In September 2001, the Senate adopted a motion by Senator Thelma Chalifoux, then chair of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, to undertake a study into the situation affecting urban Aboriginal youth in Canada. This was prompted by the significant input that the Committee had received during its previous sessions from urban Aboriginal people and organizations. Alberta Senator Chalifoux was the first Aboriginal woman and the first Métis Canadian to ever be appointed to the Senate of Canada. She brought with her considerable experience as an educator and active member of her community and was an ideal person to chair this study. I was proud to work with Senator Chalifoux as Deputy Chair of the Committee as my home province of Manitoba and its capital of Winnipeg had and continues to have, the highest concentration of urban Aboriginal youth in Canada.
The rapid growth of young indigenous people who were living off-reserve and in our cities and towns was a demographic trend that would only increase in the years ahead. Moreover, in our view it was vital that legislators and policymakers took a comprehensive look into the situation faced by indigenous youth within our urban centres. The Committee was tasked with examining:
- the access, provision and delivery of services;
- policy and jurisdictional issues;
- employment and education;
- access to economic opportunities;
- youth participation and empowerment and other related matters.
Over eighteen months, the Committee held 44 meetings and heard from over 128 witnesses from all across Canada. Throughout the process, we came across many remarkable individuals working to support youth in our cities. We also witnessed a great desire among the youth to acquire the skills and education to succeed.
The final report, “Urban Aboriginal Youth: An Action Plan for Change,” was released in October 2003 and contained 19 recommendations which mapped out both “short and long term strategies that addressed the aspirations of youth, laying out the foundations upon which their potential can be nurtured, supported and realized.” The Action Plan for Change which contained our recommendations, were grouped into four areas: Policy and Jurisdiction; Program and Service Delivery; Partnerships; and Urban Aboriginal Youth Initiatives.
Our key recommendations revolved around a recalibration of the policy and program landscape, which we came to discover was disjointed. We called for a scan of existing programs for indigenous youth to be undertaken and for the establishment of a national “clearing house” to more effectively and efficiently deliver critically-needed services. Issues surrounding urban housing and the registration of status-Indians under Bill C-31 were identified as core concerns from which many other challenges for indigenous youth emanated. We called on the federal government to address these inequities “as a matter of priority.”
Over 10 years later, many of these issues remain outstanding, but have more powerfully entered the public’s consciousness, especially with the longstanding call for and eventual establishment of a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Moreover, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report on December 15, 2015, it is my hope that the federal government and its partners finally begin to effectively resolve the deep and structural barriers faced by urban indigenous youth.