‘It helps keep our culture alive’: Around 1,000 Indigenous youth gather in Vancouver

Indigenous youth participate in the opening ceremonies for Gathering Our Voices. Geoff Howe

The British Columbia ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver – which can host up to 1,500 people – was almost at capacity as Indigenous youth grabbed their seats, welcomed in by Dj Kookum for the start of Gathering Our Voices (GOV).

On the surface, it is a friendship centre-led gathering for Indigenous youth, but it means much more to those who attend.

In its first year back since the pandemic began, many youth are eager to be part of the community it provides.

While COVID-19 restrictions kept many apart, it was especially difficult for Indigenous youth.

Research published in 2021 said the pandemic resulted in young Indigenous people experiencing social isolation, mental health challenges and difficulties in accessing traditional teachings and medicine.

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It’s one of the reasons Maddi Burns got involved with the Victoria Native Friendship Centre.

“I was really looking for a community, so I just reached out and was like, ‘Hey, I really need to be in proximity to people who share culture with me,’” she said. “I ended up getting a job there as part of their COVID-19 response.”

Friendship centres provide various programs and services to Indigenous people living off reserve and away from community, and also welcome people from all backgrounds. In B.C. there are 25 friendship centres and across Canada there are more than 100. They serve as community hubs.

Red River Métis on her mother’s side, Burns is now a member of the Provincial Aboriginal Youth Council (PAYC) and helped organize this year’s gathering.

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“There’s a lot of hype for GOV,” she said, “around safety and being able to be collective with urban Indigenous youth in one space and how powerful it is.

“A lot of stuff that’s spoken about Indigenous youth is largely based in trauma, and so I think it’s really beautiful that we have this space of healing and celebrating.”

Jaydn McLean is Ojibwe from Fort William First Nation and got involved with the friendship centre movement because of her desire to work in community service. She works with the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre Association and is on the PAYC.

One of her priorities, and the priorities of other older youth at Gathering Our Voices, is “youth supporting youth.”

“It’s important because you’re not acting like an older sibling, a parent, aunt or grandma. You’re acting as somebody who knows where they are and where they’re coming from,” said McLean. “Whether that be from life experience or really, at the end of the day, having empathy.”

McLean said at events like Gathering Our Voices, youth are heard and that’s part of what makes it so empowering.

“It helps keep our culture alive,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Young Indigenous people inherit important role in reconciliation efforts'
Young Indigenous people inherit important role in reconciliation efforts

Both Jillian Dennis and Taigan Alfred have been going to friendship centres for years; Dennis said she basically grew up there.

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She attended her first Gathering Our Voices at 15 years old.

“Before, I didn’t really travel much – it gives youth that experience of leaving their village or town or city to come here and be with other people their age.… It gives them more opportunities to try something new,” said Dennis.

“It really is different (coming here),” adds Alfred. “You’re surrounded by people that have similar experiences here. And that’s what I find is impactful.”

Elijah Mack, the acting president for the BC Association of Friendship Centres, is 26 and recently “aged out” of being a youth but has been coming to Gathering Our Voices for years.

He’s lost count of the number of times he’s attended and said it’s transformative.

“It’s life-changing, and it was devastating when it was shut down. This is one time of year where we get together as a community and be united as one nation,” said Mack. “So, watching kids come in that have never experienced city life and clean drinking water or anything even a mall … watching them walk away with so much knowledge and so much to take away to their own community is inspiring and that’s why we keep doing it.

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The B.C. provincial government just announced a $10.35-million grant over the next five years to help more youth attend the gathering.

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