UN a stopover on student’s journey to find himself


Alistair Ness (right) at the 10th Annual United Nations Student Conference on Human Rights in New York
Alistair Ness (right) at the 10th Annual United Nations Student Conference on Human Rights in New York

Laura Harris

“Who am I?” is a typical question posed by teenagers. But in the case of Alistair Ness, the answer was surprising and ultimately landed him at the United Nations.

After learning from his non-Native mother that he had Aboriginal ancestry, Ness said he “was pretty excited” and “really wanted to learn badly about it.” With his discovery coming near the end of Grade 9, he didn’t have much time to get involved with Aboriginal activities at the junior high level. However, he was motivated to jump right into things when he arrived at Holy Trinity Catholic High School, in Edmonton, where he met Marieka Cardinal—a guidance counsellor, a teacher and an Aboriginal liaison.

Cardinal effortlessly listed the activities in which Ness, now in Grade 12, has been involved during his time at Holy Trinity. “He is learning to speak Cree. He is part of our Braided Journeys Tribal Council [an Aboriginal student group] and he has attended the Dreamcatcher Aboriginal Youth Conference [held at MacEwan College, in Edmonton],” she noted. His desire to learn more about himself and Aboriginal cultures made Ness an obvious choice to attend the 10th Annual United Nations Student Conference on Human Rights, held in New York last December. Ness attended as Holy Trinity’s representative at the three-day conference, which had the theme “Recognizing the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Cardinal said: “Ness wants to know so badly about [his ancestry] … I knew he would be a good student that would represent the school well.”

Though Cardinal was sure of her choice, Ness wasn’t. For him, the conference invitation came as a shock when he was “just having an ordinary day,” according to his brief but humorous account of his exchange with Cardinal:

Cardinal: Do you want to go to the UN?

Ness: Where’s that?

Cardinal: New York.

Ness: Are you sure?

The shock eventually wore off, but according to Cardinal, Ness’s nerves took over for a bit when they arrived in New York, where they had to settle in quickly with the 70 other student delegates from Canada, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the United States. “Alistair was a little nervous, but I assured him he would do fine,” Cardinal said. Her efforts were not wasted on Ness, who expressed his appreciation, saying that Cardinal was “very supportive and helped out a lot.” It was what he needed in the face of the daunting tasks that lay ahead.

With introductions, presentations and general niceties disposed of on the first day of the conference, the second day was filled with research presentations and consensus building in an effort to draft an action plan supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Heady stuff even for most adults, but the student delegates were divided into groups and readily set to work on various elements of the action plan, which was to be presented to H.E. Srgjan Kerim, president of the UN General Assembly.

Ness’s group was assigned to address indigenous people’s right to culturally sensitive education. Discussions focused on poor school conditions on reservations, the lack of Aboriginal culture in curriculum and the need to preserve the Native languages of indigenous peoples by offering them as school courses. All the issues were addressed in the final draft of the action plan, Ness said.

“I was very proud [that] Ness was selected as one of his group’s presenters,” Cardinal said. As for Ness, he took full advantage of the opportunity to put to use the research, learning, presentation and public speaking skills he had honed when he appeared with five others from his group before Kerim on the last day of the conference. Ness said that he will always remember making a presentation at the UN, but hearing firsthand stories and personal experiences relating to the plights of indigenous peoples from Aboriginal leaders from around the world made the biggest impression. “It was a really, really good experience, having them share what happened to their people,” reflected Ness.

Ness’s journey to discover who he is didn’t end at the UN. He’ll continue to seek more information about his Aboriginal ancestry with the support of Cardinal and his mother. And although the UN experience was exciting, Ness says that a career with the human rights organization is likely not in the cards for him. “It’s really interesting, but I think I might try entomology instead. I’m a nature freak. I like everything about the biology of bugs and animals.”

Spoken like someone well on his way to finding out who he is.


The 10th Annual United Nations Student Conference on Human Rights, with the theme of “Recognizing the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” was held at UN Headquarters, in New York, December 5–7, 2007.

The conference was held to increase awareness of indigenous peoples and their important contributions to society globally, to highlight the significance of awareness toward achieving a just and nondiscriminatory international human rights policy and to encourage UN member states to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One major outcome of the conference was a 27-point action plan recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, drafted and presented by some 70 student delegates.

The UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on September 13, 2007. Of the 168 member states that supported the declaration, only four—Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada—voted against it.

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