Indigenous youth raise their voices at the United Nations

Written by Oscar Baker

Oscar is an award-winning multimedia reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation and St. Augustine, Fla. Winner of the David Adams Richards award for non-fiction writing for The Violent Ones. Follow him on Twitter @oggycane4lyfe

May 8, 2018

Wolastoq Grand council chief Ron Tremblay is working toward accrediting his youth confederacy council and enable them to speak at the next UN Indigenous permanent forum. This year they presented at a side session, but that didn’t remove any of the conviction.

“They spoke with power… It was like the ancestors took over,” said Tremblay, of Amanda Reid and Hannah Martin.

The U.N. permanent forum only allows accredited organisations to speak. So Tremblay, Chief Hugh Akagi, Laura Hunter, Wolastoq Logan Perley, Mi’kmaw youth Martin, Dakota youth Reid and three non-Indigenous young people travelled to New York. 

Reid, who grew up in Woodstock First Nation, and spoke about the Sisson mine development, located outside Stanley, New Brunswick. Martin is from Millbrook First Nation, and grew up in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. She spoke about growing concerns of the Alton gas development and the health of the Shubenacadie River.

“There’s a lot happening in the East right now, and that there’s a lot of environmental injustice and I think that these injustices don’t just affect Indigenous people, but all people,” said Martin, a third year McMaster University student in a honours Indigenous studies program.

Tremblay was hoping the trip would  introduce these future leaders to the political process. Martin said it was powerful to “speak directly to the structure that oppresses us,” at the UN summit. While state governments had an unlimited amount of time to speak, Indigenous groups had three to five minutes. She feels there are other ways to empower each other.

“Yes we have to keep fighting to have a place in those over-arching government structures but we have to keep true to our Indigenous ways,” said Martin.

Tremblay is working with the Wabanaki Youth Confederacy Council, to formalize two documents a, “Water Declaration,” and “The Rights Of Mother Earth,”  for next year’s forum, with elder permission. The council was formed this past February, with the help of Tremblay, Akagi and Hunter and the guidance of traditional elders. That’s when Martin first met the traditional leadership along with meeting Alma Brooks, the national elder of the National Native Women’s Association and Doreen Bernard, a grandmother.

“ I feel really blessed to be a part of (the youth council) and to have his (Tremblay’s) mentorship in my life, that’s something I never imagined I’d have,” said Martin.

She grew up outside of her Mi’kmaw community and appreciates the guidance Tremblay and other traditional leaders can give her. Martin said education about Indigenous history is still a problem. She didn’t learn about residential schools until high school and her own family’s history with the schools until she was in university.

“There’s an issue when kids like me aren’t learning our own history,” said Martin.

The youth council is modelled after the original signers of the treaties, with Mi’kmaw, Wolastoq and non-Indigenous youth represented. The group is fostering friendship, but also serves as a learning tool. It all depends on elder permission and guidance.

“The grandmothers lifted me up but they can put me down as well,” said Tremblay.

Grandmothers are the source of power in Wolastoq longhouse governance. Positions like Tremblay’s are selected and directed by the grandmothers. Other nations call them clan mothers and it is under their direction the Wabanaki Confederacy was traditionally led. Tremblay said two and half years ago the grandmothers decided he’d be the new voice. Tremblay sees the band-elected officials as an arm of a colonial structure.

“We’re very independent of that and follow our traditional ways,” said Tremblay.

He believes because Canada financially supports First Nations they don’t have equal bargaining power. And feels it was important to talk to the U.N. because he feels Canada is in violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights to Indigenous People.

When asked about the federal government’s level of recognition, the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs directed Wicked Ideas to the band council election page.

Tremblay plans to spend the summer informing the youth group about self governance and leadership. Martin is working with an Indigenous consultant firm and hopes to move closer to home once she’s done with her studies to find different ways to help.

“Spiritually you only have one shot to protect something so sacred,” said Martin. “If I’m not there to protect and it gets ruined I might look back on it in 10 to 15 years and wish I had been there.”

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