The RCMP raid at the Unist’ot’en protest camp in northern British Columbia shows the ugly side of this so-called land of human rights that is Canada. On the other hand, what amazes me is the overwhelming support Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs got across the country and even worldwide. Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people gathered not only to protest the Coastal GasLink pipeline but also to protest the Trudeau government. Meanwhile, journalists expressed concerns about press freedom as the RCMP cut communication lines during the raid and prevented them from covering the event. The RCMP later denied doing so.
In Winnipeg, a 24-hour sacred fire was organized in support of the camp. A crowd largely composed of young people braved the cold to show solidarity. Among them were many members of Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO), a youth-led movement from Winnipeg’s impoverished North End.
Kakeka Thundersky, a 20-year old Anishinaabe woman, works with AYO to make what they call “the village” a better and safer place. “There’s no place like the North End,” she said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, there’s a lot of violence but there’s a strong sense of community. People take care of each other.”
Most of the time, they’re not paid for the work they do. They volunteer for their initiatives, driven by a desire to support each other as they navigate systems that are still oppressing Indigenous people.
AYO has many active projects and initiatives. Their latest is the 13 Moons Harm Reduction project for urban Indigenous youth aged 11-35 years who use drugs, or who have used drugs and are facing obstacles. For those of you not familiar with harm reduction, it aims to lessen the harm associated with substance use by implanting programs and policies for people who can’t or are unwilling to quit. It focuses on people who already use, so it is not prevention.
Kakeka and others have been trained as outreach workers to help those who want to reduce their substance use as one of the six components to the project. They also do advocacy to destigmatize substance users. Their advisory team has some members are sober and some who are not. Inclusion is a big part of the philosophy – no one is left behind.
I agree with that. By showing substance users that they have a place to belong where they won’t be judged can save lives. It can encourage people to use in a safer way or even motivate them to get the help they need. The AYO team also carries naloxone kits to deal with opioid overdoses in the ongoing fentanyl crisis. Drugs users are still human beings who deserve dignity, and their lives still matter.
The movement has a strong presence in the neighbourhood. They even do Midnight Medicine Walks and smudge the streets to show support to exploited women.
“We bring ceremonies to the hood; not everyone can go to the bush. Not everyone has a car or money to go out on the land,” Kakeka points out. “It’s a way for us to reclaim our space. Our ancestors were here before the streets. In our ceremonies, we accept everyone too.”
AYO has programing most of the week and gather before bad things happen, as Kakeka would say. “Gathering outside of protests, funerals or vigils is important.” Like other youth involved with AYO, Kakeka grew up in foster care. The movement allowed her to make a better life for herself.
I’ve been watching them from afar and I am truly moved by everything they come up with. I asked Kakeka what would be her advice for youth in Eeyou Istchee. She replied, “Do not wait if you want to start an initiative and don’t wait for bureaucracy to give you approval for it.”