Every year, We Day in Toronto crams an extravaganza of A-Listers, stunning performances, and activism issues all under the Air Canada Centre's dome.
In that way, this year's We Day was no different. While the celebrity line-up impressive, the real stars at the ninth annual event were the 20,000 children sitting in the audience. These youth leaders worked tirelessly to earn their tickets, volunteering their time to improve communities around the world.
What's changed this year is an overarching theme: Indigenous issues are Canadian issues. We Day 2016 highlighted numerous Indigenous activism contributions, from both settlers and Indigenous advocates.
It started with a Toronto high school's soccer team. Players from Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School Royals took their game to Attawapiskat, in efforts to help the community heal from crisis.
In a segment that featured seven youth leaders, Ta'kaiya Blaney stood onstage. The 15-year-old is a singer and grassroots environmental activist from Tla'Amin First Nation. She's spoken at United Nations forums and at Indigenous rallies all over the world. Blaney lended her voice to chants in Paris last year, during the climate conference.
Singer Gord Downie performed a wrenching rendition of "The Stranger." It paid tribute to Chanie Wenjack -- an Ojibway boy who died after escaping the residential school system in the 60's.
The song is featured on "The Secret Path," a multimedia project that will tell Wenjack's story through a graphic novel, an album, and a motion picture.
The day reached an emotional peak when Wenjack's sister Pearl Achneepineskum and her son joined Downie and his brother Mike onstage. A moment of silence was held for Wenjack and others who died while in or escaping residential schools, during which Achneepineskum sang a powerful healing prayer.
A government-led initiative, the last residential school closed only 20 years ago. The system's impact is still widely felt and was described as "cultural genocide" by the Truth and Reconciliation chair. Residential schools have affected how Indigenous people feel about education,
The official death toll was said to be 6,000 children earlier this year, by Truth and Reconciliation chair Justice Murray Sinclair. He said that the numbers are estimated, and expected to be much higher since the government stopped recording deaths in 1920.
The Tragically Hip frontman's brother gave the audience of 20,000 children a lesson in why reparation for harm caused by the residential school system matters. After all, everyone sitting in the dome had something in common with kids who attended residential schools: 20,000 was about the same amount of children were abducted as part of the Sixties Scoop.
"I think it's time to show First Peoples, who have lived here — where you're standing and where your homes are built — who've been here for 10,000 years," Mike Downie said.
"Let's come together. We want to be a real country," he said. "We're not going to repeat the mistakes of the past."
These high expectations for social change come with the We Day territory. Craig Kielburger was inspired to start Free the Children when he was a kid himself. At 12 years old, Kielburger was moved to action after hearing about Iqbal Masih, a former child slave from Pakistan who was murdered for advocating against child debt slavery. With his brother Marc Kielburger, they founded what's now called the We movement.
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