10/16/2013 04:29 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Global Citizenship: A Matter of Balance

Over the years that I've worked in international development, I've been asked many times how we, as Canadians, can devote resources to fighting poverty abroad when there is still poverty here. It's not an unreasonable question, but the first few times it was asked of me I was genuinely confused. I think, in part, that was because I've never thought of this as an either/or proposition. In my experience, the people who are most involved with international development are also very much involved in their communities, working for social justice wherever they are needed. I suppose it also has to do with the fact that, in my mind, the notion of global citizenship is inclusive. We are working against global poverty.

I was reminded of this one afternoon as I stood with hundreds of people in the bright spring sun on the snow-covered lawn of Parliament Hill in Ottawa. We were there to celebrate the accomplishment of a group of aboriginal young people who had completed the "Journey of Nishiyuu," a walk from the shores of James Bay to the steps of Parliament Hill.

Seven young Cree had completed the entire 1600 km walk, mostly in the dead of winter, partly on snowshoes through the bush of northern Quebec where there aren't any roads, and sleeping outdoors along the way. But for all of the nearly 400 young people from many different First Nations who had walked into Ottawa it was an accomplishment -- a triumphant celebration of unity among First Nations. For some, it was a very personal journey of healing -- a denunciation of the epidemic of suicide, substance abuse and despair that has taken such a heavy toll on aboriginal youth across Canada. And for all, it was a powerful statement that young aboriginal people are joining the fight for a better life for themselves and all Aboriginal Peoples.

I was there because I was hungry for some good news about Canada's First Nations. Even as we celebrate our successes in helping communities around the world develop solutions for their own poverty, there is a lingering sense of shame that so many of Canada's First Nations continue to live in poverty, that they are so disproportionately represented in Canadian prison populations and among our urban homeless.

I'm no expert on this subject but I've witnessed the struggles of First Nations people throughout my life -- seeing the poverty on the Stoney Reserve west of Calgary when I was a child, and later growing up in Fort Macleod -- a small town between two large reserves. I've witnessed the simmering anger of the residential school survivors I met as an undergrad while reporting on the efforts of the First Nations in northeastern Alberta to protect their interests against oil development.

So what has this got to do with international development? Everything or nothing, depending on your perspective. For me it is all about balance. Balance is at the heart of the co-operative movement -- balance between social and economic benefits, between our personal interests and the collective interests of the community, and between helping people overseas and helping people here at home.

I'm inspired by the efforts of the co-operative movement to expand the benefits of co-operation within Canada. For 10 years the Co-operative Development Initiative supported the efforts of people across this country to generate the economic and social benefits of co-operation within their communities. Sadly, the government money for that initiative is gone, but co-operatives and credit unions are pulling together to create an alternative -- an investment fund to provide capital for co-operative start-ups. I have no doubt that some of those initiatives will be among low-income or marginalized people.

The Canadian Co-operative Association plans to survey volunteers who've done international assignments, to see how they were affected by their experience. I think I can predict two of their responses: I believe most volunteers will express a renewed faith in the co-operative model after seeing how simple co-operatives can change lives in the developing world. And I predict most will also have a new interest in, and awareness of, issues of poverty and inequality within their own community. From my perspective, that is global citizenship.

As I stood on the snow-covered lawn at Parliament Hill, I couldn't help but think that the qualities exhibited by the young people who were being celebrated that day are the same as those we look for among our development partners. They had undertaken an ambitious and difficult task with benefits extending to the broader community. With some help they'd created a plan to manage the logistics to complete their mission, and most of all they'd used their own reserves of strength and resilience to overcome enormous challenges. That is a solid foundation for development, wherever it occurs.

In my mind the Journey of Nishiyuu was a co-operative venture -- a group of people sharing a burden to achieve a common goal. And while the initial objective was political -- to attract more resources to provide education and employment for aboriginal youth -- I was thinking how great it would be if the energy and co-operative spirit demonstrated by the walkers could be translated into the sort of development initiatives that we support around the world: worker co-operatives to build the housing that is so badly needed on northern reserves, grocery co-operatives to provide nutritious food at the best prices possible, and childcare, health, and education.

So what has this got to do with international development? Nothing, if we choose to live our lives in carefully insulated silos, and everything, if we choose to embrace the spirit of global citizenship.

By John Julian, Director of International Communications and Policy, Canadian Co-operative Association. John Julian has written about, photographed, and videotaped co-operative development around the world for nearly 30 years.