On a dreary Monday night in the Farquhar Auditorium, seven inspirational Canadians suffused the University of Victoria with stories of youth leadership. The return of The Walrus Talks to Victoria on Oct. 24 was by no means a full-house event — plenty of empty seats decorated the room — but the speeches filled the venue with optimism.
The seven speakers included: Sally Armstrong, renowned journalist and human rights activist; David Cameron, executive director of YELL Canada; Erin Freeland Ballantyne, director of the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning; Joshua Coutts, executive director and lead designer of the Victoria Hand Project; Andrea Nemtin, president and CEO of Inspirit Foundation; Fiona Rayher, director and producer of Fractured Land and artistic director of Gen Why Media; and Olympic medallist and UVic alumnus Ryan Cochrane.
“The Walrus did a really good job bringing a very different subset of people together,” said Cochrane. “We heard from [Coutts] who’s making a difference in communities across countries, we have a journalist, we have myself. It’s so broad — different age categories, different ways of life — but all [are] still influencing the people around them.”
Andrea Nemtin, whose talk “Beyond Representation: Institutions Sharing Power with Young Leaders” focused on the need for new and innovative strategies to impart leadership skills, was also positive. “To see people doing such incredible work, whether it’s in the schools or in the developing world . . . I thought that was amazing, because that’s . . . the kind of innovation that we can see from the next generation.”
Ironically, despite the evening’s topic, only two speakers — Coutts and Cochrane — were under 30. Given that the talks were held in the heart of a university brimming with youth leaders, it seemed odd not to showcase any current students.
When asked about being the second-youngest speaker present, Cochrane was diplomatic. “I think a lot of younger adults lead by example . . . by trying to make the biggest change in their own community, but actually articulating that [leadership] to the greater public is difficult,” he said. “People of any age older than myself probably have very good introspection into what we’ve learned over time and I think that makes an incredible difference.”
Armstrong was more pragmatic. “It’s hard to get young people [involved]. Look what’s on tonight, there’s exams, there’s term papers, there’s the bar, there’s a boy you’re chasing, a girl you’re chasing. A lot goes on in the life of a student. And I think they brought [The Walrus Talks] here hoping they would bring students and I think they picked a topic hoping it would attract students.”
Armstrong’s speech was the first of the evening, but it resonated long after the talks had finished. Her stories of brave young women around the globe were drawn from first-hand experience as a foreign correspondent. From Malala Yousafzai to the Boko Haram kidnappings to Milly — a 12-year-old rape survivor who stood up to her rapist during a community gathering in her hometown in Kenya — Armstrong championed the growing movement of what she labelled “personal will.”
Speaking to the Martlet during the post-Talks reception, Armstrong elaborated. “Can you imagine being 12 years old, that Milly, and standing up and saying, ‘I want to go to school but I can’t because I’m pregnant, and that guy — pointing straight at him — raped me.’ Holy crow. This is what makes change.”
As for what people in less immediately hostile situations can do, Armstrong was no less optimistic. “Your voice is the most powerful tool you have. The most powerful,” she said. “When you hear about Boko Haram and kidnapping those girls in Chibok and you say ‘that’s not ok with me,’ you are laying the groundwork for change.
“You don’t have to burn a car or scream. You just have to say ‘this is not OK with me’ and you start a movement.”
Despite the modest crowd and age of the speakers, this year’s Victoria edition of The Walrus Talks was undoubtedly a success. Conversation between the public, students, faculty, administration, and speakers rang through the University Centre lobby for close to an hour after the talks had finished — such impassioned discussion is an achievement in its own right.
For more info on The Walrus Talks Youth Leadership, visit thewalrus.ca/the-walrus-talks-youth-leadership/.