From Canada’s Indigenous Youth to Parkland’s Students: The Power of Youth Activism

Recently, I had the great privilege of attending the Tina Fontaine Rally in downtown Toronto. In the spirit of solidarity, I showed up to honour the life of Tina Fontaine – a teenaged First Nations girl who was made missing and murdered in August 2014. People in major cities across Canada gathered to protest the jury’s decision to acquit Raymond Cormier, the 56 year-old-year man from Winnipeg responsible for her death. The verdict came less than two weeks after Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley was found not guilty in the murder of another Indigenous youth, Colten Boushie. Considered among the high number of Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ2S people made missing and murdered in this country – a national crisis that’s been unresolved for decades – her death renewed calls by activists for the government to conduct a national inquiry into the issue. On that Saturday afternoon, I was pleased to see a large show of support and solidarity by allies from all over the city. The square soon became enamoured with so much love and unity. As thousands joined hands, strangers quickly became friends. The exchange of smiles and greetings were both familiar and comforting. It reminded me that community spaces like this give us the permission to mourn, cry, and heal – together. But more than anything, it left me feeling a great sense of pride and inspiration. The event was organized by Madyson Arscott, a 16-year-old Ojibwe student. Madyson, one year Tina’s senior, was the primary organizer of Saturday’s rally, and used her voice and platform to remind other young Indigenous people that their lives are valued even when faced with discrimination and violence.

“You show more courage walking out the door in the morning than the ones who are trying to silence you their whole lives…there’s resistance in your simple existence…if all you do today is breathe, that is enough.”

She continued on by saying that the death of Fontaine hit very close to home, which inspired her to action. As her words rang in my ears, hope swelled in my chest. She reaffirmed my belief once again that youth are the true champions of change. Madyson, to me, exemplifies the many youth activists and change makers who are politically and socially engaged in ways well beyond their years. But the truth is, youth are embracing activism across borders, and have been for a long, long time. In the weeks since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that took seventeen lives, a remarkable movement has gathered momentum. Students who survived the shooting are raising their voices to demand greater safety in schools. Conventional wisdom says grown-ups spark social change and the kids merely follow. But if you read between the lines of history books, the opposite is often true. Our youth are the ones organizing, and it’s the adults who are simply following their lead. In fact, young people have been key actors in nearly every major social movement in modern history. At the forefront of these movements, youth have played a central role in influencing their widespread mobilization and success. 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, for example, was the first to pave the way for many during the civil rights movement era. She had refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months before Rosa Parks had. Young activists helped raise awareness of inequality during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Young people drove the Arab Spring protests that toppled dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. And young people were the ones to take to social media spawning the Black Lives Matter movement. Madyson made me think of the many young people in Parkland and across the U.S. presently speaking out and doing the work: writing op-eds, planning walk-outs and teach-ins, talking with journalists and lobbying elected officials, and organizing a nationwide demonstration pressing for American gun law reform. It’s no coincidence that students are leading this outpouring of activism: as young people who have grown up with the fear of mass shootings and regular school lockdown drills, they are at an age of dawning political awareness but not yet cynical about the possibilities for change. As an added bonus, they also understand how tools of mass communication like Twitter can amplify an individual voice. Students are the ones making the bold and brave choice to participate as upstanders and civic agents.

Madyson also made me reflection on my own experience with the youth I work with each and every day in schools. The connection I have with youth is always a refreshing and energizing experience. They openly and generously share their lived experiences, often with so much vigor and emotion. Their stories resonate with me. They are enriching, insightful and profound. Their pain is my pain. Their anger, my anger. Their trauma and brokenness, my own. Their incredible liveliness to bring about change is promising. They thirst for knowledge, and hunger for change. The energy they exude could very well power an entire city. Youth truly are a faithful testament to the powerhouse of resilience in which they wield within. Charged with so much optimism and passion, they make me feel alive. When my energy supply runs low, they refuel my fire. As someone who’s been working with adults within the taxing industrial complex of non-profit organization for some time now, I can honestly say that it dims your light. Luckily for us, youth have the power to give us a much-needed spit-shine from time to time. Youth, unknowingly, guide and motivate me to fight the good fight, and keep on striving. They nourish my will to keep going. Crossing paths with these young individuals is a God-sent. I always look forward to joining them on their journey of embracing their truths, and being true catalysts for change in their schools and communities. Doing this work has taught me the value in supporting our youth. Despite having to face the fact that society continues to fail them (e.g. continuously being wronged by the adults responsible for their wellbeing), I’ve learned that youth also have an unwavering ability to forgive and move forward. They are so forgiving. So, I believe that we owe it to these kids (our future) and to ourselves to do better, and to do right by them. We need to continue investing our time and energy in uplifting their voices. Think about it this way: if we can uplift youth activists like the Parkland teens and praise them for their vision and courage (as we should), then there’s certainly no reason for us not to uplift Indigenous and racialized teens as well, like Madyson Arscott, and so many others just like her.

Photo: Nicole Brumley

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