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Young Indigenous changemakers in Rama learning to lead

'It’s showing people that we do heal, we do move beyond our traumas and hardships and that we're just as capable as everybody else,' says Krystal Brooks

The first protest Krystal Brooks ever attended was one she organized herself.

Brooks harnessed the power of Facebook to advertise a round dance at Barrie's Georgian Mall. The aim was to bring awareness to injustices of all kinds that Indigenous people living in Canada continue to face.

“Bring your hand drums, regalia, ribbon skirts, posters and your [N]ative pride,” read the event description.

And they did. Thirty or so participants gathered around the mall’s tall brick fireplace. Many tied posters together with red ribbon so they could be worn, freeing up their hands and bodies to dance. Men and women drummed, as children mimicked them, clapping their hands in time with the adults.

“My favourite part was people actually wanting to stand there and listen and learn more about the issues,” says Brooks. She spent her time handing out flyers detailing the group’s message and red ribbon pins symbolizing Indigenous women and girls who are missing or murdered. She made 150 pins and flyers each, and by the end of the day all had been taken.

Since that small gathering, Brooks has taken part in many more protests, demonstrations and works of activism — all of which led to the 29-year-old’s involvement in politics. Brooks is representing the Green Party for Simcoe North in the upcoming provincial election, and ran for the Greens federally just last fall.

This election, putting a moratorium on extraction at The Teedon Gravel Pit, where fresh water is being used to wash gravel, and stopping sprawl in Simcoe North are two top issues for Brooks and the party. Brooks says her main goals are to raise awareness and make people feel heard during the campaign.

“There's provincial issues that are going on right now that have been blatantly ignored and are extremely important,” says Brooks. “I've gone door knocking more for the (water issues at Teedon Gravel Pit) than I have actually for the campaign, and it's amazing how many people don't know about what's going on.”

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In recent years, young Indigenous people worldwide have been stepping forward as leaders on issues that matter to them — and Rama has been part of that trend. Leaders like Brooks have been lending their voices to an array of causes, both from within the bounds of politics and in less formal ways.

“I see it happening, and it's a beautiful thing to see. When young people's voices are elevated, we can see them grow,” says Michael Lickers, Royal Roads University’s Indigenous scholar in residence and an expert on Indigenous youth leadership.

According to Lickers, informal leadership and the passing down of knowledge to youth are important parts in building Indigenous youth up to be strong leaders as they grow into positions of power.

Historically, all Indigenous ceremonies would involve youth, allowing them to contribute their voices or simply listen and learn from elders, Lickers says.

“In most communities, young people's voices were not only honoured and respected, but also validated.”

The breakup of families as a tool of colonization — namely, the Sixties Scoop and residential school system — meant that the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next was lost. Lickers says there are now few Indigenous adults who have had traditional knowledge passed down to them, making it crucial that today’s youth learn it before it is lost.

Traditional leadership knowledge encompasses what Western cultures might call virtues — experiential attributes like compassion or patience. The first step to being a leader for Indigenous youth is simply involvement in their own culture.

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Despite growing up in Bracebridge, Brooke Morrow, a founding coordinator of Rama’s Youth Council, kept connected to her culture by attending powwows with her grandfather.

Each year, Morrow’s grandfather would give her a $25 allowance to buy something at the event. She’d race between vendors’ tents, inspecting her options which ranged from jewellery to Indian tacos. Morrow still remembers her favourite souvenir; a kid’s sized bow and arrow, hand crafted out of wood with a rubber “arrowhead” fixed at the end.

Since then, Morrow has maintained her connection to her culture through artwork and reading as much Indigenous literature as she can get her hands on. Now a student at the University of Ottawa, she’s pairing Indigenous studies with a creative writing minor.

Morrow was one of two young community members hired in the beginning of 2021 to make the youth council, which community members had been seeking to establish for some time, a reality. The Rama Youth Council has since aimed to connect the community’s youth and give them a voice.

Though Morrow left the council in March to focus on her education, the council afforded her some fantastic opportunities she says, such as being able to be a voice for Rama’s youth on the construction of a new basketball court.

Rama’s Chief and Council asked to meet with the youth council in order to get the perspective of the community’s youth on the proposed court, inviting them into the decision making process.

The court, destined for a field that backs on to a housing development, would replace an old one near the cultural centre which Morrow called “defunct.” Its cracking, uneven pavement and lower-than-regulation sized hoops rendered it less than ideal to play on. The youth council took the pulse of Rama’s youth through surveys and social media and found that young people in Rama wanted the court.

“We found ourselves asking, ‘Well, what else do we have for our youth to do?’” says Morrow.

The groups ultimately came to the decision that the court would be built, but with rules for its usage put in place to mitigate fears of some community members who thought youth might use it improperly. Morrow says youth council members felt “completely validated” from this consultation.

According to Lickers, this is a near-perfect example of how youth should be taught to lead, as the process involved all generations and youth learned by experience about the decision-making process.

The youth council has arranged to meet with chief and council in the coming months, and holding regular meetings between the groups is one of Kallista Jacobs’ primary focuses as the youth council’s new coordinator. Jacobs has been a member since November 2021 and coordinator since February of this year.

“Having the youth council and Chief and Council work together — especially on issues that are concerning (youth), and that are going to concern our future — it's super important that we're involved in those,” says Jacobs.

Krystal Brooks says she still hopes to gain more traditional knowledge, but tries to live by the Seven Grandfather Teachings and incorporate them into politics whenever possible. The response to her incorporating Indigenous perspectives, even in working groups where she is the only Indigenous person, has been very positive so far, says Brooks.

She adds the response from non-Indigenous people to Indigenous advocacy as a whole has been improving. The candidate organized a ceremony at Couchiching Beach Park for Red Dress Day in early May to share support for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“I've held a few gatherings or events like that in the past. And there were rarely ever people who were not Indigenous that attended. What was amazing about this one, is that 90 per cent of the people that showed up were non-Indigenous,” says Brooks, adding that two attendees were provincial candidates for the upcoming provincial election.

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Given the Rama Youth Council began in the shadow of COVID-19, their presence has been largely virtual, consisting of Zoom events and the sharing of information with Rama’s younger members through Instagram. Initiatives like financial planning for young adults and sessions on how to navigate post-secondary education suffered low attendance as it was difficult to get youth engaged over Zoom, according to Morrow.

Jacobs, too, feels the disconnection of the virtual world. Though members are now able to meet in person, she’s had to lead the group over Zoom while majoring in Indigenous studies at Western University with the hopes of eventually becoming a lawyer.

While the council eats together in the community room of the Rama MASK, bonding over a shared meal — usually of pizza or Subway — Jacobs joins from her apartment in London, Ont. and misses the sense of communion.

As the group itself is still young, Jacobs says some of the work they have to do is still “foundational,” like team building. The group has plans to attend the Annual Chiefs Assembly in in June and sell youth council swag on Indigenous Peoples Day, with more initiatives in the works.

Leadership for Brooks has come with challenges as well, namely in the form of harassing or hateful messages during campaigns. Someone recently vandalized the Green Party sign outside her house, writing ‘Go back to the reserve, b****’ on one side and ‘Suck another one, w****,’ on the other.

In the fall, Brooks received so many sexualized messages from men on social media that she had to disable her candidate Facebook account from receiving messages for a period of time.

Brooks said in a press release that the hate saddened her, but that she has also experienced immense support in her political career. “What shocks me is the overwhelming amount of support coming from this riding and beyond,” the press release said.

In both campaigns, Brooks received positive messages from other politicians and community members alike. On election day in September, Brooks was checking her messages in a parking lot in Midland while waiting to meet up with other local Green Party members. One message was from a local transgender woman, expressing that Brooks made her feel safe.

Brooks sat down on a concrete barrier in the parking lot and cried. “(That message) really made all the difference for me, because I kept wondering whether I was doing the right thing, whether I was even fit for (running).” Knowing she had a positive impact on at least one marginalized person made running worth it, she added.

Among the original teachings Lickers says must be passed down are traits such as love, compassion and gratitude — all of which can grow through the encouragement of youth. Brooks, Morrow and Jacobs all expressed that general encouragement enabled them to become leaders.

Despite becoming involved with the local Green Party and helping canvas for Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte representative Marty Lancaster, Brooks says she never saw herself running to be a member of parliament until Erik Schomann asked her to.

Schomann, CEO for the Simcoe North Greens, asked Brooks to run at a lunchtime meeting last July. Brooks’ sunglasses hid the shocked expression that she says must have crossed her face.

“I remember being in shock for the first 24 hours, that somebody on this planet — despite everything — thinks that I would be a good candidate,” says Brooks.

As a recovering addict who grew up in foster care and experienced sex trafficking, Brooks says she didn’t see people like herself as politicians.

This time around, Brooks feels more confident in her candidacy. When she was announced as the Green Party representative for the riding at a campaign event at Apple Annie’s in late April, Brooks says she abandoned her cue cards and said what she felt instead. While she’s heard Indigenous leaders talk about speaking from the heart before, this was the first time she was able to do it herself.

“It was the first time I was able to address a crowd of people in my own words and in that moment. And I've never been that comfortable in front of a crowd,” she says.

Brooks also ran - successfully - to be the Ontario representative on the Green Party's federal council. Her role is to make decisions for the federal Green Party on behalf of Ontarians.

"I’m so honoured and proud to have this opportunity to represent the voices of Ontario," says Brooks in a tweet."

But, for now, she is focused on the provincial election.

Despite only pulling in 3 per cent of Simcoe North’s vote in the federal race, Brooks says “winning” and being a leader to her is about representing people authentically.

“It’s showing people that we do heal, we do move beyond our traumas and hardships and that we're just as capable as everybody else.”