Young people don't just want to watch as First Nations leaders across Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) call for action to address decades-long issues — they want a seat at the decision-making table.
The three-day winter assembly of chiefs in Thunder Bay, Ont., this week brought together representatives from across the region to discuss critical challenges facing their communities, including housing, education, climate change and policing.
The main item on Thursday's agenda was NAN's health transformation project, and youth attending the assembly made sure to express their views.
"We are here to be heard, not just listened to," said Walker Atlookan, 25, of Eabametoong First Nation, who's co-chair of the Oshkaatisak (all young people's) council.
He said it's important for youth to be included in meetings, but there's a difference between having youth representation and having them be part of the conversation.
Chiefs spent Thursday morning expressing frustration about the ongoing crises community members face, from accessing primary care to mental health support.
'It hurts me when I hear about the needless loss of life because I feel that some of these can be prevented,' NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says. (Sarah Law/CBC)
"There's kids that [are] dying out there every day and we're sitting here talking about resolutions again. What is that going to do?" asked Chief Alex (Sonny) Batisse of Matachewan First Nation.
A couple of weeks ago, NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler called an emergency meeting with provincial and federal officials in response to a recent string of suicides and unexplained deaths. While no one from the provincial government attended, Ontario announced $2.6 million for NAN this week to support mental health and addictions services.
"It hurts me when I hear about the needless loss of life because I feel that some of these can be prevented," Fiddler said in response to Batisse.
"[We] can have all these meetings and write letters, but the work needs to happen on the ground at the community level — and I think that's our responsibility … to support you in the work that you have to do yourself."
NAN declared a state of public health emergency in February 2016. Late Thursday, chiefs passed a resolution to declare another health state of emergency and to establish a NAN territorial First Nations health services Ombudsman's Office, designed to identify barriers to care and advocate for solutions at all levels of government.
Chiefs had deferred a presentation on NAN's health transformation project for several hours, instead spending that time listening to members of its council of elders, women's council and Oshkaatisak council.
But Oshkaatisak's Mallory Solomon pointed out that members of all three councils were seated at tables on the perimeter of the room rather than in the chiefs' circle.
"We need to be in the circle if you want to hear us," Solomon said.
Call for better access to counselling
Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias invited 16-year-old Siigwan Mckay of Bearskin Lake First Nation to speak in his place Thursday morning about the youth suicide crisis.
"We have more kids dying by suicide than going to and graduating high school, or going off to college or doing any normal things that a youth would do," Siigwan said in her speech. "Instead, we are subject to loss of culture, to intergenerational trauma and to unstable social environments in our communities, which all affect our youth mental health."
Siigwan, a high school student in Thunder Bay, wants change at the community level to improve mental health and addiction supports, including better access to counselling.
Siigwan Mckay, 16, of Bearskin Lake First Nation spoke to delegates about the youth suicide crisis at First Nations in northern Ontario and called for communities to do more. (Sarah Law/CBC)
"We need better accessibility to mental health resources, not nursing stations that'll just make you sign a form saying that you won't commit suicide," she said.
She also wants to see Bearskin Lake form its own youth council, and for community members to discuss these issues more openly — not just when there's a crisis event.
Addressing systemic barriers
Andrea Yesno-Linklater, 21, said she knows what it's like to be silenced by people in positions of power. She shared her experience of attending nursing school and being told by her clinical instructor that she wouldn't be a good nurse "because my culture is quiet."
"That was when I realized that I would have to fight in [this] colonialized education system in order to get to where I want to be and to be able to help my communities in those capacities," said Yesno-Linklater, who is from from Eabametoong First Nation and also has roots in James Bay.
Andrea Yesno-Linklater, 21, is from Eabametoong First Nation and says she wants to advocate for her community against colonial systems. (Sarah Law/CBC)
She ended up switching to psychology and became the first member of her family to graduate from university.
In joining the Oshkaatisak council, Yesno-Linklater said she wants to push for systemic changes, including decolonizing the education system so more youth can achieve their goals.
"Just really fostering that in them while they're young, so that they don't lose hope as they grow older."
Youth councils are a great way to encourage inclusion, Atlookan said. He suggests that communities have a youth spokesperson who can attend larger meetings like the chiefs' assembly to ensure youth input is always part of discussions on issues impacting their own well-being.
The Oshkaatisak Annual Youth Gathering is also being held in Thunder Bay. It began Thursday and runs through Monday.
If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:
This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.