Indigenous youth leaders bring their voice to the Senate

Indigenous youth leaders took their message to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples yesterday, as part of its Indigenize the Senate initiative.

'Our voices are only going to get louder, and louder and louder'

Nine Indigenous youth leaders from across Canada addressed the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples as part of its Indigenize the Senate initiative, calling on the government to do its share to improve the lives of Indigenous people. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC News)

Last October, Modeste McKenzie became a father. It was a moment the 22-year-old Dene Métis from the Deninu K'ue First Nation said forever changed his life.

"It opened my world," he told CBC News. "It makes me want to leave a better world for her."

His daughter was born in the northern Saskatchewan town of La Ronge, a community that just three weeks earlier lost four young girls between the ages of 10 and 14 to suicide.

As he welcomed a new life into this world, McKenzie told CBC News he couldn't help but think of those four girls who took their own lives.

"In 10 years, that could be her," McKenzie said, speaking about his daughter, not yet a year old. "It makes you want to do everything you can and anything you can — not only for your children, but for the community. Children are sacred. They're the future."

Modeste McKenzie, a youth support worker with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, says he wants Canadians to know just how resilient and powerful young people are in his community. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC News)

McKenzie is one of nine Indigenous youth leaders from across the country who made their voices heard to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples yesterday, as part of its Youth Indigenize the Senate initiative.

Selected from more than 100 nominees put forward by their communities, they came to Ottawa to contribute to the committee's study into the development of a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

The initiative was partly spurred on by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and its 94 calls to action. Senator Murray Sinclair served as the commission's chair and now sits on the committee that invited the young Indigenous leaders to Ottawa.

"We need to hear from those who are going to be responsible for the future," Sinclair said. "And we know that they see the future evolving."

Every day, the work that Indigenous youth leaders do in their community brings home to them the pressures and difficulties that their peers face, Sinclair told CBC News.

"The circumstances that they are now in are imposed circumstances. They have been imposed by government action, government policy for the last 150 years," he said.

Not only is the Indigenous population in Canada growing much faster than the rest of the Canadian population, it's also very young. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, children and youth under the age of 24 make up just under half of the total Indigenous population in Canada.

Lillian Dyck, chair of the Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee, and Jacquelyn Cardinal, one of 10 Indigenous youth addressing the committee, discuss the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. 7:17

Confronted with high poverty rates, persistently poor educational outcomes, a lack of adequate infrastructure in their communities, and high incarceration rates, Sinclair said it's no surprise that Indigenous youth may feel a great sense of apprehension about their future.

But as leaders in their communities, he added, the youth who appeared before the committee are making clear that "it's time to turn the corner on that despair."

'Children are sacred. They're the future'

McKenzie, now a youth support worker with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, is working to do just that.

Why would my daughter get 40 per cent less than those kids who are only a few kilometres away?- Modeste McKenzie, Indigenous youth support worker

In his appearance before the committee, he highlighted the importance of education in improving the lives of Indigenous youth.

McKenzie pointed to his own community of Air Ronge, Sask. Though separated only by a few kilometres, McKenzie said the kids on the nearby reserve receive 40 per cent less in education funding compared to children in the village.

"Why do they get 40 per cent less? Why would my daughter get 40 per cent less than those kids who are only a few kilometres away?" McKenzie asked the committee. "Because they're First Nations, because they're Indigenous."

Indigenous voices will only grow louder

McKenzie told CBC News he's heartened both by the children he works with in La Ronge, as well as by ongoing efforts to advance reconciliation.

"Never in my life have I met such amazing, resilient, smart, kind, courageous youth," he said. "Every day, there are more allies for Indigenous peoples. And every day, more and more speak out. Their voices, our voices are only going to get louder, and louder and louder."

That's a sentiment shared by Andrea Andersen, a 25-year-old Inuk from Makkovik, Nunatsiavut, who now lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

One of nine Indigenous youth leaders who took part in the Indigenize the Senate initiative, Andrea Andersen says Indigenous youth increasingly recognize their voice needs to be heard. (Supplied by Andrea Andersen)

Andersen also spoke before the committee yesterday, and told CBC News that Indigenous youth are leading the charge to improve their lives.

"Youth are excited," she said. "We're aware of what's going on in the world, and we feel that we have a voice that needs to be heard."

"This is the first time that the government is creating this new relationship and you are asking for youth input," Andersen told the senators. "It is definitely in the direction of where we need to go."

The Senate will continue its study on a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples through to October 2018.