Benjamin Powless of the Mohawk Nation is a delegate representing youth at innumerable UN conferences, and a dedicated Native rights advocate. Turning a remarkable personal journey into a source of strength, he fights devotedly for what he believes.
The son of Native rights activists, Powless was raised in an environment that encouraged returning to aboriginal roots. “I spent many of my formative years with my mother,” he remarks, describing her as “an amazing woman and a dedicated community activist [who] helped start the Aboriginal Women’s Support Centre in Ottawa.” This centre, also known as the Minwaashin Lodge, runs counselling services, a woman’s shelter, and cultural programs.
His father, he explains, has “dedicated his career to work for Native self-government and sovereignty, including a lot of work with the assembly of First Nations.” He continues, “I’ve always respected my dad’s workâe¦ I remember at the age of six knowing he was fighting for Native rights.”
His parents served as a “great influence in helping develop a Native identity,” but Powless wasn’t always involved. “I was never one of those high achievers,” he says of his high school years. “I did well in class but couldn’t be bothered for other stuff.”
However, when he met his girlfriend, Trisha Nagpal, in his first year of university, his path changed. Describing her as “the most wonderful girl ever,” he cites her involvement and dedication as his inspiration.
“I started off at the University of Waterloo doing Mathematical Physics. I found I had a lot of free time and wanted to use it constructively. The first engagement was of course the Aboriginal Students Council.” He then got involved with the Students for Palestinian Human Rights and helped start Students Against Sweatshops as part of the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group.
“I always saw the two issues as being very much linked,” he says of Palestine and Native people in Canada. “I’ve seen them both as cases of foreign occupation and control, of repressed peoples struggling for their rights and their self-determination. Of being up against massive states and recalcitrant populations and popular misunderstanding.”
Today, as a student of Human Rights, Environmental Studies and Indigenous Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, he reflects on a transition that was central in his life. While most first year students were cramming for their final exams, writing papers and getting drunk on the weekends, Powless was spending time elsewhere.
“At the end of first year [Trisha] became sick with liver disease. She passed away shortly after. I dropped out of university and was completely devastated. I didn’t even want to return to university, or to keep on living, at times.”
“I am grateful I had a lot of support. My parents, family, and some good friends helped me out. I was like a wandering soul for a while.” But what truly helped him change direction was a study tour trip to Guatemala with the Wilfred Laurier University in the spring of 2005.
“Seeing some really brutal realities for the first time in my life, in person, and talking to people who survived genocide really opened my eyes. I came back to Canada changed and spent a lot of time reading and reflecting, but it was the second trip that really built me up.” Coming back but still feeling unable to return to classes, he enrolled in an exchange program to Mexico.
Finally returning to Canada, he says, was “extremely hard. You go through much cultural shock being back. It was depressing to put into perspective how superfluous our lives are here and how little we live for. In general, how much harm our societies do, and how little compassion we show to the rest of the world. This caused much reflection for me, but also inspired me to do something about it, at least for myself.”
He then travelled to Indiana to train with the Ruckus Society and the Rainforest Action Network. He learned everything from how to plan a campaign, climb, make banner drops, and write press releases. This was how he kick-started his activist career, which at the ripe old age of 21 is simply astonishing.
Over the past two years, Powless helped found the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, served on the Board of Directors of the Youth Environmental Network, the Environmental Justice Organizing Institute of Ontario, and is currently a National Council member of the Canadian Environmental Network.
He has represented Canada with UNESCO and the UN in Spain, Indonesia, New York, and Vancouver, and continues to serve as a youth adviser to half a dozen international human rights bodies. He believes that at these bodies aboriginal voices are heard more, pointing to the recently passed UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as an example.
Today, Powless looks towards implementation of this declaration, and towards the 2010 Winter Olympics on Coast Salish territory (Vancouver). “The Olympics represent a threat with the expansion of highways and ski resorts. They threaten some of the most precious ecosystems,” he says, linking the fight for environmental justice with the struggle for indigenous rights.
A motivated, energetic, and truly dedicated activist, he reflects on some of the struggles he’s personally been involved in. “There have been gains and losses, to say the least, but there has been an increased awareness that even I didn’t expectâe¦ some real genuine efforts at progress by non-natives that I take comfort in.”
“But at the same time,” he jokes, “We’ve elected the Conservatives.”