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Giving the gift of a better Canada

By Kenny Sharpe,
The Globe & Mail,
July 2 2017

In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, The Globe and Mail and WE Charity launched “The Gift to Canada Contest.” Canadians were asked to share their stories of how they are helping to make the country a better place. There were nearly 100 entries. Kenny Sharpe talked to the five young finalists, with Atiyah Bagha taking first place. She was flown out to Ottawa to share her story with the crowd at the WE Day Canada event on Sunday.

Atiyah Bagha

Age: 22
Sudbury, Ont.

I recall having a strong connection to the environment and I think that is incredibly important for everyone.

Her nicknames are “garbage girl” and “compost queen” and Atiyah Bagha says she is okay with that. After all, she has been carrying around an 11-litre bucket of travelling “pet” worms with her for three years to help her compost the waste she and her family produces, no matter where they are.

“I’ve taken them from Regina to Toronto to Sudbury and now we’re in Toronto again. I actually drive with them most of the time,” Ms. Bagha said.

Her Gift to Canada is her attitude and ambition to encourage Canadians to live as green as possible. “I am an environmentalist, a conservationist,” she said.

Ms. Bagha grew up surrounded by conservation areas and remembers catching snakes and frogs along the trails and wooded areas near her home. “I recall having a strong connection to the environment and I think that is incredibly important for everyone,” she said.

While attending the University of Regina to study biology, Ms. Bagha discovered the school didn’t have a composting program.

“Being from Sudbury, you have your peelings and you throw them in the green bin and the city deals with it,” she said. “At the university, composting was unheard of.”

Ms. Bagha wrote to her student union and began a process that included collecting data from other postsecondary schools’ composting initiatives. This eventually led to the beginning of the University of Regina’s own composting program. In its first week, she says, the school composted 130 kilograms of coffee grounds.

“Within the past three years, I have learned so much about composting and environmentalism and I don’t believe that anyone has to have a certain amount of knowledge to be passionate, or to want to learn about or change something,” Ms. Bagha said.

This is the transferable lesson Ms. Bagha hopes to pass on to other Canadians: that through research and reading, anyone can learn enough to pick up a cause and change their world for the better.

“I believe anyone with the right amount of passion and the right amount of determination can do anything,” she said.

Taylor Bickerton

Age: 17
Canning, N.S.

Making more people aware [of sexual violence] will mean more people will not just be bystanders and will help out their friends. Taylor Bickerton had one goal when she came up with the idea to launch a sexual-violence awareness week in her high school: to help others.

“I feel like it’s all about having these conversations and creating that awareness,” Ms. Bickerton said.

Her Gift to Canada is the hope to reduce the number of sexual assaults that happen in the country. Canadian sexual-assault group SACHA says one in three women and one in six men will experience some sort of sexual violence in their lifetime. Nationally, one in five sexual-assault cases is dismissed by police as unfounded.

Combine those stats with some personal experiences that she has heard, and that’s why Ms. Bickerton is trying to get her sexual-assault awareness week off the ground.

The proposed week would feature guest speakers, music and information sessions toward the cause of creating a safe space for those who need it.

“I feel like a lot of people either feel like they are scared to talk about it or they don’t have a lot of awareness, especially youth,” she said.

Despite heading to Carleton University in September, Ms. Bickerton plans to keep up the momentum and pressure on school officials and politicians to make her sexual-assault awareness week a reality. Ultimately, she would like to see the issue of sexual assault discussed more within schools beginning in high school.

“Making more people aware [of sexual violence] will mean more people will not just be bystanders and will help out their friends,” she said. “[And hopefully] in the years to come, this will lower the percentage of victims.”

Deborah Benhamu

Age: 21
Toronto, Ont.

It gives them confidence in themselves that if they put in the work they can succeed and they can be good at math and good at anything that they set their mind to.

Deborah Benhamu believes that math is the “international language.” Originally from Venezuela, Ms. Benhamu has been in Canada for almost six years and recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in math and statistics. She has spent a portion of her time teaching math to young Syrians who now call Canada their home.

“In terms of helping these refugee kids, it was giving them that feeling that I got when I got here, that I could succeed,” Ms. Benhamu said.

She describes her Gift to Canada as a commitment to newcomers to this country. She wants to pass forward the opportunities she was given when she and her family moved to Canada to escape mounting political and social oppression in Venezuela.

“I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to be here,” she said.

With the help of University of Toronto professor Esther Geva, Ms. Benhamu and a team of volunteers have been tutoring a group of 30 Syrian children in math fundamentals. Many of the children haven’t been in school for a while due to conflict in their home country.

“They were away from school on average for one and a half years before getting to Canada,” she said. “We could see those gaps in knowledge.”

Ms. Benhamu plans to continue the tutoring program even as she begins a masters of arts in child study and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and prepares to receive her own Canadian citizenship. She says the program already has more demand for spaces than she can accommodate.

“It gives them confidence in themselves that if they put in the work they can succeed and they can be good at math and good at anything that they set their mind to.”

Ethan Elliott

Age: 15
Stratford, Ont.

Our bees are getting incredibly endangered by pesticides and habitat loss. By starting a conversation, we can learn how to plant pollinator gardens, or transition your lawn into more wild flowers to make it more natural.

For Ethan Elliott, it’s all about the bees. It was really his work with the Ontario Nature Youth Council that planted the seed inside him to help protect Canada’s bee population and other pollinators. “Our bees are getting incredibly endangered by pesticides and habitat loss,” said Mr. Elliott. “By starting a conversation, we can learn how to plant pollinator gardens, or transition your lawn into more wild flowers to make it more natural.”

His Gift to Canada is the desire to inspire others to be more sustainable in how they live, and the hope that he can influence as many people as possible to keep the health of the environment front and centre.

To that end, he was instrumental in helping to turn his hometown of Stratford, Ont. into Canada’s second official “Bee City,” a designation that encourages individuals, families and groups to make their yards and green spaces more inviting for pollinators. Stratford now has a community pollinator garden and individuals can obtain free seeds to plant on their own properties. Even some local schools are jumping on board and developing pollinator-friendly gardens on school grounds.

Mr. Elliott believes that climate change is another big challenge for bees. But he believes global warming can bring Canadians together in an effort to stop its causes and counter its effects. He worries about the impact that a changing climate could have on Canada’s pollinators and, in turn, the country’s food supply.

“It is getting incredibly difficult for people to survive, given the increase in food costs,” he said: “Pollinators play an important role in sustaining the food chain in Canada.”

At 15 , Mr. Elliott believes there is a lot of apathy amongst others his age when it comes to climate change.

“The more we can bring people together on environmental issues is really, really positive,” he said.

Madi Vanstone

Age: 15
Beeton, Ont.


Seeing my friends with [cystic fibrosis] struggle, and their families, just inspired me to really do something about it. Madi Vanstone says she owes her life to her family, friends and community. Before she was a teen, Ms. Vanstone, who lives with cystic fibrosis, was successful in getting the government of Ontario to cover the $348,000 cost of the life-saving CF drug, Kalydeco. “Seeing my friends with CF struggle, and their families, just inspired me to really do something about it,” Ms. Vanstone said.

Before the government moved on the matter, families like the Vanstones had to either cover the cost of the drug itself, or do without, which is where community comes in. Ms. Vanstone says before coverage was extended, residents in the Beeton and Bradford areas helped raise the thousands of dollars needed for the Vanstones to be able to buy the drug.

“It was just incredible to see how much support I had and it makes me emotional,” she said. “I’m proud of my whole community because without them I couldn’t have done any of the things that I’ve done.”

Ms. Vanstone’s Gift to Canada is the encouragement that anyone can do whatever they put their mind to.

“You don’t have to be [an adult] to do it, you just have to do it,” she said.

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