Anishinaabe make up one of the largest populations of Indigenous peoples in Ontario. They include seven distinct groups: Odawa, Ojibway, Pottawatomi, Saulteaux, Chippewa, Algonquin and Mississauga, with common beliefs, customs and a strong attachment to the land.
“We’ve been taught to be ashamed, we’ve been taught we are lesser-than, but we are not,” says Sam Mukwa Kloetstra, from Mattagami First Nation in northern Ontario.
“It’s up to us to be proud of who we are and pass that empowerment on to future generations.”
Those may sound like the wise words of an Elder. But they come from the heart of an Anishinaabe teenager devoted to helping young people adjust to urban life while deepening their connection with their Indigenous identity.
Kloetstra, 19, works with the Toronto Indigenous Health Advisory Council to assist First Nations youth facing one of the most difficult transitions of their lives: the move from small communities to the big city.
He feels it’s his responsibility. Kloetstra himself made that transition as a 17-year-old, escaping what he calls an “unhealthy environment” at home to live in Toronto. He says the change was “shocking.”
“You go from a community that is so tight-knit, where everyone is family, your doors aren’t locked, you know all the dogs by their first name. Then you move to a city where people just seem so closed off — there’s lots of people, but not lots of interaction.”
Far away from everything they know, Indigenous youth risk losing their connection to their home and their culture. Many face discrimination. Some turn to alcohol or drugs to numb the pain and loneliness.
But Kloetstra was surprised to find something else in the big city: familiar faces from northern Ontario, including lots and lots of cousins, and a thriving Indigenous community at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.
“It’s amazing how we can find the way we’re related through our grandmothers or [how] we’re cousins of cousins. How is it that we run into each other in a city of millions? There’s a lot more interconnectedness than I thought.”
“I've always had plans to return home so I could help my people heal, so I could heal.”
Kloetstra strongly believes that as a young person he has a critical role to play in maintaining and strengthening that sense of community.
“I’m not just Sam from Mattagami anymore. I’m Sam that is part of this centre, who is doing something for an entire community and a nation.”
He believes it’s the duty of youth “to view our culture from a new perspective. Eventually the systems and the culture are going to be handed off to us and for the most part it will be our responsibility to maintain them and to make sure our future generations will enjoy them.”
While the big-city experience has been positive, Kloetstra says Mattagami is never far from his mind.
“I’ve always had plans to return,” he says. “The main reason I moved [to Toronto] was for opportunity and education, and that education was to bring home, so I could help my people heal— and so I could heal.”