CBC News Posted: Apr 22, 2016
‘There’s an urgency that our young people need to be heard,’ says protester inside Vancouver’s INAC office
A group of women and children have been occupying the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in Vancouver since Monday, April 18.
Jerilyn Webster, who is Nuxalk and Onodaga and a mother of one son, is part of the small group of Indigenous mothers and their children who are vowing to stay until their demands are met.
But with the situation in Attawapiskat drawing to a close, and with the occupation of INAC offices in Toronto ending, the focus in Vancouver has shifted to addressing regional demands.
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Attawapaskat may be thousands of kilometres away, but its conditions are universal, said Webster.
“The same things that are happening in their community are happening in our communities now, it’s just that they don’t have media coverage and people don’t see it,” she said.
As a youth worker, Webster once tried to assist a young troubled Indigenous girl. The girl eventually succumbed to her despair and took her own life, something that devastated Webster, who sees a bigger, more tragic picture unfolding.
“There’s an urgency that our young people need to be heard. Their voices haven’t been heard and they’re crying out for help.”
‘Sense of urgency’
The group has demanded a meeting with federal ministers to address three issues.
One, the group wants to see Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth re-established. The $22 million national program, which enhanced the economic, social and cultural lives of off-reserve youth, was cut by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2012.
Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing demographic in the country, particularly in urban areas. Keeping youth connected with their culture is critical, Webster said.
Secondly, the group wants to see Indigenous language funding increased from $5 million to $1 billion per year.
Webster and her group analyzed the most recent federal budget and found that the French language received $2.4 billion in funding while Indigenous languages received $5 million.
“There’s 63 different Indigenous languages and when you break that down, that’s $6,000 to $8,000 per community. There needs to be an increase.”
And lastly, Webster and her group want meetings with Carolyn Bennet, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and with Mélanie Joly, the Canadian Minister of Heritage to talk about their demands.
In response to a media request, a heritage ministry official noted in an email that Joly’s mandate requires her to work with INAC to fund Indigenous language preservation and enhancement.
The government invested $5 million in Indigenous languages this year, and it proposes to extend funding for the to 2016-2017, the email stated.
Bennet did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
Webster was inspired to lead Vancouver’s Occupy INAC movement after watching occupy movements mushroom in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Regina, Gatineau and Toronto.
She put the call out for support and found that no men responded; only women and children occupy the Vancouver office. She said she was disappointed with the lack of response from men, but she looked to women past and present for inspiration.
“Lillian Howard was at an INAC occupation protest in 1981 and she’s an Indigenous woman. Melanie Mark is an MLA now and she’s Indigenous,” Webster said.
“An occupation led by women, this isn’t the first time.”
On Thursday demonstrators left the Toronto’s INAC office, nine days after they took it over and sparked a protest that has spread across the country.
Currently INAC offices in Winnipeg and Vancouver are the only ones that remain occupied.