G7 brings Canadian indigenous voices to the table on development

Hannah participates in a roundtable discussion with other young women leaders and G7 development ministers. Photo by: Global Affairs Canada

WHISTLER, CANADA — Canada’s G-7 presidency brought the rights of women and girls to the fore of this year’s agenda and gave women a seat at the table to advocate for policies that will improve their lives. As a part of that dialogue, Canada is acknowledging that it still has work to do within its own borders regarding its First Nations.

Hannah — Devex is not printing her last name for security reasons — is an anishinaabekwe woman from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve in Ontario, Canada. She is a member of the youth council in her community, which advocates on behalf of young people to the chief-in-council. She came to Whistler along with five other women from Benin, Jamaica, Lebanon, Mali, and South Africa to advocate directly to G-7 ministers.

Hannah, 20, told Devex she felt incredibly inspired to speak with her fellow women leaders, but said she was disappointed that the condition of Canada’s First Nations was bad enough that she had to be there.

“In this country, we are considered developed, and yet my community’s needs are pretty great considering. The ones up north — they are living in shacks, they don’t have plumbing, and no running water,” Hannah said. “It’s sad that I had to go there, but happy I was able to give voice for those who don’t have theirs yet.”

There is a lot of work left to do to provide Canada’s indigenous people with the same opportunities as others in the country while allowing them to nurture their cultural heritage, said Hannah. Many of her peers suffer from physical or emotional abuse that leads them to miss school. The community doesn’t have appropriate resources to help girls deal with such problems and ensure that they do not negatively impact access to education, she said.

There is also work to be done in creating a true dialogue between the Canadian government and indigenous communities, Hannah said. She is not satisfied with the way the Canadian government consults First Nations on decisions that impact them, particularly those associated with land and water rights and usage. Hannah said she told the ministers directly, that if women are to be effective as advocates for themselves and their communities, the government must not only ask, but actually listen to their answers.

“I hope that [Canadian development minister Marie-Claude Bibeau] brings that back to her work and, wherever she has her power, and says ‘we have to develop ways … to listen to the people and to have them integrated into this,’” Hannah said.

Bibeau, who hosted last week’s G-7 ministerial and brought the young women to the table, said it was important for indigenous people to play a direct role in conversations about development despite inclinations to believe development is only something that takes place outside Western borders.

“It’s always heartbreaking for me when I listen to my colleagues that are working in indigenous services and relations, and they are telling stories ... so close to those I deal with in working with developing countries,” Bibeau told Devex.

“I think we have to acknowledge that Canada has its own homework to do if we want to achieve the [Sustainable Development Goals]. It’s not only the responsibility of developing countries but we have to work in our own backyard.”

Bibeau said her own government must have the humility to admit all women and girls in Canada still do not have access to equal education opportunities even though they live in one of the most advanced economies in the world.

“We all have to improve the situation of the poorest and the most vulnerable in our own country,” Bibeau said. “So depending on our situation, the groups are different but we can all do better than we’re doing now.”

Conversations at G-7 centered around increasing educational opportunities for women and girls — and is extremely important for indigenous women in Canada, said Roberta Jamieson, a prominent Canadian First Nations activist and member of the Mohawk Nation.

“It’s fewer than 3 out of 10 indigenous students graduate successfully in high school compared to 9 to 10 non-indigenous students,” Jamieson said. “We know that’s not a circumstance unique to Canada. We know there are indigenous populations that are challenged in different parts of the world.”

Jamieson, chief executive officer of Indspire, a charity that invests in indigenous education in Canada, serves on the G-7 Gender Equality Advisory Council, a group responsible for recommending ways to put gender equality at the center of all G-7 work during Canada’s presidency.

“Not only do we need to come together as G-7 countries and look out, we need to look in. I think we need to be walking our talk and I’m very impressed at the courage and the leadership I see being shown by the current government in Canada,” Jamieson said.

“They’re very open to having the mirror held up. And to acknowledging, full stop, that there are improvements to be made at home in gender, on gender equality measures as well as in improving the place of indigenous people.”

It is vital for indigenous women to have a seat at the table when discussing global development and raising women out of poverty, said Farah Mohamed, CEO of the Malala Fund, whose founder Malala Yousafzai, a global advocate for girls’ education and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, also serves on the G-7 Gender Equality Advisory Council.

“I feel same way about them as I do about populations in Nigeria, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in India — where, if you just take the time to tap the potential of these young girls, you are going to be wowed,” she told Devex. “We’ll have a different world if we take this seriously. And that means with the right legislative changes, and it means with the right amount of money.”

Hannah said her conversations with the ministers and the other young women inspired her to bring the SDGs back to her own community and recognize how she can make a difference in achieving those benchmarks.

“I think one of the messages for the SDGs is, nobody gets left behind. And I think it’s really bringing home that message: Yes, we’re developed – well the non-native communities are developed – but when you look at native communities it’s horrible living conditions,” she said.

“I’m happy I found my voice and I can help communicate the problems with people that have the power to fix them and to remind them you can’t just come in and fix it yourselves, you have to work with the community.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.