Inspiring a generation
There were some big names at the Queen’s Native Student Association (QnSA) inaugural conference, held Feb. 2–4 on campus. The Hon. David Zimmer, Ontario Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, the Hon. Patty Hajdu,federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, and the Hon. Liz Sandals, President of the Ontario Treasury Board, all joined other community leaders and students – Canada’s future leaders – for three days of inquiry and meaningful discussion on the challenges of economic growth and reconciliation.
Behind the scenes, a core group of Queen’s students worked for months to launch the Inspiring a Generation conference. Their goal was to bring together Canadians – students and leaders – to connect, network, hear each other’s views, and ultimately act on the issue that has been brought into sharp focus across Canada with the release of the TRC report: reconciliation.
It’s an issue that conference founder and co-chair Darian Doblej, Artsci’18, knows well. Growing up in Whitesand First Nation in Northern Ontario, Mr. Doblej represents a new generation of Indigenous Canadians determined to travel the path of reconciliation and to seek out ways to effect real positive change. His path to education was complex, having left Whitesand in his youth to attend high school, first in Thunder Bay and then in Kingston, where he completed Grade 12 at La Salle Secondary School. He chose to attend Queen’s because he loved Kingston. Mr. Doblej wants other First Nations youth to have better access to education than he had. He believes this is possible through the concerted effort of all Canadians.
“We have all recognized that reconciliation is vitally important. Now we have to act. What can we do to bring that talent of Aboriginal youth to the rest of Canada? How do we create jobs and opportunity for them to achieve their full potential?” says the third-year political studies and Indigenous studies student.
Mr. Doblej was well positioned to bring some key people from the Ontario government, thanks to his work on the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, a group created to advise the government on issues affecting youth, as well as the Ontario First Nations Young Peoples Council as its Primary Advocate for Youth from the Independent First Nations. He has also worked in the Prime Minister’s Office and with the Liberal Party.
While Mr. Doblej brought together the speakers and organized the three-day program, co-chairs Lauren Winkler, Artsci’17, and Holly McCann, Artsci’18, worked out the technical and financial details of the conference. Studying history and Indigenous studies, Ms. Winkler is also president of the QNSA and deputy commissioner, Indigenous affairs, AMS. Ms. McCann, a global development studies/Indigenous studies student, is the QNSA’s vice-president.
Growing up in Markham, Ont., Ms. Winkler admits her Indigenous roots were overshadowed by her suburban upbringing, even though her mother is from Tyendinaga. It wasn’t until she came to Queen’s that she took an interest in her heritage. “I took Mohawk 101 [with Nathan Thanyehténhas Brinklow] and then got really interested in what happened to my people. For example, I didn’t know about the Sixties Scoop [a practice of taking children of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada from their families and placing in foster homes or adoption, beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the late 1980s]. My eyes were opened up,” she says.
“I want people to know that all Canadians are part of reconciliation,” she says. “Just by being Canadian, you are connected. It’s not just an Indigenous issue and it’s not just a government issue.”
Ms. McCann agrees, seeing the conference as an accessible platform for students with an interest, but not necessarily a background, in Indigenous issues. “This isn’t just a conference for Indigenous students, or those in Indigenous studies,” she says. The co-chairs and their teams of volunteers made a concerted effort to ensure that the conference provided a safe space in which people with different perspectives and backgrounds could discuss complicated – and sometimes uncomfortable – issues and find common ground.
Pam Simpson, Artsci’17, is a non-Indigenous political studies student who wanted to “bring her degree into a practical realm,” by becoming involved in the conference. The co-chair for the conference’s social events and participant services, she coordinated activities including an auction of Indigenous and non-Indigenous art and a music concert featuring acts such as Toronto-based indie-folk band Wild Rivers. For Ms. Simpson, the learning curve, as a non-Indigenous person exploring issues of reconciliation, has been steeper than for some of her peers. The rewards, however, have been extraordinary.
“It’s been challenging and difficult at times,” she says. “But it has also been eye-opening and extremely exciting. The whole experience made me more aware of the decisions that I make.”
Report from the conference
Earlier this month the Queen’s Native Student Association held their inaugural conference themed Inspiring a Generation. Run entirely by students, the conference invited more than 150 industry, government, and community leaders to campus to generate meaningful and lively debate about reconciliation with Indigenous people and economic growth.
Held over a three-day period, the conference saw hundreds of students attend various working sessions, plenary sessions and social events. For every hour of the official programme, there was a half hour of social sessions – perfect for networking and informally debating the issues at hand. Ministers Zimmer, Hajdu, and Sandals all delivered keynote speeches on walking together, and what government is doing to create a future all Canadians, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, could take pride in.
Some big players involved in the ongoing reconciliation debate included Akwesasne Chief Ryan Jacobs and Dr. Cynthia Welsey-Esquimaux, Canada Research Chair on Truth and Reconciliation. The two facilitated a roundtable discussion that generated a lot of debate amongst the leaders of tomorrow and leaders today. According to Darian Doblej, conference co-chair, this discussion was a highlight for him: “Topics were heavy and people got emotional, though Cynthia led through it and pushed people to inspire themselves to create long-lasting change so generations now and in the future can benefit. Out the emotions came the inspiration to do more, to do better, and to lead the change.”
A plenary session entitled Future Growth: Tops and Flops, featured Tina Dacin, Smith Chair of Strategy and Organization Behaviour, a representative from Engineers without Borders, as well as Indigenous entrepreneur Shyra Barberstock. As a panel they discussed the pressing social issues in northern communities and on reserves, such as health, housing, drinking water and violence. They talked about how trust in government among these communities has been eroded, how a new framework is needed, and what tools and skills are required to redress the situation. From these discussions a consensus arose around the need for economic development, but the debates really started on what economic development would look like – and what to watch out for.
One student who attended the conference was Belinda McMillan, Artsci’20. Although she is studying Spanish as a major and health as a minor, she believes the conference was relevant to her. “I am interested in Indigenous culture and I see it’s definitely becoming more relevant to me as a [non-Indigenous] Canadian.” Ms. McMillan found the conference to be extremely interesting and the organizers to be welcoming. “I came to listen and learn. It was a very open and warm environment.”
QNSA President Lauren Winkler also thought the conference was a success, noting that as with anything new, there is always room for improvement. “Although there were a few bumps along the way, overall, the Queen’s Native Student Association was very pleased with the outcome of our inaugural Inspiring a Generation conference. With the audience being less than half Indigenous and mostly non-Indigenous, we were able to engage students and professionals in conversations around reconciliation and challenge them to consider what they can do today to create a better tomorrow for all of Canada.”
Mr. Doblej looks forward to next year’s conference where he will recommend some changes to the format, saying, “We will facilitate the small working sessions differently and we’ll also streamline the registration and data-tracking process.” He also wants to expand the conference to “include more delegates and many more hard-hitting presenters.”