Sold-Out Conference Draws 1,400-Plus Aboriginal Youth

Wawmeesh Hamilton
3/23/12

Martial arts, interactions with elders, community violence and substance abuse topped the youthful aboriginal agenda at a recent conference that drew sellout crowds.

More than 1,400 young aboriginals from across Canada flocked to Nanaimo, British Columbia, last week for the 10th annual Gathering Our Voices youth conference. This year’s title, “Generation on the Move,” spoke to the event’s popularity, as attendance has grown exponentially in the past decade.

Billed on its website as a chance for youth to participate in workshops and network, the 2011 conference drew about 1,000 participants; this year that number increased by 400. Conference numbers swelled so greatly, in fact, that it filled up a week ahead, and registration had to be closed because it was so full.

With troubles like poverty, substance abuse and violence rampant on many First Nation reserves, the interest wasn’t surprising.

“A lot of youth gravitated to the indigenous martial arts workshop,” said conference organizer Della Presto. “ ‘Elders don’t bite,’ which teaches healthy interaction between elders and youth, was really popular too.”

Community violence was also a popular topic.

“The struggles with alcohol, drugs, and violence in communities—especially violence against women,” Preston said. “They know that violence isn’t a [natural] part of communities or of families.”

Conference registration numbers also reflected the growth of B.C.’s aboriginal population. According to Canada’s 2006 census, there are more than 500,000 aboriginal people under the age of 20, and they comprise 30 percent of the aboriginal population in Canada. More live in cities than on reserves. The median age is 27 years old, or 13 years lower than the median age for non-aboriginal people.

“This year was the most significant spike in [attendance] growth,” Preston said. The conference was held in the Nanaimo Conference Centre, the second largest in British Columbia. “We’re nearly at capacity, so we’re going to have to think about where we hold it next year.”

The annual conference is coordinated by the B.C. Association of Friendship Centres. This year the provincial government injected $375,000 to help underwrite it. There were workshops on education, health, leadership and arts during the day, with cultural sessions in the afternoons and entertainment in the evenings.

While the crowds could have been intimidating to young people from small, isolated communities, that soon wore off as participants made new friends and got the chance to voice their concerns and ideas.

“Some are from small communities and have never been in a room with that many people before,” Preston said. “But they realize now that they are not alone in the issues they face.”

Preston noted the importance of the skills that participants learn in workshops, and the new friendships they cultivate. But the biggest boost came from seeing that they are valued, she said. “They realize that they matter and that they are heard.”

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