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First Nations Girls Front and Centre

Justice for Girls focuses on female empowerment for Indigenous teens living with poverty

Rebecca Bollwitt

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As a young Indigenous girl, with strong ties to the land and community, Zoë Craig-Sparrow wasn’t sure where life would take her. But after two internships with a local organization as a teenager, she had a clear focus that would help her make an impact, not only close to home, but globally as well.

Born and raised on the Musqueam reserve in what is known as Vancouver, she identified early on the causes that were close to her heart: the environment, Indigenous rights and culture, women’s rights, gender equality and female empowerment. When she was 12 years old, she was set on a path that would lead to her current career as director at Justice for Girls, a nonprofit organization that promotes social, economic and environmental justice while working to end violence, poverty and racism in the lives of teenage girls. She is also pursuing a PhD in human rights.

“I grew up fishing the Fraser River with my grandfather,” says Craig-Sparrow, who is the director of Indigenous rights and environmental justice with Justice for Girls.

“Fishing and being out on the water has been a big part of my life, my family and my community. Musqueam are known as the stewards of the Fraser River and the People of the River Grass so we have millennia of history of fishing salmon in the Fraser River, which I still do to this day.”

She was raised by a single mom (who is Musqueam) and her father, who died when she was nine, was of Scottish ancestry.

“I grew up mainly with my mother on the reserve and with a really strong focus on the strength of women. Our community is also matriarchal, so that focus on women empowerment embodied through my mother and the other women in my family played a lot into who I am and what I wanted to do in the world.”

Justice for Girls was formed in 1999 in response to local, national and international calls for “girls only” programs and services that acknowledge and address the specific needs and vulnerabilities of girls, particularly in relation to homelessness, poverty and violence. The organization focuses its efforts on key areas such as legal advocacy and policy, young women’s leadership, Indigenous rights and environmental justice, and public education and engagement.

Craig-Sparrow’s first internship with Justice for Girls was focused on teenage girls caught in the criminal justice system.

“We focused specifically on girls and youth prisons. You may or may not know that it’s only adult prisons that are separated — women’s and men’s — but youth are co-ed, so it’s girls and boys together with mixed security guards as well. We had a lot of cases of girls dealing with a lot of abuse, violence and rights violations in prisons, so that was my entry into Justice for Girls.”

She fell in love with the organization and began using her knowledge and experiences to help make a bigger impact. At 15, she took on another internship, this time it was a joint venture focused on climate justice for girls in particular, between the David Suzuki Foundation and Justice for Girls.

A human right 

The joint project looked at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and Craig-Sparrow helped co-author a submission for its review of Canada. It focused on climate change and how environmental degradation violates children’s rights, in particular, girls’ rights.

“My contribution to the submission focused on how climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately impacts Indigenous girls. In that submission, I brought up my experience fishing and how I’ve seen changes to the land and to the water. How that’s impacted my ability to fish and therefore my rights under the convention to culture, family, health, life… all of those sorts of things.”

Craig-Sparrow says her favourite human right is Article 12 of the UNCRC: “Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”

“I just want children and girls to know that not only is their voice powerful and important, they have a right for that voice to be heard first and foremost. It’s my favourite human right because it speaks to the fact that while children might be told ‘you don’t understand, you’ll understand more when you’re older, this isn’t a problem for you’ that’s not how children see the world especially when we’re dealing with climate change and looking to the future.”

She credits that internship with teaching her about how she could play in this intersection between the environment and human rights, Indigenous rights, and gender. When the organization was awarded a grant to hire staff, she came on as a director.

Her program area with Justice for Girls today is Indigenous rights and environmental justice, where they work on individual and systemic advocacy. She says that includes working with Indigenous communities to do submissions to international human rights bodies, and working with individuals from these communities to help navigate issues they may be dealing with.

“Currently, our work is focusing on supporting Indigenous land defenders who are defending against resource extraction projects in their traditional territories and the focus on my work there is the connection between resource extraction and these projects in these communities with murdered missing Indigenous women and girls, so really looking at how these two issues are connected and how communities and Indigenous communities and Indigenous women are not just defending their land against these projects they’re also defending their women against these projects so that’s my main focus.”


They also have an advocacy program area that is led by Sue Brown, director and staff lawyer.

“She’s incredible, and her team is incredible,” says Craig-Sparrow. “They do advocacy with individual girls, so teens age 12 to 18 who might be for example dealing with violence at home, homelessness, issues at school, issues with justice, accessing justice.”

Craig-Sparrow says that can look like a lot of different things but it’s essentially any sort of issues and barriers teenage girls might be facing in accessing justice or fulfilling their rights.

Indigenous girls are ‘at the forefront of so many incredible movements’

“We can offer support: either advocacy support whether providing advocacy and legal support and offering legal advice, support and representation with our staff lawyer, and or usually both connecting individual advocacy to systemic projects.”

An example of one of their advocacy projects involved a teenage girl who was a witness who was going to testify in a sexual assault case, and was facing many barriers. The team helped her write a submission to the UNCRC and after its review, they issued recommendations back to Canada about further protecting children in these cases to make the process the least damaging as possible.


The organization also has a strong focus on education for girls, and helping them understand their rights, and helping those rights to be realized in the classroom. They do professional development workshops with teachers, and they also meet with students who are going to become teachers at UBC. They work individually with girls to make their education as fulfilling as possible. 


As Craig-Sparrow can attest, the internship program at Justice for Girls also has a huge impact. Often the girls they meet in their education workshops are ideal candidates for internships, and they also do regular postings as well. They offer girls a living wage and also school credit for their work.

“Many of the girls we do internships with might not be on course to graduate or they might be doing alternative education programs where our internships can actually provide them credit for Law 12 or Gender Studies 12 (in high school). They get paid, and we work with their school to make that happen and to help them graduate so those internships are a big part of who we are as well.” 

Community engagement

Another former intern, Savanah Norman, is a director who leads the communications and engagement program area. This team does community outreach, runs social media, and connects with girls and different organizations in the community. They also do workshops with medical students to educate them about a lot of barriers that girls face. In particular, issues BIPOC and racialized girls or girls in poverty might be dealing with when navigating the health system.

Expanding north, meeting a need

Justice for Girls is currently expanding to northern B.C. as it has noticed a need for resources for girls, which it also sees in Vancouver.

“There’s youth resources and women’s resources, but ones specifically for teenage girls don’t exist or aren’t meeting the need,” adds Craig-Sparrow. “So we’re working on that locally but then we’re also doing our best to build relationships with remote and northern rural communities.”

She and a colleague travelled to Terrace, Kitimat and Hazelton in June and hosted workshops with girls in schools there, teaching them about their rights, healthy relationships and consent.

This not only provides education, resources and empowerment to the girls, it also lets their teachers and community members know that Justice for Girls exists so if they need any legal advice or advocacy support, they can reach out.

The work that we do is guided by the girls that we serve and work with. They’re the ones telling us what they need and it’s very cyclical in that we believe that girls and young women are the experts of their own opinion and their own experiences. We really value their opinions in articulating those experiences, and their guidance in how to address that.

Zoë Craig-Sparrow

Craig-Sparrow says the organization wouldn’t be what it is without the voice of the girls, if they didn’t have their input at the forefront of their work.

“I have the best job! I’m just honoured to be able to provide mentorship and support to other girls, and Indigenous girls. When you don’t see women, especially Indigenous women, in positions where they can mentor you, a lot of the time you don’t think it’s possible. So, to have an organization that is there for girls, to be that voice of support and encouragement, and that light at the end of the tunnel, was really useful to me throughout my life.” 

What true justice for girls looks like

For Craig-Sparrow, true justice for girls means a sustainable and equitable future for young girls — one that they can look forward to and be excited about.

“I think the reality is that so many teenagers, especially Black and Indigenous girls, girls living in poverty, girls with disabilities, do not see systems and a world that is setup to support them and empower their success. To me, justice for girls is for girls to grow up and see possibilities instead of barriers.”

As an Indigenous woman, she believes that girls — and in particular Indigenous girls — are the future.

“They’re at the forefront of so many incredible movements in the world, and they have so much to offer. People don’t always want to listen, so I think a world where our voices are respected, valued, heard, and prioritized is what I see as a just future.”

She wants children to know that what makes you different, even your challenges, is what makes you strong. “I don’t ever want people to think that because XYZ has happened to them that they can’t be successful or that it doesn’t give them a right to have a say.” 

How to support Justice for Girls

As a non-profit organization, Justice for Girls relies heavily on donations, as grants are mostly tailored to specific projects or initiatives. Donations help pay rent, provide job stability for the staff and cover expenses for girls groups, interns, outreach in the north and other key program areas.

“Changing of governments can really impact any non-profit organization but especially ones doing what some might consider ‘controversial’ things such as supporting women’s rights or the environment. Some governments aren’t super fond of it so for us having those funds is truly what makes all of our work possible,” says Craig- Sparrow. “We rely heavily on our donors, and we’re grateful to all of them.”

The easiest way to donate is through Canada Helps. Donate to Justice for Girls Outreach Society here

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Rebecca Bollwitt

Rebecca Bollwitt


Rebecca Bollwitt has been writing about events and travel in B.C. since 2004 on the multi-award-winning blog Miss604.com. With 25 years of digital publishing experience, she has co-authored and technically edited five books on the subject, and founded her own agency which assists clients across North America with their social media strategies and website development. Community is at the heart of her mission, and Rebecca partners with and sponsors campaigns for more than 20 charities each year. She also serves as a board executive for two local non-profit organizations.

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