As recently as a few decades ago, most Canadians didn’t look kindly on sexual diversity. In 1987, just one in ten approved of “homosexuals.” While fewer than one in five thought a job applicant’s race (18%) or religion (14%) mattered, 44 percent believed homosexuality should be taken into account. But many Canadians who were alive then would go on to witness a profound and rapid change in attitudes about sexual orientation and gay rights. Today, there is strong majority support for full marriage equality for same-sex couples, and same-sex marriage has been legal across the country for 14 years.
Although many older Canadians changed their minds on this issue, the forces of intergenerational change were overwhelming: young people were much more likely to see differences in sexual orientation as a neutral fact, not a moral or existential threat to society.
And that’s how societies evolve, in large part: through intergenerational changes in values and attitudes.
Similar dynamics have emerged on other issues – including relations among religious and ethnocultural groups. A “mixed” (Catholic-Protestant) marriage was a truly controversial event in small-town Ontario as late as the mid 1940s. In the mid-1960s, genuinely bigoted epithets were routinely leveled in Toronto at the children of Italian immigrants. We know; at least one of us was witness. As our generation, the Baby Boomers, replaced our parents as the dominant group in society, we did much to erode these hostilities – partly because of our own diversity (our Italian classmates were Canadian Baby Boomers, too), partly because of our weaker attachment to religion, and partly because we were more likely than our parents to aspire, however imperfectly, to full equality for all.
Soon, another sea change may be at hand when it comes to the attitudes of non-Indigenous youth regarding relations between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians. A notable feature of relations between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians of late has been a sense that even when leaders make positive sounds or release nice reports, meaningful reconciliation in society at large remains elusive – that broad and deep public commitment is lacking.
But recent research suggests generational change may be leading us toward substantive reconciliation at a significant scale. The Environics Institute, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation and Canadian Roots Exchange, conducted a first-ever survey of Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth (aged 16 to 29) earlier this year. The findings suggest some significant shifts in youth attitudes, as well as a seeming alignment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people on the meaning of authentic reconciliation.
Both segments of Canadian youth report a considerable amount of interaction with those in the other population, although this is predictably more common among Indigenous youth, given that they are a demographic minority, and groups with smaller numbers have more out-group contact over the course of daily life. More than eight in ten Indigenous youth say they have one or more close friends who are non-Indigenous, while one in four non-Indigenous youth reports having close Indigenous friends. Among non-Indigenous youth who have frequent contact with Indigenous peers, the proportion reporting a close Indigenous friend rises to two-thirds. Large majorities of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth – about 90 per cent – say that their interactions with the other group are comfortable most or all of the time.
Neither group assumes that their own positive day-to-day interactions mean that all is well in society at large, however. Three-quarters (75%) of non-Indigenous youth believe that Indigenous peoples are often or sometimes subject to discrimination in Canadian society; the proportion of Indigenous youth who perceive discrimination is higher, but not dramatically so, at 84 per cent.
Young people are not alone in acknowledging that Indigenous people in Canada experience discrimination; older people admit this as well. But youth stand out in the way they attribute Indigenous communities’ challenges to government policies and public attitudes, not to Indigenous people themselves. When non-Indigenous youth are asked to choose the biggest barrier to full social and economic equality for Indigenous peoples, three times as many say government policy (25 per cent) or public attitudes (18 per cent) as say Indigenous people themselves stand in the way (14 per cent). When we fielded the same question to the broader public in 2016, Canadians aged 45 to 59 were more than twice as likely (35 per cent) as those under 30 to blame Indigenous people themselves for not having full social and economic equality.
What about how to move forward? Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth define reconciliation in similar terms. In both groups, the most common definitions of reconciliation are “rebuilding relationships/trust”, “apology/making amends”, and “repairing/correcting past wrongs.” In both groups, significant majorities are optimistic about seeing meaningful reconciliation in their lifetimes: 73 per cent of Indigenous youth, and 68 per cent of non-Indigenous youth.
Notably, although Indigenous youth are slightly more optimistic overall, they give higher estimates of the seriousness of numerous barriers to reconciliation. Indigenous youth are more likely than non-Indigenous youth to say factors like stereotypes about Indigenous peoples (58 per cent vs 41 per cent), lack of political will (50 per cent vs 39 per cent), and the relative ignorance of non-Indigenous Canadians about Indigenous history and culture (46 per cent vs 33 per cent) are major barriers to reconciliation.
Only minorities of youth in both populations say they have personally been involved in activities that promote reconciliation – but the share among Indigenous youth (33 per cent) is roughly double that of non-Indigenous youth (17 per cent). Expanding opportunities for young people to engage in reconciliation activity may well be a powerful way of effecting positive change. For non-Indigenous youth, getting involved with reconciliation on a personal level is associated with an emphasis on reducing socio-economic inequities and valuing Indigenous perspectives on community, land and resources. Non-Indigenous youth who have gotten involved in reconciliation activities are among the most likely to know about residential schools and to acknowledge this legacy as a major contributor to the challenges facing Indigenous peoples today. Educators and leaders seeking to engage youth in reconciliation work will likely find willing participants: 56 per cent of Indigenous youth and 45 per cent of non-Indigenous youth who are not already involved say they would like to be.
At an institutional level, the past couple of decades have been active ones when it comes to Indigenous issues. There was the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the mid-1990s; a formal apology for Indian Residential Schools from the federal government in 2008; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its 94 calls to action issued in 2015; the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which completed its work this year and concluded that the patterns it had studied amounted to a genocide; and changes in public-school curricula in various jurisdictions across the country.
Critics note that reports and recommendations can languish on a shelf; very often, they have. But outside of government, the Idle No More movement, robust criticism and reflection around Canada 150 activities, and other, smaller groundswells related to specific sites, communities, and issues – toxic water, pipeline problems, resource and environmental conflicts – have focused public attention on the claims and concerns of Indigenous peoples and communities, arguably to an unprecedented degree.
The similarities we see among Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth on important stories of Canada’s past and present, and key aspects of the reconciliation process, may indicate the beginning of more meaningful changes in public understanding and public will. While Canadian society has advanced on a range of issues – retiring a racist immigration policy in the 1960s, making substantial strides toward gender equality, embracing gay rights – the treatment of Indigenous peoples has been an area of conspicuous inaction. As with other significant movements of the past half-century, young people may now be preparing to show the way forward.
Michael Adams is president of the Environics Institute for Survey Research and author of Could It Happen Here? Max FineDay is Executive Director at Canada Roots Exchange. Keith Neuman is Senior Associate at the Environics Institute.