On 11 May 2017, MGCI held their first annual Grade 11 Conference at Central Technical School from 9 am to 3 pm. The conference, titled “Stepping Up: Voices that Challenge,” invited speakers to inform and inspire action in students about various world issues.

Prior to the conference, students signed up for two of the ten workshops offered through an online portal. All ten workshops were held once in the morning and again in the afternoon.

One of the ten workshops offered to Garneau students at the conference. Photo: Matthew Tse

Understanding Diversity and its Impacts on Difference and Exclusion

The Understanding Diversity and its Impacts on Difference and Exclusion workshop, directed by Richard Landau, explored the importance of diversity is societies and populations. Drawing a comparison with biodiversity, Landau discussed the perils of monoculture and the resilience that diversity fosters. He went on to note that the anonymity of social media allows people to hate monger without having to accept any responsibility. Landau also criticized the media’s tendency to point fingers without evidence. He urged the audience to stand in solidarity and to take action when witnessing acts of hate.

Resilience in the Face of Stress

The Resilience in the Face of Stress workshop was hosted by Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker Azfar Rizvi. “Resilience,” Rizvi stated, “is about staying your ground, about staying solid.” Rizvi’s father, a civil engineer, wanted him to follow in his footsteps, but Rizvi wanted to be a filmmaker. This lead to many stressful conversations and events in his life, through which he learned to be resilient. Rizvi believes resilience is a characteristic that needs practice to be mastered. He discussed his three ingredients of his ‘secret recipe’ to combat the stress that students face in their life and achieve resilience: believing in oneself, being responsive to challenges, and surrounding oneself with a network of people who care.

The Media and Fake News

The Media and Fake News workshop was led by Ryerson University Journalism professor Joyce Smith. Smith was previously a member of the breaking news team at globeandmail.com and also worked as a freelance journalist. She discussed what fake news is and its impact, not just on the subjects in fabricated articles, but also on the journalism profession and news industry. Smith talked about what people have done to combat fake news, mentioning websites such as Debunk and apps like Fib which verify news. She also encouraged students to ignore clickbait and refrain from sharing weird stories on social media. During the question period, Smith discussed with students how easily anyone can call themselves a journalist and whether new legislation should be created to discourage fake news.

Critical Thinking

The Critical Thinking workshop was led by Julia Coburn, co-founder of Worldvuze, an online global discussion platform for kindergarten to Grade 12 students. During the workshop, students were taught how to use the website, and discussed some hot topics regarding the environment and social media. Worldvuze has different challenges for students to participate in, including the “Bullying Awareness & Prevention” challenge and the “Next 150 Canada” challenge which will begin in September. Julia Coburn said that Worldvuze aims to expand students’ global knowledge and provide insight into thinking patterns by location, age, and gender. Many students left the workshop disappointed, as they felt the workshop was more about promoting the website instead of critical thinking.

Mental Health

A workshop on mental health was directed by Ary Maharaj, Executive Director at Minds Matter Magazine, an online magazine dedicated to student mental health. A sufferer of cyclothymia himself, Maharaj spoke about the importance of mental health education in high schools and universities. He discussed the concept of intersectionality, his struggles with his condition, and common mental illnesses. Maharaj stressed that the stigma surrounding mental illnesses needs to disappear, and that students with such conditions should seek out the appropriate accommodations through school.

Black Issues

The Black Issues workshop was led by Kwsei Millington, a former RCMP officer and decorated public speaker. Millington spoke about his experience in the RCMP, as well as the conflict between police officers and the black community. He discussed the stereotypes associated with different races, and how there is no such thing as a “positive stereotype” as they are all discriminating in some form. Millington said that students should focus on the things about them they can change such as their kindness and intelligence, instead of what they cannot such as their race and ethnicity.

Women’s Rights

Led by Hania Ahmed, the Women’s Rights workshop focused on the struggles that women face in the work force. Ahmed, an Arabic muslim from Palestine, was sent to Canada by herself at the age of sixteen to get an education. She was one of the few girls who graduated from her computer engineering class at McGill University, and went on to work in the Canadian Aerospace Program as the youngest manager in her team. Ahmed stressed the importance of equal opportunity and equal access to education for girls, as well as the importance of women’s rights advocacy. She herself has seen how women are rarely paid equivalent to men, and explained the many glass ceilings women have to go through. All students left the workshop with a better understanding of the importance of women’s rights and how to advocate for them.

Money  Management

The Money Management workshop was led by Canadian Foundation for Economic Education (CFEE) member Kevin Maynard. He spoke about tips to managing money and questioned participants on how they handle their money. Maynard also talked about what the CFEE does and handed out free books that teach youth about money and financial literacy.

Human Rights and Freedoms

April Julian, the Director of Education at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Education Trust (CCLA), led the Human Rights and Freedoms workshop. She began the period by asking her audience to be opinionated but also open-minded towards contrary opinions on controversial topics. Julian pointed out a few of the rights the Canadian Charter provides its citizens, but also noted that under the Charter, our rights and freedoms have reasonable limits. She encouraged her audience to ask three important questions if they believe that their right is being taking away: what is the purpose of this, will this work, and what are other consequences? To conclude the workshop, Julian presented her audience with a case and asked them to form opinions on the outcome.

Cyber Violence and Bullying

April Luu and Lydia Rezene, founders of Webwise, led a seminar on Cyber Violence and Bullying. In the seminar, Luu and Rezene confronted various forms of cyber violence, including but not limited to, stalking, cat fishing, blackmailing and cyber bullying.The two mentioned that the hurtful messages on social media affect people the most. Luu and Rezene also advised that, when sending intimate pictures, one should never include personal identifiers (face, tattoos, etc.).  They advised the audience to be especially careful, since in the age of social media all information is archived.

In between the workshops, guest speakers were invited to speak to all the Grade 11 students. The first talk kicked off the conference and was given by Lakehead University-appointed Chair of Truth and Reconciliation Cynthia Wesley Esquimaux. She discussed the injustices against the Aboriginal people and the importance of reconciliation. At the end of her talk, Esquimaux handed out seventy-two of the ninety-four calls to action and invited students to ask her questions about them.

Following her presentation, the second talk was given by two speakers: Imam Hamid Slimi, a resident scholar and Imam of Sayeda Khadija Centre, and Rabbi Baruch Frydman Kohl of the Beth Tzedec Congregation and the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi. They talked about the reasons why islamophobia and antisemitism exist and how to combat them. Fitting in with the theme of the conference, they opened up the floor to students for questions.

After the first round of workshops and lunch, the third speaker was Mubin Shaikh, an expert on radicalization, de-radicalization, national security, and counterterrorism. He spoke about what radicalization and extremism is as well as how ISIS recruiters are so successful. Shaikh told students his personal story as someone who was recruited by ISIS, showing them various propaganda materials and other strategies used by recruiters to lure people. Shaikh emphasized that ISIS is not what Islam is about, saying that people should always ask for proof when people they meet online make religious claims.

United Charity, a program that unifies youth through hip-hop, concluded the conference with a presentation. Three presenters shared how breakdancing changed their life and how it is never too late to find a passion followed by a showcase of their talents.

Several teachers, the Vice Presidents, and several students were also involved in the organization of the conference. Lunch was provided by the conference and was made by Ms. Gunn and Ms. Paveling’s cooking classes. In addition, several Grade 12 students helped with the preparation of materials and guiding students to their workshops.

Many students enjoyed the conference. Maheen Khalid said, “The conference taught us a lot of things. It opened our eyes and gave us more insights on issues in the world.”

When asked why she wanted to organize a conference, Ms. Goldenberg said, “I’ve wanted to do a conference ever since I came to this school. I wanted to pick a theme, have people explore it, and have a real, full conference experience.” Through the conference, Ms. Goldenberg wanted students to hear “challenging things” that would inspire them be more involved at MGCI and their community, to “pick up the torch.” Ms. Goldenberg chose the Grade 11 students because she wanted to see the results of the conference at MGCI the following year. As to how she thought the conference went, she said, “It was amazing.”