Is making a difference by advocating for Aboriginal youth rights
“It makes my spirit more powerful if I know what I believe. And I believe I can make a better Canada.”
Elicia Withers, a grade 11 student at Mount Boucherie Secondary School in West Kelowna, is fiercely proud of her Aboriginal heritage. She is part Scottish, Peguis First Nation (Non-Status), Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, and Ukrainian. Elicia’s pride in her heritage, and her dedication to fight for the culture and language of her people, clearly runs in the family: she is the great-niece of Tommy Prince, an Ojibway World War II and Korean War veteran, who received prestigious awards for his courage and advocated for the rights of Aboriginal people in Canada.
Elicia is happiest at the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society (KFS), where she connects with her Aboriginal community, volunteers as a youth leader, and attends youth programs with her friends: “I enjoy the Friendship Centre because when my family was struggling, they helped us out, and when I was taken away from my mom, they found me a safe home where I couldn't be any happier to live.”
Like many of the youth at the Friendship Centre, Elicia has had to overcome many hardships in her very young life, including neglect, abuse, and a break-up and geographical separation of her family. But her extraordinary resilience, and her commitment to improving the lives of others instead of dwelling on her own challenges, is truly inspiring.
When the Friendship Centre recently experienced dramatic funding cuts, Elicia was at the forefront of lobbying child and youth rights organizations and government officials to get her favourite programs re-instated: “We almost lost our youth coordinator, and we have lost many beloved staff and needed programs. I was very angry, because the Friendship Centre is the only place I have to be a real kid, and the government threatened my 'family' within the Centre, and the community.”
Initially, she received many replies to this effect: “We are politely sorry for your loss of culture, and we wish you good luck with your mom’s addiction, because you are on your own.” But Elicia fought on, and with the assistance of Aboriginal leaders in the school board, her voice is slowly being heard. Elicia continues to advocate for KFS and all the youth, because “we know we have the right to have access to culture, to speak our minds, and we feel the need to rise up to the government and help our community.”
At the Friendship Centre, Elicia attends powwows, youth functions, and the Sweatlodge. It is a place where she goes to become balanced emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally. She has earned a rattle and a traditional hand drum through doing what she does best: being a strong leader for the young people that she works with: “I am motivated to keep advocating by the smiling faces I see at KFS everyday. They remind me that my life is not so bad, I am fortunate, and I need to fight to help make all our lives just a little easier.”
Elicia may be passionate about her own culture, but she is also interested in learning about other cultures and speaking different languages. She speaks a bit of Cree, and is in the process of learning Italian, French, and Japanese. She expresses her creativity by writing poetry about what she believes in, singing the songs of her people, and composing new ones.
Elicia’s goal is to one day become a First Nations Advocate or a Social Worker, and to gain funding for all youth across Canada so that they can learn about their cultures, and so that she can help youth find their identities and achieve their goals.
To other Canadian youth who are trying to make a difference, she has this to say: “I would encourage youth to stay in school, and to try and achieve their dreams, and to not forget but forgive. And I would encourage them that no matter how hard or easy their past is, to try and communicate themselves as who they are and be able to look past whatever’s happened.”
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