Youth taking part in a forum to discuss issues such as education, culture and suicide plan on making recommendations to government and First Nations leaders about how to make things better for their communities.

The three-day forum in Thunder Bay involves young people from more than 90 northern Ontario First Nations who will share their stories and opinions.

“The youth are putting themselves out there and they’re ready to work towards change,” said Kathryn Morris, a youth leader with the office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.

“They’re extending their hands and they’re waiting for someone to grab it, and to help guide them towards that change.”

Morris’s organization is hosting the forum in partnership with the Inter-Governmental Network, federal and provincial levels of government, and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). Two youth from each of 91 communities in the NAN, Grand Council Treaty 3, and Robinson-Superior territories are in attendance.

‘Building a better future’

For the first two days of the forum they’ll hold a series of workshops on the main topics. On the last day they will recommendations to dignitaries, who include representatives of government and First Nations government. The youth are hoping for a firm commitment from government and chiefs to work with young people on change.

“We realize that we need to find action-based solutions that will lead to meaningful programs and supports at the root level to meet the needs of First Nations children and youth,” Morris said.

“We are stronger together and the forum gives us a chance to play a role in building a better future for our communities and to make them safer, stronger and healthier places for children and youth.”

The event builds on the work started with Horizons of Hope, an event held 17 years ago to address the hopelessness and youth suicide in NAN communities and the lack of timely and comprehensive action since then.

“The most powerful voice for children and youth is their own,” said Irwin Elman, Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.

“I know these determined and passionate young people have an important role to play to effect change in their communities and find solutions to the harsh realities they face. If all of us can gather around them and listen, together we can find a way to move forward.”

Lost peers

Morris and fellow youth leader Julaine Trudeau visited northern communities and talked to young people about their aspirations. They heard about hopes for simple things such as schools and playgrounds, but they also heard a lot about suicide.

Trudeau said she can talk from personal experience about losing friends to drugs and alcohol. She came to Thunder Bay for high school from Muskrat Dam and saw a lot of her peers lost in a transition to a community she said was not very welcoming to them. She added that many of them went back home without completing high school.

She also noted a lot of the youth speaking at the conference will be sharing their experiences.

“It takes a lot for (them) to do that because some of the issues … are heavy subjects. And I think a lot of the youth may not have told these things to other people before … we really need the government to grab our hand in this,” she said.

According to the advocate’s office, First Nations children and youth are one of the most vulnerable populations of young people in Canada. Compared to other young people in Ontario, First Nations children and youth are disproportionately represented in the youth justice and child welfare systems. They experience extreme poverty in greater numbers and face higher rates of malnutrition, disability, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. Many live without access to education, housing, drinkable water or health care.