Too often youth studies in general, and more specifically on Indigenous populations focus on ‘at risk’ individuals, measures of acculturation, delinquency, school dropout, substance abuse, suicide, teenage pregnancies and violence. This apparent malaise characterizing the youth prompts community adults and experts alike to lament young people’s disengagement from and apathy towards community life in general and cultural practices in particular. Yet, Indigenous youth across Canada and Quebec are actively engaging with culture-based ways of empowerment either through direct action, healing activities, or artistic expressions from a perspective rooted in Indigenous culture proper to their community and personal experience. In the Cree Nation, a myriad of local activities by and for the youth are taking place throughout the year, from winter snowshoe journeys, to elders and youth conferences, music festivals, powwows and Sundances.

Despite this clear and documented youth agency, young Crees are still struggling to escape essentialized and stereotypical images both outside and, more importantly, within their own communities. In my interactions with the Nemaska students at the school, they expressed frustration relative to their marginalized role in decision-making. Our discussions digressed from algebra problems and Ministry examinations, to the role of education in daily life and its impact on the future role of youth in community life and development. The main issue for these young Cree was the failure of the community to listen to their needs in a serious and non-judgemental way, to value the contributions that they already make to community life, and in general to celebrate youth successes as often as denouncing the failures. Their reflections on governance and autonomy were grounded in sustained calls for collective healing. I therefore set out to answer the following questions:

Why was healing so pervasive in young people’s self-governance discourses? How does the concept of healing help them reflect and shape discourses of identity, cultural change, and empowerment? Does it create spaces in which youth can voice their needs and frustrations and engage in an open dialogue to identify actions to address these? If so, how can these spaces be enhanced?

By reconstructing healing as political resistance and as a site of identity and cultural renegotiation, they have pointed to ways in which we can better situate and contextualize particular decolonizing practices; practices which are embedded and dependent on the community as a whole and not on one particular group within communities. Indeed, Cree youth consistently bring attention to the social problem burden placed squarely on their shoulders that ignores the intersection of broader historical and contemporary processes that continue to affect their lives.

For parents in Chisasibi, intergenerational solidarity is self-evident having themselves lived through the devastating impacts of the residential school fallout. Progressively, Cree parents have worked hard to both provide safe and stable living environments for their children while also trying to mobilize community resources to build the necessary institutional supports. At the core, these processes are inspired and flourish from compassionate relations that speak to the ‘truth’ in each individual and provide the necessary emotional support for living a healthy and fulfilling life. As Irene explains, when invited ‘into the youth’s world’ she always begins by telling them ‘her own truth’, her upbringing and ‘how she lived her life’ because “some of the stories you tell them, they feel some connection”. The individuals that shared their healing journeys with me have shown that everyday acts of resistance don’t have to be violent upheavals. In many Indigenous communities, as in Chisasibi, these acts translate into daily life. Eating traditional food, putting up a sweat lodge behind one’s house or coaching a football team are all acts of resistance because each relationship that they create is another potential space in which individuals can voice their needs and empower each other.

When such collective reflection takes place, innovative and creative discourses and practices are uncovered that challenge established dichotomies and essentialized notions of culture, modernity, and politics. Having clarified and secured their rights (albeit at different levels), many Indigenous peoples have begun the challenging process of devising and strengthening effective governance regimes. Within this process internal reflection and co-creation of a collective vision of development and well-being in their communities is imperative. As half of the Aboriginal population in Canada is under 24 years of age , the youth’s role and place in these processes of internal negotiation is evident. Failing to take them into consideration will inevitably create local tensions, but more importantly will obscure innovative avenues to thinking and acting in an uncertain and interrelated world in which cross-cultural and cross-generational relationships are necessary to nurture effective and sustainable actions.

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15. Main picture by Mike Wong. Cree Youth Canoe Brigade Expedition to Protect the Broadback River.