Nadine Good is aware of how much better her upbringing was from that of her parents. After all, she belongs to the first generation of native Canadians who didn’t attend Indian Residential Schools. Her parents, on the other hand, “were taken at a young age; they didn’t get the love, the protection and guidance,” says the 19-year-old, who lives in the Snuneymuxw First Nation near Nanaimo, B.C. The effects of the institutional abuse may linger, but the fact that Nadine didn’t experience it directly go a long way in explaining why she’s so optimistic about her future. “Since I was in Grade 7, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “That’s how I’m going to make a difference for First Nations people.”
Nadine’s surprisingly positive outlook isn’t unique among aboriginal youth. Data from Project Teen 2008—which, for the first time ever, offers comprehensive insight into the experiences, values and aspirations of this group—shows that an overwhelming majority envision a bright future for themselves. Of aboriginal teenagers living on a reserve, 89 per cent believe that anyone who works hard can rise to the top, significantly higher than the national average. Likewise, 84 per cent of on-reserve youth expect to get the job they want, and 79 per cent predict they’ll be more comfortable financially than their parents. The results, says James Penner, associate director of Project Teen Canada 2008, “blow stereotypes in one’s own mind at the vibrancy, resilience and optimism of aboriginal youth.”
That the statistics exist is in itself groundbreaking. University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby has been collecting data on Canadian teens since 1984, but this is the first time that his study—or any other statistical analysis for that matter—has included a sample of aboriginal teens significant enough to interpret their answers and compare them to those of other youth. In all, 950 aboriginal teens (800 living on-reserve; 150 off-reserve) responded to the survey. Penner, who arranged the participation of aboriginal high schools, says the numbers are an important starting point for future comparisons: “We now have a benchmark.”
THE YOUTH SURVEY AT MACLEANS.CA: 1. Generation Tame 2. City vs. Country Kids 3. Teens lose faith in droves 4. The surprising optimism of Aboriginal teens 5. When it comes to sex, teen girls are acting more like boys 6. Immigrant teens find that tolerance goes both ways in Canada
The data Penner collected offers a fascinating window into what life is like for aboriginal teens, for better and for worse. In addition to identifying bright spots, the study points to challenges, including drug use and trouble with the police. Compared to the national average of 32 per cent, 45 per cent of aboriginal teens reported using marijuana. A full 35 per cent of those living on-reserve cited conflict with the cops, much higher than the national average of 17 per cent. Sexual activity and racial discrimination were also higher among aboriginal youth.
These disparities don’t come as a surprise to Ken “Wameesh” Watts, B.C.’s male representative for the Assembly of First Nations National Youth Council. The 26-year-old, who grew up in the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni, says substance abuse among aboriginal teens is “definitely a huge issue.” It’s a complex problem he attributes to the isolation and poverty of many reserves, coupled with the inter-generational effects of residential schools. But Watts says “there’s a lot more hope than ever before, because this will be the first new group of leaders that weren’t actual attendees of residential schools.” At Gathering Our Voices, a provincial aboriginal youth conference that was held in March, he says teens expressed excitement about getting an education and achieving success while retaining ties to the community. In fact, the survey found that 82 per cent of aboriginal teens agree that it’s important to gather for traditional ceremonies, and 84 per cent say family is “very important,” compared to a national average of 67 per cent. “Our leadership look at these youth, and say, ‘Wow, we’re going to be okay,’ ” says Watts.
Part of this optimism stems from connections that aboriginal youth are making with each other. Though Internet access may still be limited in remote areas (61 per cent reported using the computer more than two hours daily, compared with the national average of 75 per cent), he says social networking websites Bebo and Facebook are making a huge difference in combating feelings of isolation. In fact, 45 per cent of on-reserve teens said they had met a close friend online, more than double the national average. Watts says that securing Internet access is an important goal for those First Nations communities where it is not currently available. “They realize that’s the means of communication for their youth,” he says.
As for Nadine Good, her ambitions are unwavering. In addition to juggling the stresses of being a single mom (her son Terrence turns one next month) and working at her community’s youth centre, she’s preparing to start her undergraduate degree at Vancouver Island University in the fall. And after she finishes her psychology degree? “I’ll be going to University of Victoria for law,” she says, full of confidence that life will unfold as positively as she sees it.