC's Indigenous unit for three years. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1