As Gwich’in youth from across Canada came together for a mid-conference check-in last week, Jordan Peterson had an epiphany.
“I’ve been waiting for what happened this past week in Ottawa for my entire adult life,” the 29-year-old community development officer for the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) tells EDGE.
“I’ve been waiting for our young Gwich’in to awaken… and when you realize that it’s happening and it’s time, it’s emotional for all the people involved.”
For some who had grown up outside of the North, it was their first time learning about the impacts of colonial government policies like residential schools.
Peterson was one of the organizers behind “The Next 40,” a conference where a delegation of Gwich’in youth, Elders and academics gathered to talk about modern treaties, identity and citizenship last week at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
Fifteen youth, half from Gwich’in communities and the other half living in the south, gathered for four days of discussion on where the next 40 years would take them and their nation, focusing on how to navigate Indigenous identity and the struggle of belonging in two worlds.
For some who had grown up outside of the North, it was their first time learning about the impacts of colonial government policies like residential schools. That revelation struck Peterson as an important lesson in how to move forward.
“A lot of our people don’t know where they come from. They don’t know their histories, their culture, and language is at a place now where if we don’t do something, it may get lost forever,” Peterson says.
“The entire week changed their perspective and direction. That’s how we can affect our young people: by giving them the opportunity to be supported and have these open conversations in a safe environment.”
The last 40 years have been ones of intense political development for the North, with the majority of Indigenous governments finalizing modern treaties and moving toward self-government agreements with the Crown.
While those constitutionally protected agreements have changed the face of land and resource management in the territory and created powerful new Indigenous organizations, the journey toward regaining self-sufficiency has just begun.
“I know that right now, with how the treaties have been negotiated, they’re very colonial, but I think if we’re able to implement the programs that we want in the way we want, then we can survive and get back to our roots, where we come from, with land-based and language programming,” Peterson says.
As the Gwich’in Tribal Council finalizes its own self-government agreement, its younger generations are pushing for jobs, resources and educational opportunities that will allow them to work for their nation.
“We had a realization that I’m the only person under 30 who works for the GTC,” Peterson says. “That shouldn’t be the case. So we are putting together a youth engagement strategy that’s going to help us with the work moving forward, how we engage everyone and bring everyone together. That’s something we really need to focus on; not just us, but every Indigenous community in Canada.”
Keeping it together
But with Gwich’in spread out across the country, bringing everyone together becomes a challenge. Already, many Gwich’in youth live in the south while they pursue education and employment, and Crystal Fraser believes that diaspora is only going to grow.
A grad student at the University of Alberta, Fraser says the key to making the next 40 years a success for the Gwich’in nation is to ensure that youth leaving their traditional territories are not left out when it comes to making critical decisions about the future of their land, culture, education and governance.
It’s really about figuring out how youth can come back to the North, and how jobs are going to be created
“It’s really important that Gwich’in outside of the GSA [Gwich’in Settlement Area] continue to be connected and consulted with self-government negotiations and plans,” she says. “Even if we don’t live in the region permanently, that doesn’t mean we don’t care or aren’t invested in what happens there.”
Improving education at home — and across the country — is also key, Fraser emphasized.
“In the next 40 years, I see our people having more control over what’s happening in our schools, what our children are learning, more on-the-land programs, really promoting our language,” Fraser says. “I think that revitalization aspect is going to be important.”
Fraser says social media has filled the gap for a lot of Gwich’in living in the south, who are able to connect with each other online and share what they’re doing, whether it’s university research or caribou hide tanning. That said, such a move online comes at a risk, alienating youth from the people they need to know most: their Elders.
“I see us having to deal with new questions and possibly new challenges about what it means to have a diaspora, but also how it is that we can bring those people back to our region, even if it’s only temporary, and get them connected to the land and teach more of our history,” Fraser says. “I think knowledge is going to be really important, especially as we train more of these youth in order to help our own people.”
Artist Tania Larsson has been part of that Gwich’in diaspora for most of her life. Growing up in France, she returned to the North as an adult and has spent the last several years living in Santa Fe, New Mexico while she studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
For her, last week’s gathering was crucial in forming connections among scattered individuals to create a collective voice for youth that are “starving for information.”
“I felt validated,” she says of the conference. “One of the breakthroughs we had while in Ottawa was this sense of belonging, especially for the youth who grew up in the south. We really matter to the Gwich’in nation and were told that we really need everyone to move forward in the future. That was super important to hear. I think a lot of people want to go back North now so they can be part of something.”
Larsson has every intention of returning to the North when her studies are done. She just wants to make sure there are opportunities for herself — and others like her — when they move home and are keen on bettering their nation.
“I think now the conversation is how can we be connected as a people and also to our land, and what ways we can make it happen,” she says. “It’s really about figuring out how youth can come back to the North, and how jobs are going to be created for people to live in the GSA.”
Larsson says investing in arts and culture will be key to creating healthy, successful Indigenous nations and economies.
“Culture is a great tool to gain back what we lost through residential school and to be able to heal as a people and be able to share our identity with the rest of the world and be proud of our cultural practices,” she says.
As a result of the conversations in Ottawa, Larsson says there is already a renewed movement to bring drumming back to the Gwich’in region, highlighting the power of youth who want to get things done.
“I’m really happy to have had this connection with other youth and realize we’re so hungry for change and knowledge, and that through this conference we gained hope. We have hope in our nation and think that great things are going to happen in the future, and we all need to work towards it and all be part of it for it to be a success,” Larsson says.