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Student leaders empowered as advocates for change at Kelowna conference

Student Leadership Conference underway at Rutland Secondary School

The ’80s hit song Power Of Love amplified by speakers in the forum of Rutland Senior Secondary School was an apt musical setting for the opening ceremonies of the B.C. Student Leadership Conference leadership conference on Thursday.

Love for youth, love for each other, and love for the land and water that sustains us were keynote messages reiterated throughout the opening ceremonies, which gave recognition to the Indigenous people’s history and culture with the participation of Elders Grouse and Pamela Barnes.

The Huey Lewis song was the theme for the ’80s Back To The Future movies, which is a theme for the conference, the first held in the post-COVID pandemic era since Williams Lake hosted in 2019.

Keynote speaker Kevin Lamoureux, a teacher at the University of Winnipeg and leading proponent for Aboriginal education, spoke to the audience of 250 youth about how their generation is what gives him hope for the future.

“I have a firm belief that young people have an incredible capacity to create change,” Lamoureux said.

“You are not going to fix all the problems we have today, and you don’t deserve that. But I am hopeful because of your passion.”

He related two stories that reflected that passion among Indigenous youth, achievement combined with setbacks, that underline the influence of youth.

One concerned six Cree youths and their guide who from January to March 2013 walked 1,600 kilometres from Whapmagoostui First Nation, the northernmost Cree village in Quebec, to Parliament Hill in Ottawa in support of the ‘Idle No More’ movement.

They called their trek ‘The Journey of Nishiyuu, which is Cree for ‘people.’

Lamoureux related how as the group attracted national media attention, as thousands of people welcomed their arrival in Ottawa.

But nearing the end of their journey, one of the youths learned his brother had committed suicide back at the reserve.

Despite that heartbreaking news, the youth still completed the journey with his co-walkers.

“Those on the trek all cried with him, sang Indigenous songs for him, grieved with him,” Lamoureux recounted as they pushed forward to finish their journey.

He reflected on how social change is never a straight line, but often one step forward and two steps back.

The second story was about Shannen Koostachin, a youth Indigenous education advocate, who has been named one of the 150 greatest Canadians, and has a memorial statue of her in Sudbury, Ont., recognizing her advocacy efforts for change.

From the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario, began to upload videos of the deplorable conditions she and other students faced in First Nation Reserves schools, which found an audience and went viral.

She used that public awareness to take her message to Parliament Hill in 2009, to demand the federal government provide better, safer schools for students living on reserves, which evolved into a public campaign known as Shannen’s Dream.

Koostachin moved to Sudbury to pursue her education dream to become a lawyer but tragically died in a car accident in June 2010 at the age of 15.

Shannen’s Dream has since lived on through the First Nation Child and Caring Society, based in Ottawa.

Lamoureux said the Indigenous concept of raising children for thousands of years before the arrival of European immigrants to North America, youth were “unapologetically loved.”

“Children were sacred to our culture. It was important for them to feel and be told every day they are loved,” he said.

He cited the circle of truth developed by an Indigenous leader based on the principles of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity.

“What I say to all of you is to be the best you, you can be, be your best self,” he said.

He stressed while education is important, to not let it define who you are, or your direction in life.

“We all are good at something that matters to our life and the lives of others,” he said.

“You may not know what you are good at yet, but that doesn’t matter. You may not know what your goal in life is yet, but you will.”

Kevin Kaardal, Central Okanagan Public Schools superintendent/CEO, also spoke at the opening ceremonies, saying both his daughters, now in their 30s, attended past leadership conferences and as adults have become leaders in their career professions.

“Some of the students they met at these conferences are still friends of theirs today,” he said.

He described the leadership conference as a critical tool in helping students learn and be self-empowered to become leaders in their communities as adults.


Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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