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Youth Programs (66)

Helping youth leaders work together to heal past harms

April 30, 2024

Cassandra Spade (right), Daanis Pelletier (second to the right) and the rest of the Indigenous youth from their delegation at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples. Photo submitted 

Canada’s National Observer: Ermineskin elder Wilton Littlechild told an ominous story about the death of a language to those attending the recent United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples.

At a forum side event in mid-April, Littlechild explained that he once heard an old man speak his language. The elder was one of the last surviving holders of his language. So, when the old man died two years later, the language died with him.

The story was meant to be a warning. Littlechild did not want anyone else to experience the weight of losing language after hearing some of its final breaths.

Daanis Pelletier, an Anishinaabe youth and food sovereignty advocate, listened closely to Littlechild. The story deeply moved Pelletier, and she took it back home to Fort William First Nation.

Pelletier, who is 19 and a student at Lakehead University, is now planning to learn her own language, Anishinaabemowin.

Pelletier has a strong mentor in Cassandra Spade, an Anishnaabemowin language learner and teacher. She co-leads Gaa-Minwaajindizowaaja grassroots organization that Spade and her family created to foster culture and language revitalization.

Spade was part of the same delegation as Pelletier, who travelled to the permanent forum earlier in April, supported by the International Committee for the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas (INCOMINDIOS). The organization campaigns for the rights of Indigenous Peoples worldwide with a focus on nations within the Americas.

Alongside Spade and Pelletier were two other youth and other Indigenous advocates. The delegation spent the week engaging in the plenary sessions, speaking on civil society panels around the city, and even meeting with Gary Anandasangaree, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, on language and youth concerns. 

Spade mentored the young people. She taught them how to make recommendations on the plenary floor, coached them on public speaking and answered questions about UN processes.

Spade knows what it’s like to be wide-eyed and overwhelmed by the permanent forum. In 2019, she was selected to attend during the year of Indigenous languages, which continues to be Spade’s main advocacy focus.

She had no idea how the UN worked that first year. Nonetheless, she felt connected to the diversity of regalia and power displayed by Indigenous nations worldwide.

“You quickly realize, although you come from different regions and the distance may be vast, the issues are very similar,” she told Canada’s National Observer.

“So you can work together to address the harms that exist in the world,” she said of the global Indigenous movement at the UN.

Spade encourages Indigenous youth interested in the United Nations to seek out scholarships and organizations. Spade also calls on First Nations and other organizations to create opportunities for youth to attend the permanent forum.

Back in Fort William, Pelletier was already thinking about how she could infuse her food sovereignty work and language revitalization.

Her nation has a tradition of making maple syrup, but the practice once went dormant. It returned when she was a child, and Pelletier was raised working in the community maple stand that supplies syrup for the whole community.

“It was our form of self-determination,” she said. “There was no leader, as a group we always worked together.”

It was a way for the community to decolonize by creating an equal and democratic operation where children, elders and even the trees were given as much of a voice as the adults, Pelletier explained.

“It’s important to uphold and preserve all that traditional knowledge, and for me, it’s important to pass them on to future generations,” she said.

Now, after her experience at the United Nations, Pelletier understands that her work on the land is a form of advocacy. She wants to work with Spade on teaching youth how to harvest in the sugarbush while immersing the students in Anishinaabemowin.

It’s why Spade and Pelletier think youth must be more involved in the conversation, particularly at the United Nations level. 

“Youth aren’t the future. We are the now,” Pelletier said.