Youth Dialogue in Montréal
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Youth Dialogue on the Occasion of the International Year of Youth
Montréal, Tuesday, August 31, 2010
I have come to Montréal-Nord to hear from you.
How are you?
I am touched and very happy to be here with you this afternoon.
In some ways, it is like a homecoming. I am from all of Montreal, and lived here for 35 years.
I know all this city’s moods: how it wakes up, everything that excites it, and where it sleeps.
From one season to the next, I know its brightness: how it can be dirty when the snow melts in the spring; vibrant, radiant and dusty in the summer; blazing under the silky, incomparable autumn sky; and I know where we run and hide to warm up in the winter.
I have lived in the east, at the top of Longue-Pointe and Pointe-aux-Trembles; in the west, in Notre-Dame-de Grâce and Côte-des-Neiges; in the south, along the Lachine Canal and closer to the river; but also in the north, in Saint-Léonard, then Saint-Michel, then Ahuntsic, then Rosemont and Montréal-Nord.
It came to the point where I used to joke that I could be a taxi driver in Montreal, so well did I know this island’s little nooks and crannies. Some thought I was making a tongue-in-cheek reference to my Haitian roots. But no, I meant I know all the shortcuts, I have been to every neighbourhood, I have seen all the major arteries develop, and I have always loved discovering all the little side streets, their charms and their secrets.
I have crossed Montreal for kilometres on foot and on bicycle, and have travelled through it by bus, metro and car.
But even better, I have lived here in French, in English, in Italian, in Spanish, in Greek, in Portuguese and, of course, in Creole. I am also very familiar with its Chinese and Arab accents.
I have grown, dreamed, fought, resisted, studied and worked in Montreal. I know what makes people happy and what makes then laugh here, but I know there are tears and suffering in Montreal too.
I am here and I recognize you.
I am here and I recognize myself. I am here and I am excited to once again hear what you have to say.
It’s wonderful that so many of you have come out to join us today. You have never been far from my thoughts and today, I have come to hear your news and to share a little of my own.
I am delighted that we are here, at the Maison culturelle communautaire de Montréal-Nord, a place of dialogue and meeting, where together we will build on the spirit of inclusion, solidarity and compassion that must absolutely triumph over all the crises and all the stigmatization that the neighbourhood and its residents often face.
I believe this.
As I believe that this neighbourhood’s young people, even in their anger, even in their hopelessness, by the very power of their ideas and their creativity, are a part of the solutions that must be considered when addressing the challenges faced here. The contributions being made by many of them, and the powerful and constructive tools they are using, with a great deal of imagination, deserve to be considered.
With Family Squad’s dynamic performance, we see how art and cultural expression are mobilizing them.
Take Renande Christian, for example. Renande, a young woman who, just one month after undergoing a very difficult medical operation, proudly stood strong on this stage to prove that no circumstance, no hardship, no difficulty can or should stop any one of us from achieving our greatest aspirations.
Renande, you did so with courage, and it was your way of telling us that life must prevail over all hardships and that, yes, it is possible, if everyone works hard together. But mainly, you showed us that we must never let ourselves be brought down by circumstances.
This spirit is alive and well here; this is the main lesson that most of us have learned from our histories, from our experiences, and it is what allows us to move forward, to hope, to emerge from times of discouragement, from our grief. We must agree to talk about it. We must work together to live together better.
And these youth dialogues that I have held across Canada, in every province and territory, and during the many State visits I have made around the world, are, just like today, here in Montréal-Nord, an opportunity to hear and to have heard what young people like Renande and her friends and so many others in the room have to say and suggest.
Because I know that, despite young people’s many wonderful achievements, there is still a tendency, by some people, to dismiss you either as utopians or worse, to characterize you as destabilizing elements bent on unravelling the very fabric of our society. Often, the dark clouds of prejudice and misunderstanding loom overhead, dimming your prospects in our society.
Yes, we very often turn a blind eye. We dismiss young people’s point of view. We close the door on them.
This results in discouragement, sullenness, a litany of frustrations that sometimes explode, and a strong feeling of exclusion. That is why I believe it is our responsibility to break down the attitudes and practices that keep mainly young people at a distance and deprive us of their essential perspectives, of their energy and of their ability to act for the greater good.
And I believe we can start this process.
I would therefore recommend to young people that they not let themselves be intimidated, or worse, manipulated.
Just brush off the prejudices, and prove your accusers wrong.
Through constructive actions and strategies. Crime does not get you anywhere and leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
Refuse especially to fall prey to the allure of organized crime, which always feeds on helplessness and feelings of hopelessness.
Instead, be agents of change and unifiers through any means available.
Encourage your friends, your family, your neighbours, shopkeepers and everyone else who makes a positive contribution to life and development in your neighbourhood, as well as other young people, to join you.
Present your ideas, your aspirations and your recommendations, as you know how to do so well, with imagination and conviction.
Never doubt your ability to mobilize those around you, to bring the entire community together, a community that needs you as much as you need it.
This last point is important because your commitment to your community must be reciprocated.
Because it is impossible to improve society without giving youth a voice, without addressing their concerns head-on, and without including them in the decision-making process.
Think about it: who better understands the realities you face on a daily basis? Who can list them better than you? The most sustainable solutions to move forward come from you and with your help.
Many people say that young people are the leaders of tomorrow.
But I sincerely believe that young people are also the leaders of today and that by coming together, generations can learn from one another. And that we need to listen to your ideas now, to hear your perspectives, and to welcome you to the decision-making table.
The challenges our society is facing are such that we cannot afford to deprive ourselves of your ideas. Including youth is also a question, an issue, of good governance.
I say this because I have seen that your efforts are a promise of a richer, more just, more vibrant, more daring society.
I wanted to point this out, because, throughout my mandate as governor general, I have made youth a priority. The discussions I have had with young Canadians from coast to coast to coast, the hours and hours I have spent with them on their own turf, even if it meant visiting some of the so-called “hot spots,” all of this has allowed me to see them at work and to witness the extraordinary impact their initiatives are having.
Whether in urban settings in recording studios, in film creation workshops, in animation, in graffiti, in music, in poetry, in dance, in hip hop, where art is used as a tool to transform individuals or society as a whole; whether in Aboriginal communities all the way to the Arctic; or in after-school drop-in centres, with groups that help homeless youth, in high schools, in universities, and even with young people detained at the Bordeaux Prison here in Montreal: everywhere I have been, young people have shown me that they want to and can change things.
I am thinking in particular of North Point Douglas, which has long been thought of as a difficult and problem neighbourhood in Winnipeg. North Point Douglas, where, at an Urban Arts Forum I held there in 2007, 200 young people made a heart-breaking and passionate plea in front of the decision makers I had also invited to the meeting. Their sincere cry demonstrated how urgent it was to act against a number of scourges—violence, crime, insecurity, job insecurity—and against the fear and fatalism that was horribly eroding the residents’ peace of mind and lives.
The young people spoke with powerful words and lots of ideas at the end. The urgent need to break down indifference and silence was heard and resulted in a new synergy. We saw municipal, provincial and federal authorities, police forces, all the sectors gathered, educators, health care professionals, social workers, including members of the Order of Canada, all take part in the discussion, respond, listen, get involved and commit to follow up. Extremely effective strategies were put in place and they included solutions that came from the residents themselves and, notably, from young people.
The result? In just eight months, the crime rate dropped by 70% and 32 crack houses were shut down.
I returned to Winnipeg last week for another forum with the people of North Point Douglas. They are stronger, more confident, and showing more solidarity than ever. They have turned the tide and are so proud of what they have accomplished with the priceless help and impetus of youth.
Because it is by paying attention to your ideas and solutions that we will achieve our ideal of a country where everyone can reach their highest potential.
North Point Douglas is just one example among many.
The impact of this passionate series of youth dialogues is such that the organizations that have contributed and the communities that have taken part—including a number of universities—have strongly insisted that I leave a legacy.
That is why I have created the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, which will continue this commitment in favour and support of citizen youth initiatives. Initiatives that deserve to be know and recognized, because all across the country, they are coming up with very imaginative means of fighting many social problems; they are helping to rebuild—and save—lives. Initiatives that also very often promote artistic expression as a space for reflection and action, as development and humanization tools.
The theme of the International Year of Youth, dialogue and mutual understanding, reminds us that we all have an individual and collective responsibility to address the issues that divide us, by building on the goals and aspirations that bring us together.
To do so, we must be daring, we must aim high to make sure we do enough.
And now it is your turn to seize the moment, to speak. I cannot wait to hear what you, the young people of Montreal, have to say. There are also leaders in social, cultural and economic policy here in the room, as well as philanthropists and decision makers, all ready to hear your solutions.
The floor is yours!