In a bid to connect with their peers and talk about how to re-engage Indigenous youth to preserve their culture, Indigenous elders from across Canada met for the first-ever National Gathering of Elders in Edmonton on Monday.
“It’s about learning,” said Grand Chief Rupert Meneen of the Tallcree First Nation, who helped organize the event. “All the young people in the world can learn from the elders today.”
From reconciliation, to the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women, to land-rights issues – there is a myriad of matters involving First Nations people being debated these days, but the national gathering – which ends on Thursday – won’t focus on those, at least not directly.
“It’s a non-political event,” Meneen said. “We’re not trying to get people to relive their horrors that they went through.
“The plan is to move away from that and try to put that behind us and look to the future,” he said when asked about the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.
The gathering kicked off at Edmonton’s Expo Centre and will see about 4,000 elders from about 600 First Nations across the country take part.
Some people have loosely defined Indigenous elders as people who try to lead by example by living their lives based on principles and values embraced by Indigenous people for generations. On their website, the gathering’s organizers say “every Indigenous cultural group have their own mechanism to define an elder and we invite any elder to come join.”
“They are the keepers of the land way before us,” Gordie Alec, an elder with the Lake Babine Nation, said. “They know the knowledge of the traditional lands and cultures.”
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Alec said he is concerned young Indigenous people will lose their traditional languages and elders need to find a way to engage them.
“I urge all young people… to keep their culture and keep your language going,” he said. “Definitely keep the language going. It’s getting very low in every First Nation.”
According to recent figures from Statistics Canada, only nine per cent of off-reserve Indigenous people are able to speak a First Nation language. The government agency’s data also shows nearly half of all Indigenous people in Canada are under 25.
“We need to bring back the elders into the fold and start (having younger people) sitting with them and start learning from them,” Meneen said. “Teaching our kids and youth about culture and not losing the culture and language that we have today.
“We have to compete with iPads, iPhones (and) video games.”
That sentiment is shared by Willie Williams, another elder from Lake Babine Nation.
“Quite concerned about the youth and the modern ways,” he said through a translator. “The culture, is pretty well very alone. That’s what I’m really concerned about.
“My concern is the youth and the way they’re losing the culture as a youth with today’s technology.”
Watch below: On March 10, 2017, Emily Mertz reported on a translation app aimed at encouraging more young people to learn indigenous languages.
“It seems lately, from my experiences, the elders seem to be pushed aside,” Meneen added. “And the lack of respect from the youth today is something we need to bring back.”
David Sangris is a youth from Yellowknife Dene First Nation. Global News caught up with him outside the Expo Centre and he said he echoes the concerns of the elders.
“(I want to hear) what the elders have to say,” he said. “Then we can remember it and tell other people what they said.”
Sangris added he was concerned about how to go about preserving a traditional Indigenous way of life.
“We are going to be living in the city instead of living in the bush,” he said, adding he fears the youth will forget how to hunt, trap and fish.
Meneen said the idea to put together a national gathering of elders came about after he heard of similar but more regional gatherings being held in British Columbia.
“We are hoping that in two years this event gets bigger,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have more and more of these get-togethers.”
Meneen pointed out that aside from discussing issues, the meeting offers elders an opportunity to simply connect with their peers “to come together in a big group and have some fun and talk.”
-With files from Fletcher Kent