When delegates arrived in Charlottetown recently for the New Canada Conference, they faced what seemed like an impossible task – envision how Canada can change over the next 50 years to address the challenges facing the country now.
It’s a question politicians and policy makers spend years studying, and the diverse group of young Canadians had just three days to hammer out a working consensus of mutual hopes and dreams.
The discussions focused on topics ranging from media and technology to civic engagement, justice, education and the environment and economy. Now, prevailing public opinion about the Millennial generation might suggest their biggest concerns are the stories most commonly seen in the news: crippling levels of student debt, underemployment and unemployment, and a general sense that they’ve been screwed over by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Over the course of those three days, not once did those problems – which are, admittedly, very much real and very much dire – drive the discussions.
Instead, the overwhelming concern shaping the proposals for change was the country’s relationship – or, if we’re being honest here, the lack thereof – between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.
Each group at the conference could identify and propose solutions for any issue they felt strongly about within their sphere of focus. Delegates weren’t forced in any way, shape or form to consider particular ideas – the organizers simply said, ‘Here is your focus area. Discuss.’
And they did.
They spoke of the need for basic and reliable health care services in northern and remote communities, from family doctors to mental health and pregnancy resources, so that people don’t have to travel far from their homes and support systems to receive the care the rest of Canadians take for granted.
They spoke about the need for more inclusive and adaptable justice systems to reflect the disproportionate number of aboriginal people sitting in Canadian prisons and address the unique approaches within aboriginal communities towards resolving disputes and healing wounds.
They also spoke of the drastic need for basic infrastructure in First Nations communities, including driveable roads and internet access — something the delegates considered a fundamental right as Canada continues to move forward in the digital age.
Internet access as a fundamental right doesn’t mean giving everyone a new iPhone or tablet. It’s about making sure anyone with the most basic digital device can connect to the internet anywhere in Canada at any time and conduct business or online schooling.
And while there was agreement about the benefits of online schooling, it wasn’t seen as a blanket solution to the failing standards of educational infrastructure in so many remote communities.
Above all, delegates stressed that every Canadian, aboriginal or non-aboriginal, rural or urban, has the right to quality, free education in a structurally sound and sanitary school. That is non-negotiable.
Damning and telling
The fact that every group singled out a different aspect of Canada’s failing relationships with aboriginal people is both damning and telling at the same time.
It’s damning because it shows in no uncertain terms that the young Canadians at the conference do not accept the conventional narratives of blame so often tossed around by governments, companies and non-aboriginal Canadians.
It is telling in its universality, in its undeniable place at the forefront of their hearts and minds. The overwhelming message was this: We care.
We care that suicide is the leading cause of death among young First Nations and that suicide rates among Inuit youth are 11 times the national average.
We care that 138 First Nations communities across the country don’t have clean drinking water.
We care that our aboriginal female peers are more likely to die violently than a non-aboriginal woman.
And we demand better for our aboriginal peers.
Delegates agreed we can't just hit mute or shake our heads when a news report comes on about a First Nations blockade or a food shortage in a remote northern community. Non-aboriginal Canadians need to look at the Cree or Metis or Inuit or Inuk person on TV and consciously make an effort to imagine what their life is like each day.
The young people at the conference came from all lifestyles, all regions of the country and every possible ethnic background. They are straight, gay, bisexual and queer; left-wing, right-wing, libertarian and centrist. They are immigrants, fifth-generation Canadians, recently-returned ex-pats.
They are everything that makes this country great, and at the New Canada Conference they came together and spoke as one voice to say that the status quo – this toxic, twisted tale of systemic ignorance and indifference – is not okay. It’s not the Canada they want for themselves or their children.
And they vowed to be the ones who will change it.
‘Canada is broken’
Again and again delegates said, “Canada is broken.” This inward-focused, defensive, abrasive country before us is not our Canada.
In no uncertain terms, they said that their Canada values aboriginal men and women and not only makes space for them on the national stage, but takes pride in their role there and embraces them as equals. They don’t look at the “aboriginal problem” or “aboriginal question” – they look at fellow Canadians with whom they want to work side-by-side to shape Canada’s next 50 years.
On the last day of meetings, the conference heard from a young aboriginal woman who had spoken the day before about why she had never called herself a Canadian. For her, it conjured only feelings of betrayal and the painful legacy of broken promises. She stood up and said, “What I’ve seen here shows me that we do matter to you. You do care about us, and for the first time in my life I’m proud to call myself a Canadian.”
Another delegate wisely said that the only way to build better relationships is to try and understand each other the way we each want to be understood.
That’s what the group of Millennials learned to do at the New Canada Conference. And that is what they’ll continue to do as they become the CEOs, teachers, parents, MPs and prime ministers of tomorrow.
Young people are the new Canada, and in Charlotteown a group of them made a promise that the country they shape will be very different from the one we see today.