Dispelling common myths about First Nations youth

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Participation Wednesday, October 05, 2016 View Count = 4879

Dispelling common myths about First Nations youth

Theo_Nazary_blogToday's guest blog is from Theo Nazary, a PhD student at Ryerson University. His specialization is in Canadian Public Policy and areas of research include Indigenous-Canadian relations and political behaviour. This research was part of his Master’s dissertation at McMaster University, which was highlighted on CBC’s Summer U radio program.


It isn’t uncommon to hear arguments that First Nations youth are the most apathetic cohort in Canadian society. Historically, First Nations peoples have participated at lower levels electorally than any other group in Canada. However, in the 2015 federal election, First Nations youth participated in record numbers, in addition to leading Idle No More, one of Canada’s largest social movements. While voter turnout increased in First Nations communities, it is still too early to be overly optimistic about these results.

The contrast between historically low levels of electoral participation and active involvement in Idle No More led me to study the political behaviour of youth in Whitefish River First Nation, a First Nations community in Northern Ontario, following the federal election in 2015. While my research was largely qualitative, it included a questionnaire influenced by “Lightweights? Political Participation Beyond the Ballot Box,” a Samara report that looked at political participation more broadly. My results call into question the long-held myth that First Nations youth are apathetic and disengaged from politics.

For First Nations peoples, voting is not as simple or straightforward as it can be for non-Indigenous Canadians. There are complex issues to consider, such as treaty-relations, whether voting will advance their nation-to-nation relations, or whether their political efforts might be better focused elsewhere. Many First Nations do not vote in Canadian elections because they believe these elections have been imposed on them, and have suppressed their traditional forms of governance. Given these concerns and beliefs, it’s important to look at other ways First Nations may be channeling their political energies.

Indeed, youth in Whitefish River found voting and formal political activities like contacting politicians, joining or volunteering for political parties, or donating money to parties less important than political activities that are rooted in their community, tradition, and culture. These efforts include attending events organized by their community leadership, working with others on a community issue, joining community organizations, volunteering in the community, volunteering or attending pow wows, and taking part in sweat lodges and fasts. Moreover, young people in this community found involvement in direct-action activities like protests and blockades more useful than many other efforts.

My research demonstrates that First Nations youth – in Whitefish River, at least – are highly engaged in less conventional forms of politics, challenging the claim that First Nations youth are uninterested, uninformed, and disengaged from politics. Youth in this community are continuing to uphold their traditions by practicing politics where it matters most – in their local communities – and preserving their cultural practices like pow wows, sweat lodges, and fasts, despite efforts by previous governments to eliminate them. In addition, youth in this community are not only highly critical of Canadian institutions and politicians, but also very informed about politics generally.

More research needs to be done, but these findings are positive and indicate that we may be entering a new era in the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian state, led by bright, informed, and engaged First Nations youth. So next time someone tells you First Nations youth simply don’t care, you'll know how to respond.


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