Seventeen-year-old Jacoby Macdonald wants to smash the stigma of young Indigenous women being seen as victims, an image often created by disheartening statistics around high school drop-out rates, teenage pregnancies and low employment.
“Me, statistically, the odds are kind of against me. But you are not a number, you are not a statistic, you are more than that — you are a person,” insists Macdonald, a Grade 12 student at Gladstone Secondary in East Vancouver.
“We are not a stigma. We can do anything we set our minds to.”
Macdonald and her new friends, Jessica Lee and Danica Dixon, are learning to become leaders, and are sharing the first steps of their journey to mark National Aboriginal Day today.
Young Indigenous women are the fastest-expanding demographic in the country, according to Statistics Canada, with their numbers growing at a rate five times that of non-native women.
Ensuring that these youth are resilient and reach their full potential will have a major impact on society and the economy, argues the Vancouver-based Minerva Foundation, which fosters leadership in women.
Macdonald and her friends are part of Minerva’s new Indigenous Roots program, said to be the first outdoor leadership initiative for aboriginal girls, which aims to encourage resilience and leadership skills through “self-discovery in the natural world.” By taking the participants on rural excursions, the three-month-old program intends to provide opportunities that allow the girls to discover their value and purpose, as well as recover from challenges and trauma.
Macdonald, who has grown up with a non-native foster family, does not know her birth mother and has little knowledge of her Ojibway roots, but is learning more about her Indigenous culture through this program. And she hopes to organize a club for high school students to meet with younger children, as a safe place to talk about things like the devastating impact residential schools are still having on families, generations later.
“There are still people on the east side (of Vancouver) who don’t have houses, they are addicted to drugs, but it isn’t heir fault. It is related to how their parents were treated and how they treated them,” she said.
Dixon, a Grade 11 student in North Vancouver, stresses that Indigenous girls are not all the same — they have individual strengths and weaknesses that, by working together, can be made stronger.
“Those people who have (been involved with) teen pregnancies or crime, I feel like it could be avoided with some support,” the 17 year old said. “I want to come out (of this program) being a better person than I was when I came in.”
Dixon said she has always struggled socially, but since joining the program is now determined to stop being scared of how people might judge her, and instead have the confidence to pursue new things so she does not “waste my life.”
Like Dixon, Lee said she has found a sense of belonging in the program, giving her the courage to speak up and be heard.
“Before, when I stepped into a new situation, I was quiet, I didn’t talk much, I was awkward. I never knew what to say,” said Lee, a Grade 11 student at Cariboo Hill in Burnaby. “But this has helped me step outside of my bubble, talking to new people, making new friends, voicing ideas.”
Lisa Tallio, who has been with Minerva for a decade, led the creation of Indigenous Roots after finding no other leadership programs specifically for aboriginal girls. Participants are connected with peers, mentors and teachers to boost their independence and decision making, and it is hoped they will be inspired to perform better in school and become aware of their future strengths.
“I want a generation of Indigenous girls who just say yes to opportunities — education, trades training, employment, anything that comes their way,” said Tallio, who is Nuxalk and Heitsuk.
The program launched in March with 21 participants aged 13 to 18, all of them from inner-city Vancouver and other parts of the Lower Mainland. The program focuses on urban girls because one in four Indigenous B.C. residents lives in Metro Vancouver, and statistics show they are more likely to be younger and less likely to be in school than the general population of the area, Minerva says.
The outdoor element of the program is important, Tallio said, “to give urban Indigenous girls access to their backyard.” It started with a five-day camping trip near Hope in March, and the group is now learning more outdoor skills before going on a three-week camping trip in July.
The non-profit Power to Be, which helps people of all abilities go on nature adventures, partnered with Minerva to run the outdoor portion of the program, which includes teaching the girls to work together to solve problems like building fires and reading maps, and therefore creating opportunities for conversations and collaboration.
Lee, who had always been shy and struggled to find friends, said she began to find confidence during her time at Camp Squeah near Hope.
The first-time campers tried to build a shelter, using a tarp and ropes they were attaching to rocks or trees, but it didn’t go well and frustrations rose. Summoning a lesson from earlier in the day, Lee yelled: “Stop!” — a signal that all were to drop what they were doing and listen. She made a suggestion that worked, which not only bolstered the shelter but also her self-esteem.
“I learned people will actually listen to me, because growing up I didn’t have a lot of that, and I still don’t,” said Lee, whose ancestors are both Coast Salish and from the Shuswap Nation. “I’m still not that confident speaking up in front of a group, but that moment showed me it is okay to have ideas, and people will listen.”
For Dixon, her only previous wildlife sighting had been a cougar and bear fighting on the lawn of her North Vancouver school. The Sechelt Band member and the other teens believe they learn more about their culture being in nature.
“I don’t have the opportunity to be outside, except for Indigenous Roots. I feel most connected to my roots when I’m outside in a forest,” Lee said.
Tallio, 39, has three children — two daughters age 19 and 8, and a 22-year-old son — as well as two grandchildren.
“It makes my work pretty important,” explained Tallio, who has worked at Minerva since graduating from the University of B.C.’s Indigenous teacher program.
She went to university as a mature adult, and says what was missing from her youth was people encouraging her to succeed.
“There were not a lot of people in education who told me they believed in me, that I had potential, that I could achieve goals,” recalled Tallio. “With the stats out there, we want to promote girls for their strength and potential. What do you want to learn and how can we support you?”
So far, she believes the program, which she has long dreamed of creating, is reaching its goals with this first group of participants.
“From personal experience, I think Indigenous girls and women are the change makers in our community.”