Early signs of spring and a pot full of chili greeted several young people as they made their way into a boardroom in downtown Winnipeg one recent Tuesday evening.
They come from various backgrounds. Some were from Manitoba First Nations communities. Some were from the city. Some were in high school. Others were navigating the new freedom that comes with adulthood.
They would not have been likely to meet had circumstances not brought them together. It’s a desire to push and create change for youth that keeps them connected.
Several years ago, the office of Manitoba’s children and youth advocate was looking to attract youth to actively participate in its work. In 2018, the Youth Ambassador Advisory Squad was formed. It consists of three staff from the office and roughly a dozen young people. They meet biweekly in person and, during the pandemic, online.
Cleche Kokolo, 21, says the advocate’s office walks the walk. “The role of youth in (the squad) is not tokenistic,” she says.
“Youth are experts, especially in their own lives. That expertise is just as valuable as an adult with years of education in a specific field,” says Kokolo of Winnipeg. “That’s key if we’re really going to try and change society and envision a world that’s better than the world we currently have.”
The squad was inspired by other provincial children’s advocates engaging with similar groups, says acting Manitoba advocate Ainsley Krone. The office was told to “just start it” with input from youth on what is meaningful for them.
Krone says the goal was to develop something beyond an advisory group.
“We wanted to empower these young people to become ambassadors for the office throughout the province.”
What has developed is a relationship in which squad members help guide the work of the advocate, while the office provides training and cultural activities that interest the group.
Meetings start with people rating their day and sharing something for which they are grateful. It’s a simple gesture but it’s the foundation of what the meetings are meant to offer — a safe and welcoming space.
“When (the squad) comes together, we don’t filter things,” youth engagement coordinator Jonathan Skrypnyk tells the group.
Rose Fontaine, 22, says she’s grateful for the way things are going at her job. The self-described shy young woman is from the Sagkeeng First Nation but lives in Winnipeg. She says the squad gives her a chance to open up in a way she hasn’t been able to elsewhere.
“I was able … to share what’s going on in my head and that made me want to come back,” she recalls about her first meeting. “I like to talk about things other people don’t like talking about. This gives me the space to talk about what other people don’t understand.”
The welcoming and accepting environment has made it easy, as well, for Isabelle Young, 20, from the Bloodvein First Nation, but also living in Winnipeg.
“(The adults) treat us as if we’re people. We’re not just some immature little youth. Even if we kind of are, they still treat us as if we’re young adults. We’re just people (here).”
Each squad member has had dealings with child welfare, disabilities, mental health and justice.
For Michelle Kowalchuk, including the young people is paramount.
“We’re trying to understand from those young people who’ve had experiences in those services what could be better, what their experience was like and what needs to change,” said Kowalchuk, manager for advocacy services and youth engagement.
“Without that lived experience it’s a little more hypothetical.”
Squad members have shared their ideas with government officials. The group recently met with the Ministry of Education to talk about different Indigenous inclusion strategies. They’ve also met with and provided feedback to Families Minister Rochelle Squires.
Charice Liebrecht, 23, another member from Winnipeg, says being in the squad allows her to be involved with something bigger than herself.
“I’m so proud I was honest,” she said about meeting with Squires. “Nothing changes if we pretend everything’s great.”
The advocate’s office recently sought insight from two male members during an investigation into the lives of boys who died by suicide or homicide. Michael Breland and Trevor Merasty created a music video reflecting on their lives.
The squad also organized a mural last year called the Re-Right Project. It highlights the 42 rights laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Looking ahead, Krone hopes to develop a youth advisory group in the northern office in Thompson.
“Really the sky’s the limit on what (the squad) can get up to in the next few years.”