'That bothers me a lot': To fight cynicism, youth in Kanesatake pen letters to politicians

orangeshirt

September 30 is Orange Shirt Day, when Indigenous people and Canadians remember the legacy of the residential schools that sought to strip Indigenous children of their culture and language.

That day, a class at of students Ratiheǹ:te High School in Kanesatake penned letters to both levels of government explaining how their generation feels--and why doing such things as writing letters is unusual.

The students, in Christine Lefebvre's Grade 10 and 11 English class, told political leaders they need to understand the deep cynicism many Indigenous youth feel towards all levels of government.

"I am writing to you because as a young Indigenous female, I feel as though my voice, and the voice of my people are not being heard," wrote Emily White, a 15-year-old Grade 10 Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) student.

She wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and new Quebec Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ian Lafreniere.

"I also feel as though you have not kept your promises you had made to the Indigenous population when you were campaigning," she wrote.

Specifically, White zeroed in on the lack of access to drinking water and proper housing and the over-representation of Indigenous inmates in the country's correctional facilities.

She told CTV that the governments' inaction on Indigenous issues is felt by the community's youth, whether or not they say it out loud.

"They're not keeping their promises, and it sucks," White said.

"I want to have it better for the next generation, so they don't have to see the same issues we did growing up."

White said she also wants to see more Indigenous representation at the table and more work done to respond to the 94 calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

Hank Tolley is 16, in Grade 11, and he wrote that he doesn't see reconciliation happening -- it isn't clear that the governments consider an Indigenous perspective in their work.

"I believe the government is not looking on how to solve the problem from an Indigenous point of view," he wrote in his letter.

"We must be taken into consideration when decisions are being made and implemented, to be represented in the decision."

A slightly older member of the community said the feeling of mistrust is easily contagious, as well as deserved.

Jadyn Lauder, 24, has worked at Kanesatake's youth centre as well as the local CrossFit gym. She said local young people watch what leaders are doing -- or not doing -- through social media or by listening to their families talk about it.

"Most youth have access to social media as well as their parents' opinion towards...government," she said. 

For Tolley, the biggest problem right now is development in Indigenous communities.

"A lot of them are extremely underdeveloped," he said, adding that he is frustrated to see a vastly inconsistent standard of living.

"It feels like there's a lot we could do, but it's not getting done because we're living like this (in Kanesatake) and [other communities] are way, way worse," he said.

He wants to see running water, electricity, and housing improved in First Nations, particularly remote ones, across the country.

White said she's following the promises Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made on the campaign trail and has been watching them remain unfulfilled.

"He's not keeping his promise, and that's something that bothers me a lot," she said.

A WAVE OF ACTION 

After Joyce Echaquan died in hospital following racist taunts by staff at Joliette Hospital this month, protests erupted across the country drawing attention to the mistreatment of Indigenous people in the health-care system.

Thousands marched in Montreal for the Echaquan family and others who are mistreated. The teenagers said that was a good reminder that a lot of people feel the way they do.

"It is awesome that we're getting all the support from different communities, and different nationalities as well, because I think it's important that we're supporting each other," said White.

"Everybody's equal, everybody's the same...it's something that we need."

"It's a good thing to fight for these people because if you won't, who will?" said Tolley.

A CONFLICT CLOSE TO HOME, WITH NO RESOLUTION

No one in Kanesatake has to look far to see a very real issue that needs resolving.

The ongoing disagreement between Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon, Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon and others over land in the pines in and around Kanesatake has been in the news for over a year, with little progress.

"It's very frustrating because we're always butting heads with each other," White said.

"We're trying to solve our issues, and the Mayor of Oka doesn't want to help us fix our problems. We're trying to fix our problems and it feels like he's working against us... it hurts."

Tolley said he wants to see collaboration.

"The best way to move forward is to try and be partners," he said. "Come together, be one. I support unity."

Lefebvre, their teacher, said that the encouraging thing for her was simply seeing her students engage with politics directly.

"I really want their voice to be heard," she said. "I can see their struggle, and they're such great kids."

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