Ask the Expert: What role do Indigenous youth play in reconciliation?

This article originally appeared on—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on June 19, 2019. It has been edited and condensed for length.

Max FineDay is the executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange, a youth-led charity, with offices in Toronto, Saskatoon and Montreal, that engages Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in reconciliation dialogues, leadership development and education initiatives at local and national levels. He has also been recognized as one of the Future 40 changemakers by CBC Saskatchewan. In this role, he draws on his personal experience of growing up straddling both Cree and Norwegian cultures to empower Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, and help them find a meaningful path toward reconciliation. Here Max shares his experience of the barriers Indigenous youth must overcome, his thoughts on the possibility of reconciliation and his hopes for the future.

What inspires you to do the kind of work you do?
Growing up in Saskatchewan, what I continually saw as a young boy was my people in pain, and that pain manifesting itself in so many different ways. It all culminated in me having this sense, at a young age, that for some reason my people were not good enough. And that sticks with you. You begin to notice people making comments and telling you you’re not enough of this, or you’re not enough of that, or you’re too much of this. Eventually I came to realize this was fundamentally about Canadians not understanding my people—not understanding Indigenous people; not being given the opportunity to see how great we are, how funny we are, how smart we are, how good looking we are!

Why do you think it’s important to work with youth on reconciliation?
I’ve seen the power of education—I’ve seen hearts changed.

Do you think the current justice system is failing Indigenous youth?
It’s an injustice system. All it’s teaching kids is how to be better criminals. We have young people who have been failed by Canada, and we need to help them understand that there’s nothing in Native people’s DNA that makes them better at breaking into somebody’s house or stealing a bike or committing crimes. It’s not a genetic predisposition. When I take a look at my own family members who have been incarcerated—who are still incarcerated—I don’t see them coming back ready to interact and contribute to community, to their nation and to our people.

Why do you think that is?
I think that we have this notion, in Canada, that we cannot take into consideration Indigenous ways of knowing, Indigenous culture and Indigenous methodologies that encourage restorative justice. It’s so punitive in jail; it’s based on making sure that people feel bad and are adequately punished. I wouldn’t say people don’t deserve to be held accountable for their actions. (We know that the majority of the victims of crimes committed by Indigenous people are other Indigenous people.) What I’m saying is that our system isn’t working to make them less susceptible to committing crime again.

These kids don’t know who they are, and that’s why they lash out. That’s why they’re committing these crimes. That is why our communities are in pain and that’s why my people fill the jails. Our young people have not been allowed to dream, to think about all that they can achieve, and that is because they have been born into a system where they are handicapped from the start. A lot of the kids I went to elementary school with—my best friends—are now in jail. Or dead. It is a mix of good parenting and sheer luck that I didn’t end up in there with them.

What do you wish for?
I dream of the rates of Indigenous youth being incarcerated tumbling to the ground. What if we built institutions that taught these kids who they are, where they come from, what a blessing it is to have skin that is stained of earth? What if they learned all they can contribute to their families, their communities, their nations and to this country?

How does the Canadian Roots Exchange empower youth to begin their reconciliation journey?
It brings together youth—this year it was almost 80 young people—half of them Indigenous, half non-Indigenous. We have newcomers involved; we have youth involved who come from families who have been here for four generations. And we provide Indigenous youth with training on how to plan an event, how to talk to the media. You know, give them these hard skills that are going to be so valuable to them in their community organizing, but also in their employment journey. Things that they can use in the workforce.

People across Canada approach it uniquely: Folks in Thunder Bay sit down with a residential school survivor and host a “Let’s Talk About Reconciliation” night. Folks in Saskatoon partner with newcomer communities to ensure that newcomer Canadians understand that they are treaty partners, too. Toronto youth did a summer exchange program with youth from Manitoulin Island. This is what our young people are doing. Right across the country. This is the vision they have for reconciliation. What a beautiful vision!

Is reconciliation really achievable in Canada?
In any public opinion survey that has been taken around reconciliation, it’s our grandparents’ and parents’ generations that are least likely to believe they will see meaningful reconciliation. But there was an Environics Institute survey done three years ago that stated that 80 percent of young people thought that reconciliation would be achieved in our lifetime. And that’s what I hear when I talk to young people: They’re hopeful about repairing that relationship and setting right the past that we messed up. What an opportunity that gives us!