In the Blog
Learning to be an Ally in Indigenous Activism
Illustration by Beena Mistry
Kindness and fairness are simple, basic ideas taught to most of us at an early age. But I only began to understand what they meant after hearing about Shannen Koostachin.
Shannen, a member of the Attawapiskat First Nation, wanted to attend a school with adequate facilities. She pleaded with the Canadian federal government to build a school in her community, but her initial demands were met with silence. Shannen tragically died in a car accident in 2010, but her activism led to the building of the Kattawapiskak Elementary School in 2014. Her activism also inspired the youth-led campaign “Shannen’s Dream” that continues to advocate for equal education for all Indigenous children.
Shannen’s story found me in Grade 2, and forced me to question why I don’t have to worry about schooling, while others – like Shannen – have to fight for basic rights that should be guaranteed. It seemed obvious that Shannen’s struggle was a result of unfairness, or what I later came to understand as injustice. Shannen’s work inspired me to advocate for Indigenous children who faced similar injustices.
I had good intentions, but quickly learned that I could not understand Shannen’s struggle. I could never experience the pain and injustice caused by colonization’s legacy, or the unfairness of having inadequate schooling. So how could I confront the injustice I witnessed? This question helped me realize I could ally with Indigenous-led movements.
First, I found a mentor within the Indigenous community. Finding a mentor is an important step to becoming an ally because it encourages listening and learning. Indigenous cultures place great emphasis on the storyteller as part of an oral tradition that passes knowledge down to younger generations. We can learn from these traditions when we engage with Indigenous cultures.
My most important mentor has been Dr. Cindy Blackstock. Dr. Blackstock is the executive director of The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Cindy successfully launched a human rights case against the Canadian government arguing that they discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding the on-reserve child welfare system. Dr. Blackstock helped me understand that you don’t need to experience injustice to recognize and address it. She continues to encourage my activism and welcomes contributions I make to Indigenous-led movements.
Cindy’s mentorship combined with my growing activism made me see that social movements succeed only with help from the larger society. Cindy and Shannen are not just victims of injustice. They are the storytellers that define injustice and motivate us to advocate for change.
I decided that I wanted to give voice to their struggle in my own way. I spoke at The Ottawa International Writers Festival, The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and at a Unifor convention. My words echoed the lessons I learned from Cindy and Shannen, and challenged those who refused to see that change was necessary. I also interned at The First Nations Family Caring Society. While there, I had the opportunity to work with other youth activists on campaigns like “Touchstones of Hope” and “Orange Shirt Day.”
Allies are needed for these campaigns. If you want to become an ally to Indigenous activism, here are some Indigenous-led movements that you can support:
Jordan’s Principle honours Jordan River Anderson and addresses the inequities faced by Indigenous children when they seek public services. It ensures public services administered to Indigenous children take into account the cultural needs and history of a colonized peoples.
The Assembly of First Nations has a policy initiative dedicated to addressing the disproportionate amount of violence faced by Indigenous girls, women and two-spirited people. They seek the development of a national action plan to end violence against Indigenous women and girls.
The Spirit Bear campaign engages youth activists by providing resources to learn about discrimination against Indigenous children. Spirit Bear has a book and a movie to teach children about The Human Rights Tribunal and how they can support the campaign.
The most important part of being an ally is knowing that learning and growing is a process. My understanding of unfairness was nurtured and deepened when I learned about those in our society who are not as privileged as I am. I also learned that those most harmed by injustice welcome the help of others. My journey is not complete; I continue to learn and listen on my way to becoming an effective ally.