I had the great pleasure and honour of hosting the Era 21 Networking Breakfast for Young Canadians at the Parliamentary Restaurant on Parliament Hill. It was organized by Senator Vivienne Poy and her staff, and was offered jointly as an Asian Heritage Month and Black History Month diversity celebration. More than 100 high school students from across Ottawa and a handful of their teachers attended. The goal of this annual event is to bring promising young people from the National Capital Region together and discuss the wide array of professional paths ahead of them, how they can overcome challenges and accomplish their goals. This year featured a truly inspirational panel of young professionals who offered their insights and words of hope and encouragement to a delighted group of teenagers. They soaked it all in, and it was great to see the already bright smiles on the diverse young faces widen throughout the stimulating and heartening discussions.
The morning opened with greetings from Senator Poy, as well as remarks and background on the event from Michael Harrison, President of the Ottawa Asian Heritage Month Society, and June Girvan of the J’Nikira Dinqinesh Education Centre. Kayaker John Hastings also spoke about his Olympic dreams. Then it was on to the panel discussion, which I had the fortune of moderating. Organizers picked three brilliant and prominent young people from very unique backgrounds to offer their stories and words of wisdom: Jeff Copenace, Phil Nguyen, and Rathika Sitsabaeisan.
Spoken word poet Jenna Tenn-Yuk opened the panel with a powerful piece about her Jamaican and Asian background. Jeff followed. He’s Anishinaabe, originally from Northwestern Ontario, and currently works as a Senior Policy Analyst for the Assembly of First Nations. He’s only in his early 30’s, but he already has a wealth of experience in provincial and federal politics. He offered some stark statistics about the realities of the challenges First Nations people face, but offered a message of hope in overcoming them by acknowledging the past and working together to move forward. He reiterated that students aren’t just the leaders of tomorrow, they’re the leaders of today. It was an original perspective that the students really enjoyed.
Next, Phil Nguyen, or “Master Phil” as he prefers to be called, talked about healthy living and how that helps get on a path to success. He’s a 7th degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and runs Black Belt Excellence Martial Arts Academy and he’s also a motivational speaker. One of his messages that seemed to really resonate with the youth was focussing on improving at least one per cent every day. He then called up a few students to demonstrate board-breaking strikes and kicks. It was some added excitement that I’m sure few people there expected.
Finally, Member of Parliament Rathika Sitsabaeisan spoke of her journey from childhood in Sri Lanka all the way up to federal politics here in Canada. As the New Democratic Party member for Scarborough-Rouge River, she has overcome many barriers as young woman of colour to rise to her current position as Deputy Chair of the Federal Caucus for the NDP. She is devoted to preserving her traditional Tamil language and culture here in Canada, and her already esteemed political career evoked a great response from the crowd, who had a lot of questions on how to get started in politics.
It was refreshing and inspiring to see so many young people from our community with such huge ambitions. From all backgrounds, they represent the focus and drive that can make our community – and country – great. By networking with their peers from other schools and communities, their eyes are open to the possibilities and opportunities in front of them. I grew up in a small Ojibway community on Georgian Bay, and for me it was often difficult to understand the greater world around me, and where I fit in. Thankfully, I discovered modern storytelling in the form of journalism and was able to travel the world at a young age. But now, our youth in communities are bound even tighter together thanks to initiatives like this. These young people are our leaders, and with such a strong sense of ambition and understanding already, our future looks bright.
- Waubgeshig Rice, Video Journalist, CBC/Radio-Canada