Indigenous youth organizations doing vital work in their communities deserve sustainable funding and a means to hold Ottawa accountable for upholding financial support, a new report says.
The report, titled A Labour of Love: The Unpaid and Exploited Labour of Grassroots and Community-Based Indigenous Youth Groups, calls out Ottawa for what it deems a failure to value the work of young Indigenous organizers who support youth in their communities.
The report was published on April 17 alongside a panel hosted in New York City for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the UN’s central body on global Indigenous concerns and rights.
Gabrielle Fayant, one of the report’s co-authors, told Canada’s National Observer that Indigenous youth organizers are in New York City to give voice to groups that are overworked, overwhelmed and underpaid.
“I hope that we can put pressure on the federal government to at least meet with us and see the amazing work that we're doing,” said Fayant, who is also an organizer for the Ottawa-based Assembly of Seven Generations, an urban Indigenous youth organization that delivers cultural support and empowerment programs.
The report centres around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 66, which urges the federal government to provide multi-year funding for community-based youth organizations to deliver programs to other youth.
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Between June and October 2022, a team of eight facilitators and writers heard from 10 diverse youth groups and collectives, visiting each group in their territory and community. The report found the current funding system, propped up by short-term project grants, is failing Indigenous youth groups and leading to exploited labour, stretched budgets and funds not reaching the youth themselves.
Much of the work done by Indigenous youth groups identified in the report happens on a volunteer basis or through month-to-month contracts. Many organizations cannot employ full-time staff members, it found. Part of the demand from the report’s authors is ensuring that Indigenous youth groups have full-time employment, community space and, most importantly, land for programming.
“That's why we need that volunteer funding. We need to be able to plan the year ahead,” Fayant said.
Indigenous Services Canada told Canada’s National Observer the federal government provides multi-year funding through a pilot project with the Canadian Roots Exchange, a national Indigenous youth organization that provides programs, grants and funding.
Canadian Roots Exchange CREation is currently running a pilot program that provides short-term grants of up to $5,000, medium-term grants worth $30,000 and multi-year funding at $150,000 over two years.
But Fayant and her co-author Brittany Matthews told Canada’s National Observer the funding won’t cover the needs of Indigenous youth groups, particularly land-based programming and office space.
The $150,000 grant over two years may only cover the costs of one or two full-time staff per year and low salaries, never mind benefits for staff or programming funds.
Fayant and Matthews also said the youth groups would need an outside trustee, such as a designated board member, to be eligible for funding, creating a further barrier. Many youth groups aren’t eligible today for this reason.
“The report is clear — funding must be multi-year and based on the best interests and needs of Indigenous young people,” Fayant and Matthews said.
“We have heard this rhetoric from Canada for years with little changing.”
Much of the work Indigenous youth organizations do involves at-risk youth, Fayant said. Many of those young people are descendants of residential school survivors and struggle with the impacts of intergenerational trauma.
“It's a lot of crisis mode,” she added.
Fayant described Indigenous youth groups as “lifelines,” noting the burden of their communities’ challenges falls on their shoulders.
“It's almost like we don't have a choice to do this work, even though it's so draining, and it just feels so, so hard,” Fayant said.
At the panel in New York City, which was live-streamed on YouTube, Fayant described youth organizers as facing “ongoing poverty,” forced to patch a living together through a trickle-in of short-term grants.
Indigenous youth groups don’t have the same privileges or outcomes as other non-profits because of unreliable and inadequate grants, the report found. The result is inconsistent and underpaid employment among Indigenous youth organizers, with compounding effects such as low credit and inability to secure a mortgage, it added.
Fayant said the progress on the TRC call to action is “in limbo” while she and other youth organizers struggle to make ends meet, working precariously or on a volunteer basis. Fayant can’t imagine what a permanent Indigenous youth panel would look like, noting that Indigenous youth haven’t been given the platform to create it.
Fayant notes the irony: the work of Indigenous youth will always be put on panels and lauded, but those same grassroots youth are stonewalled when they ask for stable funding.
“We’re not even at the table yet; we’ve just been completely ignored,” she said.
Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative