“We have to stop putting youth alone into forums with other youth who already know what the issues are and agree with one another. We have to put youth into spaces with people who disagree with them, even if it’s not a topic that’s related to young people, because all topics are related to young people.”
Carrington Christmas is a Black Scotian-Mi’kmaq German woman activist residing in Canada’s Capital region (on unceded Algonquin traditional territory). She is the Director of Youth Advocacy and Development with the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and has led programming to increase youth engagement and empower Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse youth at the national level. She began her undergraduate education in Aboriginal Studies, but has found strength, community, and a strong sense of identity outside of academia. She was nominated to be a fellow in Nobel Women’s Initiative’s Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program in fall 2018, to advance her advocacy and communications skills with other strong women human rights defenders from Mexico, Burma, Palestine and Nigeria.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
My grandparents on my father’s side are Black Scotian and Mi’kmaq and my mother’s family is German. I came to the University of Ottawa when I was 18 to learn more about my people, my community and what it means to be Indigenous.
Identity has been such a big journey for me. Seeing the struggles that my grandparents went through with their identity; they weren’t afforded the opportunity to recognize themselves as being Black and Mi’kmaq, and the beauty that came from that. My mother’s side never really practiced their culture either, so I’ve always had a question of ‘Who am I?’ Identity is honouring and acknowledging your ancestors and the things that they had to do in order for you to be here today. I’m so thankful for them just surviving, so that I could be here. People don’t fathom being mixed and embracing all of those things. Someone once said to me: “Which one of your grandmothers are you not going to honour today?” So I always want to honour all of my grandmothers and grandfathers, because identity is something that is passed down to the next generation.
How does identity tie into the work that you do with women, youth, and the LGBTQ2S community?
I’ve met a lot of young people who have similar experiences, and even adults who are Indigenous, Black, or LGBTQ that have historically been so isolated and disconnected. Within the recent generations they’ve been able to explore that identity openly in a way that their grandparents couldn’t have. Reclamation is a process. When I can comfortably identify who I am, I am reclaiming the space that my ancestors weren’t allowed to. Now there are a lot of people who are finally reconnecting to communities, to family members, that they never thought they would.
What are the biggest challenges that Indigenous youth are facing?
We have this intergenerational trauma, but I think we are in a space right now where a lot more communities are talking about it. Some are still not ready to acknowledge that it happened or that it’s influencing their ways. Some communities don’t have Pow Wows, smudge, or have sweat lodge ceremonies because they think its bad. That’s impacting the local community level.
Nationally, governments are always creating policies and legislation that imposes what they think we need instead of asking us. There are barriers to access mental health services, equitable education, accessible housing, youth spaces and youth centres, but youth voices aren’t respected enough. There is a lack of engagement, representation, and a lack of inclusivity for youth’s lived experiences.
What is currently missing from conversations about the status and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples in Canada?
Whether it’s locally, nationally or internationally, there is a huge underrepresentation of youth. Of course experience and education are important and come with age, but we have to create space for young people to be in those rooms; whether it is listening, commenting or engaging if they want to. We have to stop putting youth alone into forums with other youth who already know what the issues are and agree with one another. We have to put youth into spaces with people who disagree with them, even if it’s not a topic that’s related to young people, because all topics are related to young people. Whether it’s the economy, human trafficking, mental health, human rights, or conflict. We have to stop inviting young people to the conversation at the end and ask them “What do you think?”
Education about Indigenous history in schools is insufficient or completely non-existent, so if youth want to be a good allies what first steps can they take?
If folks are looking to become allies, the first steps are to understand the region that you’re in. Whose territories are you on? Begin to learn more about the history of where you are and what has taken place across the country. Once you have that understanding, you’ll begin to understand how it impacts us currently.
As an ally, you’ll be able to be a champion for us when people say incorrect or hateful things. Then you can reach out to organizations, communities, and go to events; but remember that it will be uncomfortable for you. Reconciliation is dirty; it takes recognizing a violent history in Canada. Maybe your ancestors were complicit in that, but it’s not about you, or your sense of guilt or your fragility. It’s important to fully accept it, and to get to work.
What role does storytelling play in the healing process?
So often we just want to talk about the good things, the things that have light. But there are so many communities that have so much darkness, and they internalize it. They really need a space to talk about that darkness and to let it all out. I acknowledge that residential schools happened and the 60’s Scoop happened, but I no longer allow it to dictate my story.
A lot of people don’t know the story of those that came on the Underground Railroad to Canada and settled in Nova Scotia; they had rich histories with the Mi’kmaq. These things aren’t reflected in our curriculums because they’re not white, so they’re not seen as valid.
Where do you find strength?
Something that [activist] Cindy Blackstock says is that so often we talk about how youth have inherited intergenerational trauma, but we don’t talk about how they have inherited intergenerational strength. The resilience, strength and courage of our ancestors to survive so that we could be here is something that we should really proud of.
When I can acknowledge the survival of my ancestors, I can be proud to know that seven generations ago, my grandmother was thinking, ‘I can’t wait for the day when my grandkids don’t have to go through this.’ That motivates me to think seven generations ahead of myself, and to think ‘I hope my grandkids never have to go through this.’
Watch Carrington speak at a recent event in honour of Women Human Rights Defenders Day.
Read more about Native Women’s Association of Canada on their website.
Learn more about the Sister-to-Sister Mentorship program here.
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