‘Belonging’ is the key to the future of Indigenous youth

Our goal should be that within 20 years, or one generation, Indigenous youth employment will be at levels equivalent to or better than the national average.

There is no more powerful urge for a young person than wanting – needing – to belong. It goes beyond family and community. It extends to the wider circle of friends and peers that represent who you are, and where you are going as a teenager and young adult.

We care desperately that each of our children feel they are part of their community, as accepted and respected by peers outside the home as they are inside. We know instantly when a child returns home having been rejected in ways large or small. We know in our gut how it feels.

The teens and young adults of some – certainly not all – remote and Indigenous communities share a precarious relationship with the greater Canada than most other children happily take for granted. The opportunities they see and read about online are seldom their opportunities. Yet their youthful desires, and their need – their right – to hope and dream, is the same as their young peers elsewhere, in Canada, everywhere.

Why are these small, isolated communities different than any other? Consider as one example rural Newfoundland communities – many as geographically isolated as some reserves – where the only remaining residents are older and population growth is a biological impossibility. The young from these communities have moved to St. John’s or more distant cities, for school, for friends, for work. To follow their dreams.

They may or may not return. But they know they have the option. They can leave, and they can return. Neither choice puts them into an unfriendly, unwelcome culture. They can and do belong to both, home and away.

A white rural community is obviously much different than a reserve. Distance, culture, colonization, prejudice, residential schools have seen to that. However, my experience with many young men and women of Indigenous heritage today has taught me that they are more than likely the smartest, most aware and most committed people in any room. They may or may not consider themselves Canadians first – and that does not matter. None feel assimilated – quite the opposite. They have pride in their rich past and confidence in their future. They feel they belong and can grow in this place we call Canada, or anywhere they choose.

But for the youth of some remote communities – Indigenous reserves being the obvious examples, but certainly not the only ones – recent experiences are showing that hope is something for others but not for many of them.

There is no simple economic or cultural fix for this. The answer is not more teachers or better housing, or suicide prevention experts from away, or better drinking water – although all are required. The fix is not guilt, shame or apologies. It is not as simple as more money with no responsibility for outcomes. It is not compassionate speeches about what “we” should do for “them.”

It is belonging. Genuine belonging.

How this lucky country extends the sense of being full members of the Canadian nation to all young Canadians – and particularly young Indigenous men and women – is critical to our collective future. And how older people in remote communities, however saddened by their losses, are prepared to make the ultimate parental sacrifice and allow their children – encourage them – to be part of the larger world will define their own future.

If I know I belong, in Attawapiskat and in Vancouver, in Kuglutuk and in Toronto, then I know freedom. I have choices, I have important control of my life. I have hope. Because I live in a great country and I belong here – the big here.

Yet there is only one way to foster hope regardless of where our children begin their journey – with the belief that my life shares a path with my dreams and the certain knowledge I belong to something larger.

Finding ways to bring one million Indigenous youth into the Canadian workforce in a meaningful way is as capitalist a response to a social issue as we can imagine. And why would any rational nation neglect to nurture and embrace these brains and talents?

As Canada gets set to celebrate the 150 years of Confederation, I suggest we set this practical challenge for the leaders of business, all governments and labour together: Within 20 years, or one generation, Indigenous youth employment will be at levels equivalent to or better than the national average. We really should expect nothing less if we believe we share a common destiny as Canadians – if we really do belong together.

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