Hjalmer Wenstob recently shook the hands of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, but that wasn’t close to the highlight of his day.
Wenstob was invited to be one of three panelists at a Canada 150 and Me youth forum on Sept. 25 moderated by Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly in Vancouver.
“There were about 150 youth from all across Canada that were picked to come and be at this event, from olympians to high school students and everyone in between, doing really amazing work in their communities,” Wenstob told the Westerly News.
“It was this huge array of amazing young people talking about advocacy and rights for young people and standing up and having their voices heard.
“It was such an honour to be there as a panelist but, really, any one of those youth could have been up there doing that discussion because they were all so inspired and so strong in the work that they were doing.”
Wenstob, the former national co-chair of the Assembly of First Nation’s youth council was joined on the panel by Paralympic gold medalist Aurelle Rivard and Leen Al Zalbak who founded Jusoor, an organization that works with Syrian youth.
“It was really a big open conversation about what Canada is and what Canada has the potential to be,” Wenstob said adding discrimination and reconciliation were key themes.
The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation member said that, as the panel’s First Nations representative, the reconciliation conversation was centred around him
“It’s interesting and a lot of what I’ve had to learn over the past four years doing the work I’ve been doing is to be really wary of the tokenism that happens, and it happens a lot,” he said.
“It happens in our own communities as much as it happens when the government or other non First Nation organizations host events; they bring in one First Nation youth to be there as the First Nation representative to speak on everything First Nations.”
He said he made it clear that he could not speak on behalf of all First Nations but focused his words on the importance of building respectful relationships.
“Reconciliation is rebuilding a relationship that’s been broken. But, really, the relationship was never strong and one of the points I made was that we need to have conciliation first before we have reconciliation,” he said.
“Reconciliation requires every walk of life to come together and understand that we need to respect each other. We need to respect all parties that make up this country known as Canada and there’s so many people and so many walks of life. We have to recognize the beauty of that but move forward together as all those Nations coming together.”
He added representatives from mainland First Nations had not been invited to the event and he made it clear to Joly’s ministry that that was not acceptable.
“I was hard on them right off the bat. I opened up with some pretty heavy points,” he said. “They were definitely there out of respect and they were definitely there to hear the criticism, but to hear it in a respectful way so we’re actually gaining knowledge instead of just leaning on each other to put each other down.”
After the forum, the panelists and youth were invited to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge but, Wenstob said, the 30-seconds each youth was given to shake those leaders’ hands did not bring the same inspiration the forum had.
“The royal visit, the prime minister and his family, that was almost overshadowed by the strength we all had from this gathering. When we got up to the reception we were still having the conversations about respect, reconciliation and about discrimination and how to move forward,” he said.
“I was definitely inspired by the young people there. These walks of life that came from all across the country to come to move forward. It was such a beautiful thing to see.”
Prior to meeting the Duke and Duchess, Wenstob told the Westerly News he would not be bowing to them and, he said, he did not face criticism when he followed through with that plan.
The Tla-o-qui-aht Nation had given Wenstob a carving to give to the Duke and Duchess but Wenstob was told he would not be allowed to give a gift as it would go against protocol.
“My Nation sent me a carving to gift to the Duke and Duchess, talking about the recognition of our past and talking about how we have adopted a lot of their ways of being, their educational systems, their languages and it’s time that they start adopting ours and we start that relationship to be a true relationship. Before we can do that, there needs to be a recognition of the past. A recognition of our shared history between the Crown and the First Nation people in Canada,” he said.
He said he found a way around the no-gift protocol by painting a drum, which he carried into the forum and presented to the royal couple afterwards. He also gave them two small baskets.
“I said with this giving of this drum and this giving of these objects you are understanding that, if you accept these gifts, you are taking on that responsibility that comes with them. That responsibility to recognize our history,” he said.
“They did accept that gift with all the responsibility that came with it and to me that made the gathering quite a bit more important.”
He said he painted a design of a Nuu-chah-nulth canoe on the drum to illustrate moving forward.
“We did want to give an object that holds this relationship in place. That holds a reminder that relates to that relationship and a reminder that we do have work to be done. We have to work to move forward,” he said.
“You give something that is to be remembered and something that is to be held onto so that, when you see that object or that thing that has been given, it reminds you of the work that you have to do.”
He said the royal couple took his contact information and pledged to keep in touch with him.
Wenstob did not present a gift to Justin Trudeau and expressed disappointment that the Prime Minister had not attended the day’s youth forum.
“He really should have been there to hear those words and hear those inspiring young people talk and to hear the ways that these young people are shaping Canada,” he said.
“It really is a let down that the Prime Minister, who gets the time and who really does get the camera over all of these young people, wasn’t partaking”
He added the 30 seconds Trudeau spent with each youth did not provide time for any meaningful conversations.
“I think to him it really was a time for selfies. A time for public engagement and a quick word with the public but not a time to have those conversations about change and those conversations about moving forward,” Wenstob said adding he was not surprised by Trudeau’s lack of engagement.
“I didn’t really expect a lot more to be honest…Sadly, I’ve been a little tainted overtime working with the Prime Minister’s office and working quite closely with government. I’m kind of saddened by my negativity around that, but I didn’t expect anything more from the Prime Minister.”