IMPACT

We Day Toronto Didn't Shy Away From Tough Topics Like Depression, Syrian Refugee Crisis

10/01/2015 08:58 EDT | Updated 10/02/2015 10:59 EDT

We Day Toronto proved youth activism is alive and well in Canada, with over 20,000 students cheering inside the Air Canada Centre on Thursday. It helps that the stars aligned to make the 8th annual empowerment event a celebrity-studded celebration, with Shawn Mendes, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Hozier among those performing.

But it was the personal stories shared by speakers that helped reveal a political side to We Day, where underrepresented aspects of social change came to the helm and issues affecting Canada as a nation were brought to the attention of the next generation, who has already proven to be a powerful force for change in the lead-up to the event.

No one paid their way into We Day

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Elliot Miville-Deschênes was one of the We Day hosts.

You can’t buy a ticket to We Day. Admission costs commitment: only students who have raised money throughout the year for a local and a global cause can attend. Since 2007, We Day reports over 14.6 million volunteer hours have been logged and more than $45 million raised for causes. A handful of those volunteers shared the spotlight with celebrities, including host Elliot Miville-Deschênes, age 12. who had started a Free The Children club at his own school, and introduced many of the presenters of the event. Miville-Deschênes opened We Day with a re-enactment of Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger’s famed show-and-tell presentation, which explained how Free The Children started when Kielburger was 12 himself.

A moment of silence for Alan Kurdi and Syrian refugee children

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Leen Al Zaibak stands onstage during a moment of silence at We Day Toronto

Leen Al Zaibak, who works with Free the Children and is a co-founder of Syrian advancement organization Jusoor, spoke about the Syrian refugee crisis and what Canadian children can do to help with vow-of-silence fundraisers.

“Many Canadians are taking a stand and everyone in this room can too,” Al Zaibak said. “Alan didn’t have a voice and millions around the world don’t either.”

She invited thousands to hold a moment of silence remembering Alan Kurdi, the drowned three-year old refugee whose photo sent the world into mourning, and other Syrian child refugees. Afterwards, she urged students to ask their friends and family to take pledges, with proceeds going to children’s education or the Adopt A Village initiative.

Deaf activist Marlee Matlin got the crowd signing

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Marlee Matlin used ASL for her We Day appearance on-stage.

It’s rare to see American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters at events, let alone any Deaf representation. So when actress Marlee Matlin signed that she preferred to “communicate with this beautiful language,” the feedback from the crowd was phenomenal.

"Though the world may think because I am deaf, I have more hurdles to overcome than others, it's not true,” Matlin signed. “The real handicap of being deaf isn't in my ears, it's in my mind… barriers come from the minds of those who want to handicap you."

Students signed back at Matlin ASL for applause. Then, Matlin asked to see all 40,000 hands trying ASL signs for courage, dreams, and success.

Joseph Boyden talked about self-harm and depression

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Author Joseph Boyden shared his personal battle with mental health issues.

It was when Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden was a teenager that he first noticed a deep sadness within him, burning his skin. So he would cut his arms to release it.

“I have the scars still, like pale ghosts on my skin,” Boyden said, describing his wrists under the long sweaters he used to wear.

Later in life -- even after psychiatrist visits, getting the diagnosis of depression, and literary success -- the sadness overcame him again. Through the support of his wife and writing, Boyden was able to manage his mental health.

“If you feel the hurt I speak of, I urge you to choose the healthy release... the creative release,” Boyden said. “So much beauty in the world is just waiting to come bursting out of you.”

The author told the young crowd that mental health issues carry social stigma, but that there was a better way. "Let's treat mental health issues like we do physical ones. Treat them with kindness and empathy. With concern and care."

Tonika Morgan was homeless. Now she's a Harvard student

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Tonika Morgan's work within her community helped her rise to meet her goals.

She called herself a feminist, an activist, an entrepreneur, a teacher, and a Harvard student at We Day. But there was a point in Tonika Morgan’s life where a vice-principal told her she would never have a university degree.

Homeless for three years as a teenager and kicked out of two high schools, it was after getting involved with Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre that Morgan met people going through what she was going through.

"Do you know what my community told me? 'You got this,'" Morgan said. "You can do this. Don’t ever let someone’s hurtful words drown out the voice inside of you.”

With homeless and street-involved youth’s high school dropout rate at 65 per cent, Morgan’s story illustrated the importance of community support by and for the street-involved; but it also shone a light on the lack of government support available for homeless youth. In a CBC interview prior to attending Harvard, Morgan talked about having to crowdfund her tuition.

Kids who care become voters

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The audience at We Day was young but socially engaged.

While many We Day attendees were under 18, the age of eligibility, the importance of voting was still a part of We Day.

“With the federal election coming up in a few weeks, now is the time to make your voice heard,” Al Zaibak said during her time onstage.

Towards the end of We Day, Free the Children founders Craig and Mark Kielburger listed the benefits of early community service. Along with a better likelihood of attending post-secondary education and continued volunteer involvement later in life, the brothers said experts agree that We Day alumni become voters.

Henry Winkler revealed he's "at the bottom three per cent academically in America"

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Henry Winkler, aka the Fonz, talked about his learning disability.

“English was hard. Math was hard. I was great at going home,” actor Henry Winkler, who is dyslexic, told We Day audiences. Because of his learning disability, Winkler took geometry for four years until completing the course with a D minus.

Now, the actor legendary for playing Arthur Fonzarelli on Happy Days, is glad to report that he has never been told the word “hypotenuse” since.

“We all have a challenge and each of us have a different one,” Winkler said. “You are not defined by your challenge you are defined by your tenacity. You are defined by your power.”

Tavi Gevinson wants kids to lose themselves with a purpose

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Tavi Gevinson made her first We Day appearance in Toronto.

Rookie Magazine is Tavi Gevinson’s pride and joy. After starting the publication as a fashion-forward teenager, her focus began to veer. She went from using Rookie to inspire her wardrobe to an outlet to work out bad breakups and periods of depression. At We Day, she spoke out for students using their creative influences free from judgement.

“Kids who spend hours exploring an obsession are thought to be wasting their time, but it turns out this is how a lot of artists get their start,” Gevinson said. “Finding your personal style, writing voice, point of view, is first a process of losing yourself.”

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We Day 2015