Life is about making a difference, making things better

July 5 1993


Life is about making a difference, making things better

July 5 1993



Life is about making a difference, making things better

According to an old Chinese proverb, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. And in the headlong rush towards the 21st century, there are still young Canadians who realize the wisdom of those words, who, rather than complaining about the present, are working towards improving the future. They are the Activists: people who see a need for change, for making the world a better place. Their work is sometimes public, sometimes private. But it is always important. For as the philosopher Bertrand Russell noted, “The desire to understand the world and the desire to reform it are the two great engines of progress, without which human society would stand still or retrogress.”

Ask the Activists why they do what they do, and there are different responses. “If you recognize that you have potential or ability, it becomes your responsibility to make a difference,” says royal commissioner Manisha Bharti. Confesses municipal politician Alex Munter: “I know it sounds corny—but politics, like life, is about making things better.” Ultimately, though, the Activists have one thing in common: a striking sense of optimism. John Kennedy perhaps said it best: “There can be no progress if people have no faith in tomorrow.”


There will be no lazy days for Manisha Bharti this summer. The honors high-school student from Cornwall, Ont., is off to the University of Guelph on a special biological research fellowship. And during any spare time, she will be boning up on Ontario s educational system. Bharti, 17, was recently appointed to the province s five-member Royal Commission on Learning, headed by Monique Bégin and Gerald Caplan. But although she is the only student on the panel, Bharti does not see herself as a special-interest representative. “We’ve all come to the commission with no preconceived notions, ^ she says. ‘We must be open-minded, hear everyone and reach the best conclusions.



There is, says Mehrdad Baghai of Toronto, “less and less concern for the collective welfare, more and more focus on self-interest.” The 27-year-old international management consultant, who holds three degrees from Princeton and Harvard, helped develop a simulation game called C02, in which participants weigh the societal benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions against the high economic costs of doing so. The game is used mainly in schools and universities, but diplomats—including Canadian negotiators at last year’s Rio environmental summit—have also used it as a training tool. “What the game is ultimately about,” says Baghai, “is moral education.”



In seven years on Parliament Hill, Winnipeg lawyer Michael Allen, 37, has distinguished himself as one of Ottawa’s most capable Tory operatives. He has served as executive assistant to three cabinet ministers—including Jean Charest—and chief of staff to another. And this spring, as tour director of Charesfs leadership campaign, his skills again impressed his old boss, now the deputy prime minister. But despite his impressive CV, Allen shrugs off suggestions that he consider running for office himself, preferring to spend time with his wife, Karen, and 18-month-old son, Jonathan. “I am g not yet prepared to make that sacrifice,” he says. “I 5 am quite happy behind the scenes.” ¡



One evening in 1978, New York City nightclub singer and pianist Jeremy Mahood saw his $l,000-a-week musical career in a new light. “It was as if I could see behind the faces,” he recalls. “The pain, the hurt, the disillusionment and the loneliness.” So Mahood returned to Sudbury, Ont., where he grew up, and is now pastor of the 500member All Nations Church—a Christian congregation that emphasizes “no strings attached” community outreach. The church operates a day care centre, a shelter for young men and is building housing geared to income. “Words are cheap,” says Mahood, 44. “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”



Alex Munter has always been ahead of the crowd. At 14, from his basement in Kanata, Ont., he launched a 2,300-copy monthly newspaper that grew to a twice-weekly with a circulation of 16,400. Then, in 1991, one year after losing as a provincial NDP candidate, he won a landslide victory to Kanata city council. The 25-year-old Munter heads the city’s police services board—and champions social justice. In mid-June, while calling for an end to “state-sanctioned discrimination” against homosexuals, he publicly declared that he is gay. The reaction, he says, has been very positive: “On the issue of lesbian and gay rights, the population is way ahead of its politicians.”



It took just one year in the male-dominated engineering program at Dalhousie University in Halifax to convince Ellen Reynolds of the uphill battle women face. And since moving to Charlottetown last October, Reynolds, 28, has become one of Prince Edward Island’s best-known activists: she is communications co-ordinator and researcher for the provincial and federal advisory councils on the status of women, and serves on a variety of boards, including a council on family violence. ‘We are a small group and work closely together,” says Reynolds of the Island’s feminist community. But she adds: “Living here allows me to get involved in all aspects of the movement.”



In 1991, Robert Barnard, then 23, attended a Toronto session of the Spicer Commission’s Citizen’s Forum on Canada’s Future and was the only participant under 35. Seeing a need for greater youth involvement in national issues, he launched Generation 2000, an organization that sends 40 volunteers, aged 18 to 25, on a springtime tour of Canadian high schools. Through skits and workshops, they encourage students to speak out and get involved. We encourage them to become active in their school or community,” says Barnard. So far the group has visited over 900 schools—nearly a quarter of the national total. It aims to reach them all—and 1.5 million students—by 2000.



Ann Hillyer has been environmentally conscious since the early 1970s, when, she recalls, “recycling was considered a subversive activity.” But in 1989, she left a Vancouver law firm and went to work for the West Coast Environmental Law Association—a body that provides free legal advice on environmental concerns and advocates legislative reform. Hillyer, 41, has successfully pressed for stronger regulation of the pulpand-paper industry’s production of organochlorines and sits on the B.C. Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. “I enjoy combining what’s important to me, as a person, with my job,” she says.



His favorite movie is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which an idealistic young senator, played by Jimmy Stewart, finds himself surrounded by corruption. Ottawa city councillor Jim Watson, 31, may not be in exactly the same predicament, but he has earned a reputation for opposing government waste and “bureaucracy gone mad” since his election in 1991. Among his targets: the capital’s lavish new $72-million city hall and the proposed $l-million conversion of a sewage plant, by the Ottawa-Carleton regional council, into an environmental theme park. “You can spend like a drunken sailor for decades,” says Watson. “But eventually you have to pay the price.”



nez Hoeree admits that the

world’s problems make it difficult to remain optimistic—but she is no quitter. “There’s just so much to be done,” says the 16-year-old Surrey, B.C., environmentalist and social crusader. Hoeree helped plan the fifth annual Youth for Global Awareness Conference at the University of British Columbia in May. She recently organized a clothing drive for the homeless and a blanket collection for animal shelters, and spearheaded her school’s recycling campaign. A volunteer with Greenpeace, she has also fought clearcut logging on Vancouver Island, and sits on the Surrey Youth Council. “I believe in change,” says Hoeree. “I cannot give up.”



In his valedictory address to his high-school graduating class at Sudbury’s St. Charles College, Peter Jebreen shared his key to success: hard work and dedication. Jebreen, 18, lives those words. A straight-A student, he served on the student council, was captain of his school’s champion football team and sports editor of the yearbook. He still found time to volunteer at Sudbury General Hospital, tutor developmentally handicapped students and organize a 30-hour “famine” in February that raised $6,000 for the needy. “A lot of people are afraid of hard work,” says Jebreen, the son of Lebanese immigrants. “I think that if you do your best, you can make a difference.”



The Himalayan region was once one of the most remote—and pristine—on earth. But since 1953, when Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Nepal has been flooded with fitter-tossing tourists. With no waste-management system to handle the debris, an ecological nightmare unfolded. But, inspired by Torontonians Jill Sharpe and Dawn Sinko, co-directors of Youth to Everest Canada, 23 Canadian volunteers have raised enough money to travel to Nepal, assist in demanding high-altitude cleanup and help local communities create mechanisms to cope with the problem. Among their initiatives: a study into using solar energy instead of wood fuel to help decrease deforestation. The payoffs extend well beyond Nepal. “It helps people realize that positive environmental solutions are achievable by the average person,” says Sharpe, 28. Adds Sinko, 29: “Everest is a very mystical place. People come back with a belief that they can make a difference in their environment.”



In a blend of English and her native Inuktitut, the songs of Susan Aglukark, 26, celebrate her culture and confront the problems plaguing her people: suicide, alcoholism, alienation and sexual abuse. “I want to do as much as I can for them—spiritually, politically, emotionally and physically,” says Aglukark, who herself was sexually abused by a non-relative while growing up in the northern community of Arviat, N.W.T. ‘We have a very rich culture and there is no reason for it to die.” With two albums behind her and two more to be released later this year, Aglukark hopes to communicate a simple message: “People are people from the inside out, not from the outside in.”