Youth Dialogue - Toronto
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Youth Dialogue on the Occasion of International Year of Youth
Toronto, Monday, September 20, 2010
How are you Toronto?
Thank you for your warm welcome and thank you Kaleb, Michelle and BluePrint for Life for your performances. You have all filled me with your energy, and Jean-Daniel and I are thrilled to be here.
Let me begin by honouring the indigenous peoples who have inhabited this land for millennia.
They are our deepest roots in this country, and we must continuously acknowledge how central they are to our identity, our heritage and our culture.
It is wonderful to be back in Toronto again, and my husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, and I are so excited to be here with you, young leaders who represent some of the most dynamic organizations in this city.
And we are so excited to launch the Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture with you today.
Che: I can still remember discovering Manifesto just two years ago, when I spoke at your Ignite the Americas conference on youth arts in the hemisphere.
Then as in now, I was very impressed by your ability to use the arts to improve people’s lives, to tackle social issues, and to empower entire communities.
That is why I am very pleased to collaborate with you on the fourth edition of your festival.
For where better to celebrate the power of community arts than here: one of the most multicultural cities in the world.
You exude such a rich profusion of tastes, colours, lifestyles, languages and cultures that I think it is safe to say that Toronto contains the world.
In a time in which ethnic, religious, and linguistic tensions are resurfacing around the globe, Toronto and indeed Canada stand as a source of inspiration for societies struggling to find common ground.
That is not to say that everything is perfect here at home. We know that challenges remain.
And we know that a spirit of vigilance is required to combat prejudices, discrimination, and exclusion, and to create more opportunities for intercultural and interfaith understanding.
And I know that you do this every day by bringing people of different horizons together around the universal values of compassion, social justice, and community engagement.
In so doing, you not only strengthen the social bond. You also remind humanity that we can find strength and unity in diversity.
And that is the essence of my motto, “Breaking down Solitudes.”
It is also the reason that I decided to come to Toronto to complete my national celebration of the United Nations’ International Year of Youth.
The International Year of Youth aims to increase global dialogue and mutual understanding by inviting us all to unite around a vision of the world in which citizens of all backgrounds and lifestyles play a crucial role in solving local, national and international challenges.
So it is a vision of hope.
It is a vision of transformation.
It is a vision of global peace and harmony.
For the International Year of Youth is about taking action.
It is about dreaming big.
Pooling our resources and our ideas.
And placing youth at the core of what it means to build a better, more dynamic and equitable society.
To that end, I dedicated my final youth dialogue series to celebrating the International Year of Youth with Canadians of all ages and walks of life.
It was important for me to help validate your initiatives and to encourage those in positions of power to include you as part of the solution.
I say this because I know that there is a tendency to dismiss your ideas as utopian or idealist and, even in some cases, to label you all as agitators bent on unravelling the very fabric of our society.
Unfortunately, we often underestimate how destructive this attitude can be.
Because with stigmatization comes frustration, with frustration comes alienation, and with alienation comes a feeling of being left out.
And when we let these emotions fester, we open the door for criminal elements to step in and lure the disillusioned into dangerous, if not deadly, traps.
Former gang members have told me point blank: “Excellency, I joined a gang because I gave up on society.”
“But even with all the money in my pocket, I could never get rid of all the fear eating me up inside.”
Luckily, through support from a variety of arts-based programs, they escaped from the streets before it was too late.
But how many others are being drawn into or are still trapped in that horrible spiral of self-destruction?
Yes, society has a responsibility to prevent youth from falling through the cracks.
Yet, it is more than a question of morality.
Let’s admit it: Standing up for youth is in our national interest.
For indifference to your plight has a tremendous social and economic cost.
That is one of the reasons I chose youth as a priority for my mandate.
It is also why I spent my tenure encouraging decision-makers and philanthropists of every stripe to reach out, support and include young people.
We need to stop dismissing you by saying you are the leaders of tomorrow.
Young people are leaders today.
You have a unique outlook on the world and invaluable ideas to share. Therefore, it is here and now that we must learn from your perspectives.
For I deeply believe that empowering youth is empowering a community, it is empowering a city, and it is empowering a nation.
Because throughout my term, I saw you in action in graffiti galleries, indigenous communities, after school drop-in centres, boys and girls clubs, recording studios, organizations for homeless youth, high schools, universities, and even in a prison.
That is why I know that with very little resources, many of you are raising awareness about important issues, offering constructive solutions, and even saving lives and transforming communities.
Nevertheless, you have told me that you are excluded from the decision-making table. In fact, wherever I have gone, your message has been crystal clear, “Canadian youth want in!”
I have listened and tried to help through my youth dialogue series.
And today, as we launch my last forum, I have come to encourage you not to give up. Because people are listening. And decision makers are prepared to act in your favour.
When I officially launched the International Year of Youth in the National Capital Region, two-hundred youth called upon public institutions and political leaders to be more audacious in embracing ethnoracial diversity and LGBTQ youth, in greening the city, in promoting the arts, in protecting our civil and political liberties, in promoting bilingualism, and in tackling homelessness and poverty.
Yes, the National Capital Commission—the federal body responsible for the region—committed to incorporating the youth’s recommendations into the plan for Canada’s capital. The institution also pledged to establish concrete measures to include young people within the institution’s decision-making process.
Similarly, the City of Ottawa pledged to involve youth in formulating its new policy on culture.
Next stop after Ottawa was Memorial University, in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, where two-hundred youth requested more affordable postsecondary education throughout Canada, greater opportunities for rural and francophone youth, more support for people with disabilities, more programs to tackle homelessness and poverty, as well as more sexual health programs.
I was very touched when Premier Danny Williams accepted my invitation to the forum, where he pledged to follow up and reconvene the participants to another youth dialogue where he would develop solutions to the issues raised during my forum.
Then we went to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where two-hundred young people spoke out on the importance of respecting indigenous rights, increasing funding for crime prevention art programs, improving the youth in care system, providing more nutritious foods through community-gardens, and tackling poverty and homelessness more effectively.
Here too, Saskatoon Mayor Donald Atchison committed to taking specific measures to communicate better with youth and to involve them in service delivery and program implementation.
Then in Winnipeg, I undertook a very emotional visit to the city’s North Point Douglass neighbourhood, where I had convened an urban arts forum in 2007. During that forum, over 200 youth had made a passionate plea, in front of the decision makers I invited, for help tackling crime, violence, drugs, gangs, and job insecurity.
Their call to action was so compelling that it mobilized neighbourhood residents, as well as provincial ministers, the mayor, the police service, and business leaders, to reduce crime by 70% and close 32 crack houses in only 8 months.
So last month, you can imagine how inspired I felt by the residents’ testimonies. I was quite delighted when Graffiti Gallery, a dynamic urban arts organization, committed to creating an alliance of neighbourhoods to address the issues confronting young people throughout Winnipeg.
And last but not least, I spent two very moving hours in the Montreal-North neighbourhood, discussing issues of concern to Montreal youth.
In the presence of a provincial minister, city councillors, police officials and community leaders, youth spoke out against racial profiling, encouraged media to increase positive depictions of young people, and called upon all levels of government to increase youth arts programs for disadvantaged youth.
It was therefore quite encouraging to hear borough Mayor, Gilles Deguire, invite all participants to join him for a follow-up Youth Dialogue, where he and municipal officials will work to develop concrete solutions to their challenges.
All this to say that the impact of the youth dialogues is such that countless organizations, communities, universities, municipalities and even provincial governments, have strongly insisted that I continue to work with them on empowering young Canadians.
In response, my husband and I have created the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, which will support youth initiatives and connect you with like-minded organizations and groups from across the country.
Ultimately, we will help to ignite, and perhaps even remix, Canada with a grassroots manifesto for change.
It is about reaching out through the arts. Some call it, “Art-reach.” For it is about building a beautiful city and a beautiful country through city summit alliances.
And let’s take it global!
For I deeply believe in the power of the arts and culture, as well as ideals like solidarity and fraternity, to carry us to a better place.
But to harness their full potential, we must draw upon our inner strength and embrace the magic that occurs when we come together for a higher, more universal purpose.
Because it is true. A better world is possible.
In fact, the dream of a better world has inspired every major revolution and turning point in history; when people dared to question their circumstances, when they dared to speak up for justice and freedom, when they dared to join hands for the greater good.
Ultimately, that is what humanizing humanity is all about.
And young people have been, and will remain, at the forefront of this global movement for change.
That is why I am looking forward to hearing from you, the youth of Toronto.
I want to know about the challenges and opportunities you face.
I want to learn more about the ways in which you are addressing these issues.
And I want you to tell me how we can continue working together, in Toronto and across Canada.
So, dear friends: the floor is yours!