Indigenous youth awards spotlight on future

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After receiving the Manitoba Indigenous Youth Achievement Award for athletics, Russel Linklater had a message for everyone like him.

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Opinion

After receiving the Manitoba Indigenous Youth Achievement Award for athletics, Russel Linklater had a message for everyone like him.

“When I was born, I was born a sick kid with heart problems,” Linklater said in his acceptance speech on Nov. 23 to nearly 300 people in attendance. “Then, both my parents, Delphine and Jonathan, passed and I ended up in Child and Family Services. I want to tell all CFS kids that, no matter what you do in the world, you can always do whatever you want.”

Linklater, from Garden Hill and Sandy Lake First Nations, has attained a black belt and a black stripe in taekwondo. He now takes care of his grandmother and his two sisters, ages 12 and 10.

Recipients of Manitoba Indigenous Youth Achievement Awards held at the Victoria Inn on Wednesday. (Tec Voc Photography)

He attends traditional ceremonies and plans on attending Red River College Polytechnic to study technical trades. He also dabbles in acting, appearing in a recurring role on the CTV Comedy Channel series Acting Good.

Linklater is, in a word, remarkable.

“My mom once told me to be strong — not in your muscles but in your heart,” he explained.

Indeed.

In a truly spellbinding night at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg, Linklater and 17 other Indigenous youth showed their strong hearts as they received awards as future leaders of Manitoba.

Tréchelle Bunn is a member of Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation and a University of Manitoba Bisons hockey player. (She is also my former Indigenous Studies student.)

Bunn won her award for community volunteerism for organizing a Healing Walk in 2021 to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

In 2022, Bunn expanded it into a half-marathon event, taking it online so anyone in any community across Canada could participate. All proceeds went to support health and wellness in Indigenous communities.

“In two years, I am going to run for chief of my community,” Bunn announced in her acceptance speech — to thunderous applause.

Every winner that night had a similar story.

There was student Cody McDonald, who is learning three Indigenous languages at once, and April Quill, who has nearly perfect grade-point averages in all of her university courses. There was Antonina Kandiurin and Breanna Ross-Cochrane, who worked tirelessly to bring safety and health to their communities through grassroots programs.

Caiden Keeper won the award for “employment in a traditional field,” for his work doing ethical and responsible hunting and trapping.

Jordyn Polsky and Sohara Krasniuk won for achievement by Indigenous females in computer science. Rihanna Spence (entrepreneur award) started her own business.

Miyawata Stout won for activism and co-organizing climate change marches in Winnipeg. Cooper Vint won for supporting Indigenous theatre and acting.

My daughter Sarah won for advocating for culture and leadership at her high school.

There were more. The Manitoba Indigenous Youth Achievement Awards have been awarded for 28 years, beginning in 1994.

The first winner that year was Kevin Chief, who at the time played basketball at the University of Winnipeg. He then went on to be a Manitoba cabinet minister.

Youth Achievement Award winner Russel Linklater quoted his mother, who 'told me to be strong — not in your muscles but in your heart.' (Danny Truong / Tec Voc Photography)

The co-ordinator of the awards are longtime Indigenous educators Helen Settee and Darlene Daniels, who are guided by elders such as Myra Laramee and Carl Stone.

Other past winners include physician Lisa Monkman (1995), educator Rebecca Chartrand (1996), writer Clayton Thomas Muller (1997), CBC personality Elissa Laforte (2001), and playwright Frances Koncan (2003).

The most incredible thing though about the Manitoba Youth Achievement Awards is how winners are selected. While hundreds are nominated by schools or family members, it is a panel of Indigenous youth who choose the winners.

At the gala, winners are dressed by these youth in star blankets — signs of leadership in Indigenous communities — and adorned with a beaded medallion.

It is a perfect example of youth holding up youth, with an entire community surrounding them.

Winners also receive a small scholarship to continue their work, sponsored by government, business or an individual.

This year’s gala hosts were 2021 winners Kaylee Wood (women in computology) and Ashton McIvor (dramatic arts).

“This is a night when we get to celebrate who we are,” McIvor told the crowd.

Much is often written about Indigenous youth. Often, there is a lot of attention paid to suicide epidemics, incarceration and poverty.

Few face more challenges, racism and marginalization then Indigenous youth (in particular women and two-spirit people).

These awards show proof Manitoba’s fastest growing demographic is also evidence of individuals with incredible leadership, achievement and commitment to making life better for all.

As Linklater pointed out, their big hearts make this place a better place.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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