“Culture is Harm Reduction in Action”: Reflections from the Empowering Indigenous Youth Conference
The title quote is taken from ONECA’s Cannabis and Vaping: A Toolkit for Educators (p. 26).
From November 18th to 20th, members of the YouthREX team, along with two Youth Outreach Workers (YOWs) from northern Ontario, traveled to Sault Ste Marie to attend Ontario Native Education Counselling Association (ONECA)’s Empowering Indigenous Youth Conference, which brought together over 100 youth from across Ontario to explore healthy and culturally appropriate alternatives to cannabis and vaping. YouthREX was one of 11 organizations to sponsor this year’s conference.
ONECA promotes the wellbeing of Indigenous communities across Ontario through the development and promotion of Indigenous counselling services and education supports. By engaging in research, capacity building, and knowledge translation, and by providing direct supports (such as scholarships, networking opportunities, and post-secondary virtual tours), ONECA supports young people’s career and education journeys.
In response to the legalization of cannabis in 2019, ONECA developed a series of culturally appropriate toolkits for parents and educators. Mirroring YouthREX’s own suite of cannabis resources, including our Cannabis and Youth certificate, the toolkits were co-developed with youth and informed by harm reduction principles.
The conference aimed to put these principles into practice by providing youth with the opportunity to learn about the impacts of cannabis and vaping and to (re-)connect with Indigenous culture and traditional teachings. Over the course of three days, youth delegates learned from Elders, community leaders, and peers in a series of sessions that explored themes of belonging, wellness, mental health, and life promotion.
Youth learned how to cope with mental health challenges by engaging in cultural practices, such as handcrafts and powwow dance, and connecting with cultural teachings, including the Medicine Wheel. They had the opportunity to explore how traditional handcrafts can be a form of self-care, taking home strawberry medicine pouches, soap stone carvings, felt blankets, bath bombs, and safety pin headdress car ornaments.
When we engage in practices that support our own wellbeing, facilitators emphasized, we can create positive change in our families and communities.
As part of the conference, YouthREX facilitated a workshop for chaperones using an in-development board game called Weed-Ed, created by Dr. Oyedeji Ayonrinde of Queen’s University and a member of our Academic Network. As players moved through the game, in a manner reminiscent of Snakes & Ladders, they learned about the health impacts of cannabis, and how to support youth in making informed decisions about their cannabis use.
The conference also presented a unique opportunity to share our resources on cannabis use with youth and youth allies from across northern Ontario, including:
- ‘What’s with Weed’ (also available in French), a one-stop shop for youth to learn about safe cannabis use
- Cannabis and Youth (also available in French), a free certificate for youth workers
- Cannabis and Mental Health (also available in French), a free 90-minute course created by youth, for youth (in partnership with Cannabis & Psychosis)
Three days of connecting, sharing, and learning together served as a reminder that when youth feel connected to self, culture, and community, they are empowered to make decisions that bring them closer to what the Anishinaabe call mino-bimaadiziwin – “the good life”.