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Perspectives from the field of Child and Youth Care

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The importance of history to the identity of Indigenous youth

The over-representation of Indigenous young people in the Canadian justice system is a national crisis. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada says this over-representation is particularly true in the custody and pretrial detention stages of the legal cycle. The Canadian Council of Provincial and Child Advocates suggests Indigenous children and youth in Canada are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system than they are to graduate from high school.

Young people have always played an important role in Indigenous cultures. Unfortunately, Canada’s colonial legacy (including the residential school system) has had a dramatically negative impact on Indigenous youth. Not surprisingly, Indigenous young people are often confused about their identity. They are unsure whether they should remain true to an Indigenous identity or if they should embrace "mainstream" culture.

The Indigenous young people in the community our research team has interviewed recognize the generational impact of colonization and cite its ongoing direct connection to the over-representation of young people in custody and pretrial detention. Many youth have shared personal, familial and community experiences of racism and discrimination, substance abuse, sexual and physical violence, poverty, trauma and loss. To the young people in our research study, colonization is not an abstract concept of the past: rather, colonization still resonates deeply today.

Our research confirms a key ingredient to rebuilding the well-being of Indigenous young people is establishing a connection to their history. They are strengthened by knowledge concerning their ceremonies, their clans, the role of treaties, the role of elders in Indigenous communities and the Indigenous connection to the land.

As an elder we interviewed told us: “We have a memory of our history; take them to the mountains to fast, to find their name. Through our ceremony, through our own traditional values, with our own communities getting healthy, we can bring our youth home.”

By Carla Cesaroni, Chris Grol and Jill Thompson

8 February 2018


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