Eighteen thousand people, most of them teenagers, channelled Nellie McClung at top volume Tuesday afternoon at the MTS Centre.
"Never retract, never explain, never apologize," they chanted as an image of Manitoba's famous suffragette flashed above their heads.
The students waved homemade signs proclaiming their love for the planet, for peace, for clean water and for each other. They clapped and they sang and they cheered, their emotions jacked up by a stream of celebrities, motivational speakers and one very famous world-changer, all brought together in Winnipeg to celebrate We Day.
Quoting McClung was only a fragment of a tightly scripted day designed to reward and exhort students who have demonstrated they long to be the cool kids who will change the world. Marc and Craig Kielburger, the founders of Free the Children and We Day, were in constant movement during the event. They spoke passionately, they introduced guests, they made pleas for people to donate pennies to bring clean water to developing nations. By the end of the afternoon they paced the stage like televangelists, their hair plastered down with sweat as they invoked a rollcall of international peacemakers and human-rights activists.
Those 18,000 teens were introduced to the deeds of McClung, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Little Rock Nine and Mikhail Gorbachev in a frenetic day that blended an old-fashioned tent revival with a call to action. The Kielburgers are rock stars to these kids and to many in the international development community.
Their story is lore. Craig Kielburger laid the groundwork for Free the Children when he was 12. He read about a 12-year-old Pakistani boy who was murdered for his work championing the rights of children. Kielburger's upset turned to activism. The brothers formed Free the Children, an organization that now boasts nearly two million youth involved in programs in 45 countries. The charity focuses on providing clean water and sanitation, health care, small business opportunities and food security to developing nations and in Canada.
The crowd at the MTS Centre came from schools across the province, invited because they'd worked to help fulfil some part of the Free the Children mandate. We Day is their reward, an event to which you can't buy a ticket.
So how did these kids, who screamed full volume at the likes of singers Shawn Desman and Lights, respond to former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev? You could have heard a pin drop as Craig Kielburger interviewed Gorbachev. The teens were silent as they listened to the 81-year-old talk about the existence of 100,000 nuclear warheads during the Cold War, each of them capable of levelling a city the size of Winnipeg. Young people should fight for freedom, he said, they should stand united and they should never be intimidated by those who try to stop them.
In this post-Arab Spring world, the teens who will help shape our future stood as one and cheered for an old man who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to prevent a nuclear war. It was a pure moment, raw and sincere.
Were these kids manipulated by the catchphrases, the gift bags and the choreographed We Dance? Of course they were. They're manipulated every day by the messaging in television ads, movies and on social media. But these kids spent a day hearing and believing they are our hope. They have a voice. They are the best and they can change the world.
They won't all keep the energy of We Day. Some will forget the bake sales that helped build a school in Kenya. They'll leave behind the slogans, the inspirational stories and the inspiring words of a former president who implored them to work for honesty, justice and truth. Odds are some of them will grow into adults who believe they can collectively fight poverty, oppression and injustice.
"If you're ready to change the world, stand up," Craig Kielburger shouted at the mass of teenagers. And they stood, 18,000 strong.