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Youth Dialogue on Peace and Solidarity
Edmonton, Friday, July 31, 2009
How are you this evening?
It is such a pleasure for me to be back in Edmonton to talk with you—some of our country’s most dynamic and visionary leaders—about building peace and solidarity in our communities.
I am happy to do so here at the second edition of the Global Youth Assembly, because I feel like I am in the company of old friends; friends who share with me a deep commitment to social justice and democratic engagement.
Before we begin our dialogue, let me thank the Global Youth Assembly crew, the John Humphrey Centre, and you all for the incredibly warm and energetic welcome you have extended to me, as I complete the second leg of my pan-Canadian “Can We Talk” tour.
With the help of national youth organization Apathy is Boring, I am hosting Youth Dialogues in all Canada’s regions to help raise awareness about the incredible power of artistic modes of expression, which produce concrete results and solutions to a number of problems in a constructive way, locally and globally.
As many of you may know, I kicked off my effort this spring in the Arctic with—I must admit—a bit of a heart throb, when I embarked on a journey of solidarity with the people of the North.
Wherever I went—whether it was in small communities such as Pond Inlet, Cambridge Bay, Rankin Inlet, Kugluktuk and Pangnirtung, or in larger cities such as Iqaluit and Kuujjuaq—I encountered a proud people.
An overwhelmingly young people.
In some communities, seventy percent of the population is aged 20 or younger.
Even though they are the heirs of an ancient civilization, they are also a people working to overcome the horrible legacy of colonialism, residential schools, and forced migration to a sedentary way of life.
Their struggle is not a simple one.
For the spectre of substance abuse, housing shortages, physical and sexual violence, elevated high school drop out rates, and even suicide continues to haunt many of their communities.
But, in every place I visited up North, it was fascinating to see how they found hope, resilience, self-affirmation and healing in the arts, particularly hip-hop—right Buddha?
The young people you work with are doing well.
They are full of life. Much more confident.
And they love you.
Yes it is so fascinating to see how for children of eight years of age all the way to elders in their nineties, the arts have become crucial to helping overcome some of the serious problems facing their communities.
I was often drawn to tears by young b-girls and b-boys who showcased their talent and then told me how the urban arts have helped them overcome depression and have given them the desire to live again, to dream big, and to achieve their highest aspirations, whatever they may be.
But that which perhaps struck me the most was discovering how much the youth of the North have in common with their counterparts in the Canadian South.
All across the country—especially in fragile, vulnerable and marginalized communities—young Canadians find hope in the urban arts.
For my visits to neighbourhoods like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Montreal’s Little Burgundy, Côte-des-Neiges and Saint-Michel, as well as Winnipeg’s North Point Douglas, have shown me that all across the country—particularly in spaces of vulnerability and marginalization—Canadian youth are finding hope in urban art.
Whether it is rap, multimedia, sculpture, spoken word, poetry, slam, film, graffiti, animation, painting, drama, locking or popping, urban art is giving them a new voice.
It is giving them an instrument to raise awareness about serious social ills.
It is giving them an opportunity to re-imagine and reinvent their lives.
A chance to reclaim the joys and passion of learning and pursuing an education.
A chance to work with their peers for a better world.
A space to redefine and strengthen our citizenship.
And that is very important.
Some may have a hard time believing this, but in many cases, the urban arts have inspired so-called “high risk youth” to lay down their weapons and fight for peace in their neighbourhoods or “hoods,” as they like to say.
For example, when I spoke to youth at the Whippersnapper Gallery in Toronto, I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, former gang members telling me point blank, “Your Excellency: the urban arts saved my life.”
“With hip hop, I have learned how to replace anger and violence with words.”
And we know how powerful words can be.
On both of my visits to Bordeaux prison in Quebec, I met young inmates involved in an innovative radio project that broadcasts across prison walls to connect them with the wider community.
They showed me how the arts are giving them the tools and the confidence to work towards a better and more responsible future.
Just this afternoon, I spent two very moving hours at the ihuman Youth Society Arts Studio in downtown Edmonton.
I was blown away by the way in which its arts-based programming and caring staff offered compassion, love, support and understanding to young people who have undergone some of the most tragic situations.
The youth—many who have experienced abuse, rape, attacks, the violent death of loved ones—told me how through the urban arts, they had regained confidence in themselves and committed to try to stay on the right path, despite the many temptations in their way.
And what I could really do as Governor General is to take the time to listen to them—they really want people to trust them and to pay heed to their ideas and concerns.
To encourage them and validate their efforts—they are achieving wonderful things with their work.
And lastly, to share their concerns with decision-makers of every stripe—they told me directly: we want the government to hear everything we have to say.
That to me is what governance is all about.
That dear friends, is what hope is all about.
“One step at a time,” they told me.
Every gesture counts.
As a result of a forum I held at the Graffiti Gallery in Winnipeg, I witnessed first hand how the voices of urban artists, some as young as ten and eleven, uplifted an entire neighbourhood to rid itself of drugs, gangs and guns in less than nine months.
Now that is powerful!
Please do not get me wrong.
The Governor General of Canada is not saying that all forms of urban art have these seemingly miraculous properties.
It all depends on how you use it, right?
One has only to look at commercial or “gangsta” hip-hop to see how crime, violence, misogyny, and homophobia, are still being glorified in our society.
This is no secret to anyone.
And, it should be cause for alarm.
The point, however, is this: across Canada, hundreds of urban artists are uniting to offer us all a vital alternative.
An alternative to the pervasive attitude of “everyone for himself or for his clan,” or what I like to call the “bling mentality.”
An alternative to the structures of prejudice and division.
An alternative to the spirit of apathy and defeatism.
And an alternative to a life of crime, consumed by an intense fear inside.
That is why we as a nation must stand in solidarity with these artists.
So I am pleased to see that Edmonton is ahead of the game on this one!
I saw how this year, you stole the heavyweight title of Canada’s Hip Hop capital by appointing Cadence Weapon as your poet laureate!
Mayor Mandel, you and the residents of Edmonton are to be commended for the leadership you are displaying in this regard.
And I encourage others to follow suit.
For supporting the urban arts is the way to go—particularly now that we appear to be winning the battle against crime.
According to the latest Statistics Canada data, crime, including youth crime, is on the decline.
We seem to be striking a good balance between protecting our communities and helping as well as giving a second chance to those who, for one reason or another, have taken the wrong path.
And I dare to think that it is in part due to the efforts and initiatives of young people like you that we have been so successful.
For this, I would like to say thank you.
Still we cannot stop here.
After all, we know that Aboriginal and African Canadian youth are still overrepresented among the incarcerated.
We know that the economic crisis is placing new strains on our families, particularly working class, Aboriginal and immigrant and refugee families.
We know that criminal organizations are continuing to target and recruit disenfranchised and alienated youth.
We know that too many of our young women and teenage girls, particularly Aboriginal ones, are being lured onto our streets, many never to be seen again—as the People’s Poets sang when I entered.
We should not and cannot accept these disparities.
One child in the clutches of crime is one child too many.
Every time a child fails, we fail as a society.
So we cannot be indifferent to their plight.
And it is for that reason that I am here today.
I want to hear how you experience these challenges.
I want to know how you think the arts and other tools can provide solutions.
I want to know how you recommend we collaborate locally, nationally and globally to ignite positive change.
I want to know how you can act as ambassadors of peace and solidarity in your communities, among your peers, and within your families.
For this Dialogue is really about joining our strengths.
It is about building on the dreams and aspirations we share.
It is about working and moving together.
It is about making our voices heard.
It is about breaking down solitudes.
Dear friends, it is about making a difference in our lives and in the lives of our neighbours.
So without any further ado: the floor is yours.