Waskaganish youth leader shares Cree perspective on Ottawa conference
Elliot on the far right with the Nishiyuu before departing from Waskaganish
On the afternoon of March 25 while the Nishiyuu walkers were arriving on Victoria Island in Ottawa another emerging young Cree leader was huddled inside the National Press Building on Wellington Street getting ready to sit down for an “Introduction to Canadian Government” session.
Elliot Stevens travelled to Ottawa from Waskaganish to participate in the Forum for Young Canadians, which gave him a weeklong crash course in the Canadian political system. Early, on February 21, Stevens had strapped on his handmade snowshoes and walked with the Nishiyuu as they departed from Waskaganish. “I wanted to experience it,” he said. “I wanted to walk with them, and learn.”
Stevens is the Student Council President at Wiinibekuu School in Waskaganish and is in his final year. While the Nishiyuu were in Waskaganish at their welcoming feast, Stevens gave a speech greeting them on behalf of the Wiinibekuu School students, and for the first time in his young political life he was offered leadership coaching by Youth Grand Chief Joshua Iserhoff, who was present.
As a result of Stevens’ show of leadership, Waskaganish Youth Chief Melissa Whiskeychan and Marleine Gelineau, the leadership coordinator of the local Youth Fusion after-school program, sought to send Stevens to Ottawa to cultivate his abilities. The twist was that the forum was taking place the week when the Nishiyuu were to arrive on Parliament Hill. At such an important time in Cree political history Stevens would be the only Cree youth attending a major event for young leaders from around Canada.
When the Nishiyuu were only a few blocks from their destination, Stevens said he had “felt white” since he was wearing black shoes and a suit and tie and keeping to a tight schedule. He even bumped into some friends from Waskaganish who were surprised to see him dressed that way.
With minimal time scheduled for sleep Stevens attended sessions explaining dry details of the Canadian political system, having debates late into the night about political issues, attending dinners with MPs and making friends with a diverse range of young leaders from around Canada – all of which are a part of the Forum schedule.
“Most of them didn’t even know who the Nishiyuu walkers were. They thought they were just people trying to fundraise or something,” Stevens said. In an interview conducted by his classmate Samuel McLeod on the Wiinibekuu School radio show Stevens mentioned that he “was the only one there living on a reserve, and they didn’t even know where it was exactly. They were really interested in my community, and asked a lot of questions about the Cree and about Waskaganish.”
Jonathan Perron-Clow, an organizer of the Forum, saw the importance of Stevens’s attendance. “It is hugely valuable, both for him and for non-Aboriginal participants. For non-Aboriginals, it gives them the chance to see something they might not otherwise see, and make real links between what they see at the program and what goes on back home.
“For Aboriginal participants it gives them tools to make changes in their community, and to interact with other Aboriginals. Whether they be Aboriginals living in the city or on a reserve. It gives everyone the opportunity to see that young Aboriginals are very dynamic and want to make positive change,” Perron-Clow added.
Stevens spoke of a debate he had at the Forum, which was set up to discuss seal hunting in Canada. “I was supporting the Native hunters, which they just call the seal hunters. […] The other group was against it, but they didn’t have good points. They said the hunters waste the food – they just kill seals and leave them there. But they’ve only seen photos, they haven’t seen it in person like we have.”
Then Stevens added, “I was there, I saw my grandfather shoot a seal. He fed it to his family. That’s what I told them. Have you ever seen a guy hunt a seal before? They were kind of shocked by it.”
Engaging in these kinds of discussions is exactly what Perron-Clow says is so good for the participants. “It’s about having the confidence that people want to hear what you have to say, and then sharing it,” he said.
Despite the busy schedule Stevens was able to take a quick break to join the Nishiyuu walkers as they arrived on Parliament Hill. “Afterwards, when I spoke to Stevens he was kind of quiet but had a smile, that he was able to be part of it and go full circle,” said Perron-Clow.
When asked what’s next for him, Stevens calmly responded, “I don’t really know what I want to be right now, but going to college is a good start.”