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Intergenerational Innovation: Insights from the Inaugural Indigenous Innovation Summit in Canada

Author: Allyson Hewitt, MarsDD
Published Date: 2 December 2015

Led by the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC) in partnership with the JW McConnell Family Foundation, a group of about 300 indigenous and non-indigenous social innovators gathered in Winnipeg, Manitoba for the Inaugural Indigenous Innovation Summit in late November 2015.

The experience was: powerful, emotional, and for many of us, transformative.

The following is my attempt to capture some of the wisdom from the event; to share with you what was said; what was felt; and what we can all do about it.

So what does innovation mean in this context? There were many comments about having to Google or ask Siri about what innovation was but all were clear that Friendship Centres were an indigenous innovation and that innovation is in fact, an indigenous value. There was a call for a rejection of the concept that innovation only meant new but that it should also emerge from tradition, with a suggestion that we should always “look back before we look forward”.

So why hold this Summit at this place and time? According to Stephen Huddart of the McConnell Foundation, this is exactly the right moment for Canada to hold this event. We just had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; a new government that saw unprecedented voter turnout from Aboriginal populations; the 4R movement bringing indigenous and non-indigenous youth together; and the declaration of the Canadians for a New Partnership. He also noted that Winnipeg is the birthplace of Reconciliation Canada. 

If there was one theme that was present it was the profound, intergenerational impact of residential schools. Instead of simply accepting this tragedy, we heard stories of reclaiming the language of “warriors” which many prefer to the more often used “survivors”.

The introductory session on social innovation started with Paul Lacerte of the BC Association of Friendship Centres, who outlined the disturbing statistics we all know: indigenous children have a 50% graduation rate; they are over-represented in jails; in deaths by suicide; and in kids in care. He called for a “new medicine” that values indigenous culture and “ways of knowing and being” to move beyond simply surviving and to recognize that loneliness is a plague that we are all experience but, with a strong connection to our ancestors and to the land, we need never feel alone.


In one of the most powerful sessions, a group of three young women joined two elders – Maria Campbell and Dave Courchene – on the stage to discuss “Intergenerational Innovation”.

Elder Maria Campbell stressed the importance of knowing where you are from and of knowing your language and your culture but that home is in fact where we are – and that place is important. She urged the youth to “find a grandmother” and to keep connected to the land. We need to be respectful, kind, generous and compassionate with each other as our true identify comes from our interactions with others.

Elder Dave Courchene spoke of indigenous peoples as free, independent leaders of their homeland and that no one can speak on their behalf but them. He spoke of the importance of valuing mentorship and that true success is about values. His advice on how to support young people: tell them the truth.

The young women on the panel, who all spoke in their home language, spoke of being determined and careful and of believing they can do what needs to be done. They spoke of the importance of placing the spirit and the creator at the center of their efforts to lead a good life. They also reflected on the challenge of both honouring and moving beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and of their desire to move “intergenerational trauma” to “intergenerational love” which they see as the path to resilience. They were advised that strength comes from walking the same path as others.

They also questioned how they see themselves, of understanding what happened to them, of what was wrong with them and how “to learn about self is to understand the pain and history” but to move on from the long painful history to get beyond victimization.

In a summary we heard that intergenerational approaches are at the core of innovation; that we need a common vision before coming up with new solutions; and, as an example of progress, that the University of Winnipeg just required taking a course in Native Studies a pre-condition for graduation.

Another example is the Winnipeg Boldness Project (WBP), a lab that was running as a track at the Summit, who is seeking to encourage uptake of the Canada Learning Bond which can contribute $2,000 for each child towards their education. Approximately 2,500 have completed the required forms but over 10,900 are eligible. The problem: kids and their families don’t believe post secondary education is an option for them. To address this the WBP then looked at other places where this may have worked and they found the “Indiana Promise” which is promoting the belief that all kids want and are worthy of a post secondary education. This is described as one of their “proofs of possibility”.

Ultimately we were directed to always remember who we are doing this work for.


In speaking about social spaces we learned about the critical work of Friendship Centres that create welcome environments add trust and add love that ultimately leads to social innovation.

Tonya Surman of the Centre for Social Innovation also talked about creating spaces for love to emerge and that their co-working space is actually a space to create community, which evolved into community capital, which they were able to turn into a community bond to fund their building. Their work in facilitating connections involves revealing assets in the eco-system through salad clubs, community summits and solutions circles wherein people are encouraged to bring in self-interest to create collective interest.

Once again, Paul Lacerte spoke about his experience on the BC Social Innovation Council and how this multi-sectoral group were able to work together to create 11 recommendations they could all agree on. It wasn’t easy. The urgency of their task, the egos and the resulting anxiety often split the group but they had hope in the “promise of social innovation”. One way they broke down silos between the for-profit and not-for-profit sector was through the creation of hybrid corporate legislation.

Paul encouraged us to create loving spaces in which to work and live and with his team they tried to create the most loving workplace any of them had ever worked in based on the belief that love is the medicine they need. Paul clearly asserts that this culture of love led to more efficiency and effectiveness in their workplace.


Social innovation thought leader, Frances Westley made the links between what’s happening on the ground and at the global level. She encouraged us to consider four ways of reaching:

  • Reach out. Where good ideas come from; the adjacent possible; bricolage; and engagement of unusual suspect
  • Reach up and down. Prepare for opportunities to create a transformation; keeping our feet in the earth/ hands to the sky
  • Reach deep. Building on the old, valuing our rich culture, and connecting the past to the future. She told a personal story of depression in her family and how elders advised her that an absence of soul comes about “when you can’t tell your story”. The treatment is not DSM categorizing but storytelling
  • Reach with care. Reflect on why do you do this? To do what calls to you and with people you care about. Not to expect perfection and to set boundaries for yourself; and finally to let yourself be surprised and welcome abundance.

Sheila Rogers of the CBC spoke about the importance of sharing our stories. And with that I reflect on her last point that storytelling as a generous act – I hope this has helped you capture some of the elements that made this event an magical one with an impact that will live well beyond our time together in Winnipeg.

Future summits, participating in the Moose Hide campaign, living loving, generous lives are all ways we can keep this work going.