News of missing youth and youth suicides in remote Northern Ontario First Nations is spurring one Webequie First Nation youth to take action. Twenty-six year old Leslie Spence wants to start a youth council in his community. Spence held a meeting on July 20, 2017 at Webequie’s Band Hall to recruit other youth for the council.
During the meeting adults and Elders talked to the youth about their past experiences and what encouragements they had while growing up. Some of the other topics the Elders and adults talked about are finishing school, going to post secondary school, having kids at a young age, drug abuse, depression, residential schools, keeping the language, suicide, to keep going further in life, wanting to live, and survival.
"We're all good people, you have a full life ahead of you, you can do anything you want to - nothing can stop you - not even your problems,” community organizer Selena Wabasse reminded the group. “That's what's stopping us - problems - but that's not us - we're happy, joyful people."
Spence then started with his presentation. Although there wasn’t many youth in attendance, he kept going.
“It’s just starting, more youth will come to the other one,” Spence said at the meeting.
His goal is to create the council for 2018 so youth have an opportunity to learn leadership, and create youth-oriented events and supports in the community.
“I wanna get kids to see good role models by the youth council, and they can look forward to being in that position too and experience that,” explained Spence in an interview before the event. “Then afterwards they can get involved with the community level and create good and strong leaders in the future.”
Part of the inspiration for a youth council came from attending a 2Spirit youth conference this past Winter. Spence, a 2Spirit youth himself, heard a fellow attendee talk about having a youth council back home. He thought it was a good idea and wanted to bring it to Webequie.
"I am a 2Spirit person,” Spence said at the meeting. “It's okay to be who you are. There are kids here who are 2Spirited, we need to accept them."
The other inspiration for the meeting came from missing youth in Thunder Bay in May and the recent suicides in neighbouring communities. Since the beginning of 2017, at least 30 Indigenous youth from Nishnawbe-Aski Nations have died by suicide, unexpectedly or under suspicious circumstances, including two youth from Webequie. Spence said in his presentation that there were more than 500 suicides in Northern Ontario between 1986 and 2016. More than 70 per cent of those deaths were children aged 10 to 14, he added.
Approximately 65% of Webequie population is 30 years old and under. In the 1990s Webequie experienced a wave of youth suicides. Many youth Spence knows personally have considered it. Suicide is one of Spence’s main concerns as well as youth opinions and voices are not being heard, 2Spirit acceptance and high school dropout rates.
“We have kids that are dropping out of highschool at an early age and they don’t have anything to look forward to when they grow up,” said Spence. This past year saw three people graduate from Simon Jacob Memorial Education Centre, and several from college programs. Spence would like to see more.
“We don't want the next generation to feel all those negative feelings,” Spence told the group. “We want them to express kindness and gratitude to echo into our future and maybe, just maybe, we will finally break the negative cycle."
He hopes youth council will empower his peers and show the community, and Chief and Council, that they have the drive, they just need their support.
“For us, we have more ideas and we’re very energetic and we strive to have change in the community.”
After the presentations and lunch, Spence held a brainstorming session. They considered where to get funding, how to form the council, and what the council should bring to Webequie. Movie nights, bringing in Neechie Studios, cooking programs, canoe trips and one-on-one counselling and peer mentorship were some of the ideas.
Spence hopes the youth council will show the community youth is taking action, but he also wants to get as many people involved as possible. The next meeting is set for August 18, 2017, before many youth leave the community to attend high school.
"I don't want to do this alone,” he said.