#13, February 2023
Reimagining reconciliation from the perspective of Indigenous youth
Respect, Reciprocity, Reconciliation, and Relevance. These are the four “Rs” at the core of the 4Rs Youth Movement. This inclusive, youth-led, Indigenous-centered movement aims to foster reconciliation in ways relevant to Indigenous young people across Canada. We spoke with Jessica Bolduc, executive director of 4Rs.
An interview with Jessica Bolduc, executive director of 4R’s Youth Movement
Photo credit: Shayla Snowshoe – Snowshoe studios
Raccords : Perspectives on what it means to mend colonial relations in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada differ whether you are young or old, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, a settler, a refugee, or a migrant person. Are bringing these cross-cultural and cross-generational perspectives to reconciliation at the core of your initiative?
Jessica Bolduc : Our intention has always been to work in a cross-cultural manner. With the support of young leaders and adult allies from across national organizations, we kick-started this movement in 2014 with the aim of promoting systemic change through youth-driven initiatives for solidarity-building across diversity. We felt it was essential to make room for different stories and how these can reshape how we live, connect, and move forward. Reimagining the relationships between Black folks, refugees, settlers, immigrants, and Indigenous young people calls upon our ability to recognize each other’s history of coming to this land. With this in mind, the movement provided a space and convening events for people to locate themselves in their history. Young people are now putting in the hard and authentic work of reimagining what it means to be in a relationship as Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples; they are repairing the harms done by building restorative relationships and going beyond mere transactional dynamics. Critical dialogue and self-determination are two levers for generating the systemic change that the 4Rs movement hopes to create.
Raccords : The stories we tell about any social-justice issue can shape or break a system. Even with the best of intentions, they can often create more harm than good—simply because there isn’t enough narrative power distribution. There is a parallel to be made between your model and the grassroots, bottom-up approach specific to the field of practice of social innovation. Potential for impact and systems change emerges simply by allowing young change-makers to own and tell their stories and reframe what Truth and Reconciliation mean through their own lens.
Jessica Bolduc : Yes. I agree. We strive to centre Indigenous young people’s voices and actions in the work around right relations and decolonization. You see, when we think about Truth and Reconciliation, there’s the truth part, which refers to the ability to recognize and understand the history and the presence of the Indigenous experience through Indigenous people’s own telling and self-expression. And then there’s the reconciliation part, which focuses primarily on reconciling relationships. Too often, the default interpretation of what this means is the reconciliation of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, which is essential, of course. However, we need to repair relationships with our languages, culture, community and family structures, economic structures, governance structures, land, and spirituality in light of what colonization did to our communities and us. I feel overwhelmed just thinking about all that! That’s the reconciliation work that these young people are trying to do.
Raccords : How has the movement evolved since its beginnings?
Jessica Bolduc : Over time, we realized that Indigenous youth-led initiatives were being overshadowed by the need to educate non-Indigenous people and that resources around reconciliation frequently prioritized relationship-building between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Relationship-building is essential. There is no denying that. But from an Indigenous youth’s perspective, reconciliation looks and feels completely different than what’s oftentimes defined by the government or by non-Indigenous organizations. We realized that the needs of Indigenous people are not always at the forefront of reconciliation work, which can lead us to lose faith in the process as it is conducted in Canada.
To keep our work relevant to Indigenous youth and aligned with our guiding 4Rs values, we must always keep the ever-changing needs of Indigenous young people at the centre of what we do. That’s why we shifted our efforts to prioritizing the support of Indigenous-led projects around reconciliation as Indigenous young people see fit rather than doing cross-cultural programming. This entails looking at reconciliation through the lenses of self-determination, cultural reclamation, healing and wellness. In other words, instead of pushing a reconciliation narrative onto them, we let young Indigenous people determine what will help advance social justice in their communities. Whether they call it reconciliation, or decolonization, or healing justice, it’s up to them to define and connect within their communities.
Raccords : Is the 4Rs Youth Movement a radical or disruptive shift from existing programs anchored in Canadian efforts for reconciliation?
Jessica Bolduc : There needs to be more alignment between what reconciliation means for the government, for a non-Indigenous person, and an Indigenous one. So to change that, we began advocating with governments and foundations to call attention to the importance of aligning resources and funding to meet Indigenous young people’s needs as they define them, rather than try to push them to fit into a program that isn’t about Indigenous youth-led work.
A couple of years ago, I met a young Indigenous person at an event. We stood by the large-scale art installation called the Witness Blanket by artist Carey Newman. This young person was upset because they felt they could never achieve reconciliation in their lifetime until they spoke their language. And that seemed like an impossible feat, considering the lack of resources available to them. For this person, reconciliation seemed empty. The loss of one’s language and culture is devastating.
And so beyond Indigenous-youth led initiatives, we advocate for dedicated mental-health support for our programs, and for resources for Indigenous young people to be able to access knowledge keepers and Elders—or for them to be able to do work at the frontlines of their communities around climate change without fear of being criminalized. Indigenous young people want to act and work within their community in service of reconciliation. But the resources for such work and the mainstream narrative aren’t always coherent with how they see reconciliation. Instead of putting them in a competing position with other initiatives that cater to non-Indigenous perspectives on reconciliation and relationship-building, we want to make sure that investments in Indigenous young people are directed to projects that appeal to them and are led by them.
It’s about both reframing the narrative about reconciliation and enabling Indigenous youth to take action, reclaim it and define for themselves what it means to be. In a context that is ever-changing, being relevant and accountable to Indigenous youth also means accepting when they reject the language and notion of reconciliation altogether. It’s also about helping young people to realize the gifts that they have and to offer those gifts to the world.
Raccords : It’s enlightening to see how the 4Rs Youth movement has integrated the importance of intergenerational inclusiveness toward reconciliation! Do other age groups have a role to play in the movement?
Jessica Bolduc : Yes, we work intergenerationally at an organizational level by intentionally bringing in elders and knowledge-keepers to participate in what we do throughout the year. In a community, there is rarely something that’s done without multiple generations involved. We mirror what a community looks like in our work.
Both adults and Elders help out the youth. To begin with, we give them a peer-support structure and encourage them to work in teams to move towards healthier organizing practices and community work. Trying to do it all alone is a recipe for burnout! We pay attention to the patterns in our community work that come from colonialism and capitalism, and support each other to build interconnectedness and move into closer alignment with our values and teachings as Indigenous peoples.
Our staff team also coaches youth to access whatever capacity-building they need. It can be about community organizing, project planning, outreach, or support with their budget or with leading workshops. For example, in the summer of 2019, Gwich’in & Inuvialuit youth, in partnership with 4Rs, designed and hosted an on-the-land gathering at Midway Lake in the Northwest Territories. Centered around the Midway Lake music festival, it’s a place the youth created where they, along with Elders and knowledge-keepers, could gather and experience a traditional family-based camp that was true to the gathering’s original purpose and meaning, and to how it had been done for generations in their communities. The gathering brought together people from 3 months to 92 years old who had roots in this place. It was a compelling experience because we were walking with each other. Both youth and Elders were able to give a shared healing experience to one another. That wouldn’t have been possible had they not been able to have the support and resources to live out reconciliation and do it in the manner that they imagined.
Photo credit: Shayla Snowshoe – Snowshoe studios
Raccords : When envisioning the future of the 4Rs Youth Movement, what do you hope for?
Jessica Bolduc : I hope for rest for Indigenous young people. So I hope we can carve out a place for the Indigenous young people we work with that is one of joy and rest and filled with the beauty they embody as Indigenous people, without having to fight for it or justify it to anyone. I hope they can just be, and exist, as Indigenous young people in the way that feels closest to their hearts. That is what I envision for the future.
Jessica Bolduc is Anishinaabe and mixed settler ancestry living in Baawaating (Sault Ste. Marie, ON). While she considers herself part of the off-reserve Indigenous community, she is a member of Batchewana First Nation, with family relations and generations of stories that tie her to Garden River First Nation. She is the executive director of the 4Rs Youth Movement.
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