By: Colleen Simard - 20/09/2009
In The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway, Anishinaabe elder Edward Benton-Banai writes about the Seven Fires prophecy of his people. It's a story that predates Canada's existence.
Each prophecy -- called a fire -- is a prediction for the future.
The fires predicted great migrations, sickness and struggles over thousands of years. But it was the final, seventh fire that predicted a new generation would rise up and try to turn things around.
Many believe the seventh fire is this generation; searching out traditions and striving to make the world better for everyone.
Winnipeg is home to one of the highest aboriginal youth populations in Canada. In coming years, as baby boomers retire, aboriginal people are poised to become integral to our province's economic well-being.
The Winnipeg Free Press sat down with a group of young, determined and outspoken aboriginal people -- part of this Seventh Fire generation. What do they see as the challenges faced by aboriginal people and what are some solutions?
Jackie Black: One of the challenges I see in my own family -- my family not only in the city but also on the reserve because I have a lot of cousins and family under 25 -- is education.
Not so much academic education, but also just knowledge and being able to be creative and express yourself and have the resources to be able to do that. When you don't have that, you lose hope.
After high school -- if you get through high school on the reserve -- then what? Maybe five people in my family out of 100 have come to the city.
But the challenge is, in the community they live, they just don't see that.
There are only so many jobs. There's only so far you can go, and you get stuck in the cycle of poverty and drugs and alcohol and suicide. That's one of the biggest challenges that I see.
Julie Lafreniere: The challenges our aboriginal people face are complacency within our own people to accept the cards we are dealt. That maybe if we're dealt an unfortunate hand, that we just accept it, 'okay this is our life.'
With the Brian Sinclair issue at the Health Sciences Centre, when he was left to die there, I wasn't surprised that sort of thing happens. It's happened in my family. When we heard about Brian Sinclair, before anything was reported, we knew right away, he's either aboriginal or he's disabled. It turned out he was both.
Michael Champagne: I have the perspective of being an urban aboriginal youth, somebody from a remote reserve where there's a high rate of substance abuse, teen suicide, a community that lives in poverty, deals with discrimination. I'm a product of the child welfare system. I think it's important to provide tangible opportunities not only to youth but to all aboriginal people, legitimate opportunities, not only to educate themselves but to self-motivate.
I've only gone to three years of university, but my three years at the U of W were terrible. It was absolutely ridiculous that there's zero accommodation for aboriginal youth who are transitioning from a life of low expectations, a life of stereotypes that have been put upon them. There's no hope of succeeding.
There are no positive relationships being modelled within the aboriginal community.
It can't even be solely related to poor media, but that's a big thing. The media is always on board to paint aboriginal people with one brush and a negative image.
Niigonwedom Sinclair: The one thing that keeps coming up is the notion of sovereignty. That's what I think I've heard running through the strands of all of this. How do you achieve self determination?
How do you take your life by the reins and become a self-sustaining individual who leads to healthy communities and a healthy nation?
I'm very interested in getting away from the deficit model that's plagued native people for centuries.
The deficit model is seeing ourselves as singular representations of the stereotypes we swallow, the economic situations that we are in and also the political situations that we are in.
But what I see in our youth, what I see in everyone actually, from my two-year-old and beyond, I see aboriginal people more vibrant, more beautiful, stronger than they ever have been.
And that doesn't mean we don't have our struggles.
I see the biggest challenge as recognizing our intellectual selfhood, our intellectual sovereignty. That means seeing ourselves as beautiful and as capable as we ever have been.
Julie Lafreniere: In terms of leadership, I think every single one of us has the strength within us to become a leader. I think we lack role models, whether that be someone within the family or within the community.
In terms of the media, I'm not a fan of the media at all.
We're either protesting or being arrested or stealing cars or dead. It's not a legitimate view of our community. It's not what's actually happening.
Personally, I write letters to the editor. I think it's important to have our own voices heard as aboriginal people within the media.
In terms of education, we talked about the [myth] of natives getting free money. Everyone thinks that I'm an aboriginal person. I'm Métis, therefore I don't get any money for my education. I had to get student loans.
We have to educate ourselves in our own communities obviously, but we have to educate the non-aboriginal people in Canada as well.
I think we have to acknowledge the gap, acknowledge that there are stereotypes and there is racism still today. Then we can move toward making it better.
Jacquie Black: As far as leadership goes, I think we all have that within ourselves and in each one of our own little corners of the world.
I worked at Stony Mountain Institution and Headingley for five years, and I believe in people being responsible for what they do and being accountable. But I don't like thinking of people as lost or forgotten or worthless.
When I talk about that I get very passionate because even though these people made mistakes and they're in jail, all you hear is negative. What we tried to do was work with the Aboriginal community to help the Aboriginal inmates not forget their traditions.
As long as we hold on to our traditions and we educate our young people and that continues, hopefully one day 85 per cent of the people in prison won't be Aboriginal.
I've had the opportunity to work with "Eagle Vision, the Legacy of Hope," to interview residential school survivors. One of the things when you talk about solutions is healing right, and you need to talk about ways to heal. It makes me mad when all you hear in the paper is it's all about the money, 'What can we give them to shut them up?'
When you sit down with these people and they tell you these stories, it's a privilege to me because they're releasing something that's going to heal them and their family. We're at a solution now because we're talking about it, and we just need to continue to do that.
Niigonwedom: My daughter is the first member of her family to not have to deal with the legacy of the residential school system. She has to deal with the legacy, but she's going to deal with the legacy in a different way than I do and in a different way from my parents and in a different way than my partner's parents who are residential school survivors. That gives me more hope than anything in the universe.
That legacy is beginning to be healed.
Not to say that some people haven't had a rough time of it and continue to because we definitely see the abuse cycles still continuing, but I think those will end with time and strength.
With media, I see native people writing and engaging in struggles, the struggles that we take up not just in journalism but in literature.
If you ask 100 native people a question, you get 100 different answers. And that's the beauty of what media provides.
I get sick and tired of seeing the more mainstream conceptions of indigenous people. The 19th century 'warriors in the wilderness' have now become the 'warriors at the barricade.' All that's changed is the decoration.
I don't believe Aboriginal leaders ever get into it for bad reasons, but I believe there are systemic forces that lead them down some destructive paths.
Julie Lafreniere: I'm disappointed in the Aboriginal leaders of today. I don't think they step forward and take the opportunity to make statements when certain things are in the forefront of Canadian media.
I think we lack leadership on a political level.
Niigonwedom: I agree they can only represent themselves ultimately as we all do, of course, but they do make decisions.
I think youth see their leaders not listening to them. Don't think the youth aren't speaking up. All you have to do is look at the gang situation. That is youth speaking up. That's youth saying, "we're not going to take this crap anymore. We're not going to take the legacy of residential schools anymore."
Those unelected leaders that we've always had, that have always been part of our communities, we've always had clan leaders, we've always had them on hunting, on berry picking.
That's what community and nationhood is all about. The solutions are by those people as much as by any elected Assembly of First Nations leader, any Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs leader.
Michael Champagne: If you look at the urban centres, specifically the North End -- I grew up there, that's my perspective -- if you look at the North End, we have families that are debilitated. They are completely debilitated, and it's not that the families are unsuccessful in being a family. It's that they have to exist inside a society where they aren't supported, where their voices aren't heard; their inquiries aren't acknowledged or addressed in any way.
We have parents that have no accountability. We have parents that don't take responsibility for their youth and so what happens from there it becomes the whole family's problem.
And then we have grannies burning themselves out because these grannies have to take care of not only their kids who are suffering with addictions, suffering from the long-lasting effects of colonization, we have the kids, grandchildren who not only have the absence of a strong male and female figure in their lives, they lack belonging to a family.
There's only so much that granny can do to save the day.
And I do agree that we do have leadership in place, and we do have things that are going on right now that are great things, that are happening, that are addressing these issues that are helping. But it's not enough, and that's why leadership is so important.
A leader is a warrior, and we've always had that, and it's something that we need to hold onto. A leader is somebody people will follow into battle. This is a struggle, this is a fight, we are fighting for our sovereignty, we are fighting for our cultural identity, we are fighting for our kids, and that is a fight I take very seriously.
Leaders need to be innovative. They need to understand the systems currently in place aren't working.
We, as a people, need to make our leaders accountable to us.
And we need to harvest those grassroots leaders and empower them, enable them to provide those tangible opportunities and build a strong healthy community.
Julie Lafreniere: Making intro to native studies a requirement for all students, not just Aboriginal students, but for all students, should be enforced at the university as much as a writing requirement or a math requirement. Because people graduating as teachers are going on to teach our Aboriginal youth, and they don't know the history of our people.
I went to a graduation at the faculty of education, and we were talking about residential schools. And one of the recent graduates asked 'what's a residential school?'
It blew my mind. It's unbelievable people don't know and they are graduating university without knowing general knowledge of our history.
Jackie Black: I'm focusing more on the communities outside of Winnipeg because I have a lot of young cousins there who I know have so much potential. Everyone has a gift, and if you're not given the opportunity to explore that gift or even realize you have a gift or feel bad that you might have this gift, you feel foolish. When you're young and you're just finding your way, you feel kind of goofy sometimes; you just don't feel you fit in.
My mother did leave her community, and she took the step to come to the city and was one of the first Aboriginal women in Canada to get her degree in education. That made a big difference for me and my family, for me and my brother, too, growing up in Winnipeg and having a strong role model like she was. Some people aren't that fortunate, and that's where other people need to step in and be responsible.
I try to encourage my younger cousins to try this and that, but it's hard to pull them away from... they're in a cycle of having children. They're staying home and that's great, but then they never get the opportunity to leave the community or to see what's outside.
I don't know what the solution is other than everyone trying to take some responsibility in trying to help.
Michael Champagne: We need to ensure that these solutions are actually legitimate solutions because it's happened in the past where there have been "solutions," and they haven't actually helped - residential schools.
We need to revamp the child welfare system, and devolution I think is a great step towards that.
It's an attempt to give the power back to Aboriginal people in communities so we actually have a say in what's happening with our own children. I think that's a great example and other systems need to follow suit, specifically the health care system, the education system, through all levels early, middle, high school, post secondary.
It's very important especially in urban centres and remote reserves to ensure there are more accessible recreational opportunities. They need to be done by the community for the community, by the youth for the youth.
We need to show not only the people around us but also show ourselves that we have the ability and the capacity and the potential to make change in our communities.
Niigonwedom Sinclair: The solution is here, precisely what we are doing right now, the same activity that we've done for tens of thousands of years on this land.
One of the most important things we did in the winter time is teaching. It wasn't just teaching our own children, but it was also the community, and it was from the elders down to the children.
And so for me the solution is not that we need to do something new but the recognition that we are already doing it.
I'm 33, and I think about the changes I've seen in my own life, and I can only imagine the changes other people have seen who are much older than I am. And I see tremendous hope.
Jacquie Black, 42, has a background in the field of justice. She's a graduate of Red River College's Creative Communications program. She's worked as a journalist, screenwriter and event manager. She is Anishinaabe and a lifelong Winnipegger, where she continues her career in the aboriginal community and entertainment industry.
Michael Champagne, 22, is a senior community youth worker at the Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre in Winnipeg. He's currently pursuing an integrated Arts and Education degree at the University of Winnipeg. Michael is Cree, originally from Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba. He's worked and lived in north-end Winnipeg most of his life.
Julie Lafreniere is a 26-year-old Métis from Camperville, Manitoba. She is a mother, an activist, a powwow dancer and a radio host, and has lived in Winnipeg for over 20 years. She is currently completing her master's degree in English while working in broadcasting, freelance writing, consulting and modelling.
Niigonwedom James Sinclair, 33, is an Anishinaabe from St. Peter's (Little Peguis) First Nation near Selkirk. He is a father and a PhD candidate with the University of British Columbia. His creative work has appeared in Prairie Fire and Totem Pole Books' Tales from Moccasin Avenue: An Anthology of Native Stories.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2009