The Inspiring Youth of Forward Summit | WEST 2024

Forward Summit Actua Inspiring Youth Panel

By: Jay Cumming

Last week, Forward Summit | WEST 2024 was held on the beautiful Tsuut’ina Nation in Calgary, Alberta. With over 100 keynote speakers, 1000+ attendees, and 70+ sponsors, Forward Summit | WEST 2024 showcased amazing achievements and inspiring success stories that are shaping the future of Indigenous economic empowerment. With over 250 communities drawn together from across Canada, summit participants were greeted warmly by National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak’s opening.

As the first combination of Forward Summit and Workforce Forward, a theme of engagement arose as an overarching narrative for the entire conference. Assisted in part by the youth delegation panel early on day one, conversations surrounding engagement very quickly evolved into discussions around youth and how we, as adults, can leave a better world for those who come after us. After all, our children don’t inherit the world from us – we borrow the world from our children.

This youth delegation panel featured four remarkably bright high school students who will undoubtedly become the next generation of leaders working towards economic reconciliation for Indigenous people in Canada. With discussions covering a wide variety of topics like mental health, education and living in both worlds as an Indigenous person, there were several actionable ideas put forward that companies can implement today to begin improving the ability to engage Indigenous youth across Canada.

Supporting Mental Health

Mental health resources have been improving at an incredible pace over the past decade, but we’re still not where we need to be when supporting groups so disproportionately affected by trauma like Indigenous people in Canada. Both Gabby J. and Roderick W. shared their histories with mental health, which included both personal struggles and the experience of watching others struggle with opioids and self-medication.

Employers need to provide resources and a safe space for Indigenous employees to form communities, both internally and externally. By embracing Indigenous culture, we support employees as they build their cultural identities and participate in the workforce on their own terms.

We also need to enable our employees to seek help when needed and remove stigmas surrounding medication and counselling as methods for managing mental illness. And while we’ve come a long way in de-stigmatizing these, we still need to go further.

Supporting Education

While things have been improving in the past several years, there’s still a gap between educational opportunities for Indigenous youth relative to the rest of Canada. As Kaden C. pointed out, there is a difference in the graduation rates of children in on-reserve and off-reserve schools. Unfortunately, some of these educational differences can manifest into challenges that can last for someone’s entire working career and perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

These schools lack textbooks, qualified teachers, and expertise in communicating with a group of children that may be more inclined to participate in alternative learning strategies like experiential learning. In many cases these youth also lack infrastructure like internet access and reliable energy.

Inclusion starts with meaningful knowledge sharing. As employers, we need to consider a more wholistic approach to candidate evaluation that may include things like transferable skills rather than formal education evaluations. Furthermore, we can support the development of Indigenous employees for the next generation of executives by creating safe places where Indigenous employees can learn through experiences how to best contribute to companies in a traditional employment relationship.

Supporting Indigenous Identities

Indigenous employees often face a significant challenge of identity in the workplace. As Benji B. put it, they don’t want to choose between the two worlds they live in, but when navigating economic paradigms built without the inclusion of Indigenous people, maintaining an Indigenous identity while participating in an inherently colonial society is very difficult.

As employers, we need to create corporate cultures that support the identity of Indigenous people. This means allowing our employees to prioritize family and relationships in a balance with their work and improve our paid time off policies to reflect Indigenous holidays and ceremonies rather than exclusively offering time off for traditional Christian holidays.

Through closing the infrastructure gap and adjusting our corporate policies to support economic reconciliation and Indigenous people, the Canadian economy would benefit by $27.7 billion annually, or 1.5% of the total GDP.

At this juncture, it feels appropriate to say that the youth who spoke on the panel are cautiously optimistic. In my opinion, however, if this is the caliber of future leaders we can expect, the future of economic reconciliation in Canada looks very bright.

Jay Cumming is the Vice President & Publisher for The Davis Media Company, an Indigenous-owned print and digital publishing firm that produces innovative media products in partnership with non-profit groups throughout North America and the publishing partner of Forward Summit.

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