Centring Indigenous Youth Leadership in Reconciliation Philanthropy: Promising Practices at the Laidlaw Foundation

If you were to guess, about how many times would you say that you either heard, read, or said the word “reconciliation” during the past year? Depending on your identity and scope of work this will vary, but chances are the simple answer is “a lot.”

Since the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), reconciliation has become a buzzword across many sectors. In some cases, the term has been appropriated, becoming a mask for ongoing colonialism; good intentions and symbolic gestures are being mistaken for actual justice and systemic change. Genuine efforts to advance the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples have occurred, but even in these spaces we often see Indigenous priorities and leadership pushed to the margins. The emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical labour continues to fall on our shoulders, with many of us questioning who really benefits from this work.

Our youth are perhaps the most vulnerable to this reconciliation appropriation. We are regularly being asked to share our knowledge and experiences with non-Indigenous people, under the false assumption that sharing our stories is always conducive to our healing and empowerment. While these opportunities can be positive and have the potential to enhance our leadership when done carefully, they can also be violent and distract us from the important work that needs to be done within our communities.

In order for us to lead our own community-building work as part of reconciliation, we need proper resources to turn our ideas into action. The philanthropic sector has the power to offer significant support and holds great responsibility in doing so. The Laidlaw Foundation, an Ontario-based charitable foundation, is stepping up to fulfill this responsibility and showing promise in its approach. Its leadership signed The Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action, which spurred Laidlaw to develop an Indigenous Strategy to become more purposeful in its work with Indigenous communities. As part of this strategy, the Foundation states that it will:

  • Invest in young people and youth-driven groups within an intergenerational framework;
  • Support cross-cultural learning and understanding of how racism and colonization continues to shape Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships;
  • Commit long-term by carrying the strategy into its next strategic plan; and
  • Be guided by Indigenous priorities and informed by Indigenous communities.

These commitments demonstrate an understanding that collaboration with Indigenous communities must go beyond quotas and saviourism. Indigenous people must determine what our priorities are and shape the processes by which funders enter relationships with us. One key approach that Laidlaw has taken to do this has been through creating space for Indigenous youth to define more effective pathways for getting funding into the hands of youth at the community level. For example, when Laidlaw launched a PopUP grant in July 2017 as part of Resilience 150, it co-designed the grant with with Jessica Bolduc and the 4Rs Youth Movement. And an Indigenous Advisory Committee guides Laidlaw’s overall Indigenous Strategy.

According to Max FineDay, a member of the advisory committee, “Laidlaw is doing the intentional work of listening to Indigenous youth voices and putting our recommendations at the centre of grant processes. Through the Indigenous Advisory Committee we have seen their commitment to collaboration where our ideas have played an important role in reshaping the Foundation’s engagement and funding strategy.”

In their role as advisors, FineDay and seven other Indigenous youth leaders have helped develop the Indigenous Youth & Community Futures Fund, which is now a core granting stream. They have worked with Laidlaw to ensure that the activities supported by these grants are reflective of Indigenous youth priorities with a focus on land, language, and culture. They have also helped ensure that application and selection processes are more accessible and equitable for youth.

An important part of accessibility is designing these grant processes with an understanding of the diversity that exists across Indigenous youth in Ontario. Our young people experience different realities depending on a combination of cultural, social, economic, and geographic factors. Many funders overlook this diversity, and expect all Indigenous youth to think, act, and engage in the same way when applying for grants and implementing their projects. Many also do not acknowledge the significant labour and love that we put into our communities each and every day; we do a lot of unpaid work and often absorb expenses, which is extra challenging when granting rules frequently do not allow for us to be paid for our time and expertise. Our young people encompass a large spectrum of experiences and abilities, so granting processes must be flexible to meet youth where we are at according to our unique strengths, barriers, and leadership goals.

Laidlaw’s application processes respond to this need for flexibility in several ways. The forms are clear and concise with options for how they can be submitted, including via online portal, email, fax, mail, or telephone. Another strength is that applicants are not required to represent registered charities or to have trustees, allowing grassroots groups –not typically eligible under many other funding sources – to apply. It is also important to note that while Laidlaw has specifically created these two grants for Indigenous youth, it has also made it a priority to ensure that Indigenous youth-led groups are represented across all their funding streams.

Finally, I appreciate that the team at the Laidlaw Foundation seems to be quite humble about this work. They acknowledge that there are still gaps in their processes, including issues with outreach and capacity building, but they demonstrate a clear willingness to do the learning and un-learning necessary to carry out their responsibilities in a good way.

Indigenous communities need the power and resources to determine what reconciliation looks like on our terms, and the leadership of our youth must be celebrated and supported in this process. We are passionate, intelligent, creative, and committed – with innovative ideas on how to reclaim wellness both within and across our nations. I sincerely hope that Laidlaw and other philanthropic organizations will continue to advance this work in sustainable ways, putting in the time and relationship-building needed long after the buzz of reconciliation wears out.


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