The week of We Day, Montreal, brought a whirlwind tour for a delegation of students from communities across the Eeyou Istchee.

On Sunday, November 18, the group of 90 students arrived for a busy 48 hours in the big city, kicking their stay off with the CFL Eastern final game between the Montreal Alouettes and the Toronto Argonauts that would decide which team would advance to the Grey Cup. Unfortunately the home team lost.

The next morning, the students, along with their teachers and chaperones, filled a theatre at the former Forum – now a movie multiplex – to see a special screening of The Last Gladiators, the documentary about the effects of the life of a hockey enforcer on former Montreal Canadien right-wing Chris “Knuckles” Nilan.

It’s well-known the Habs are second in popularity to hunting in the Eeyou Istchee – most folks will find a couple of hours out of even the busiest schedule to watch a Habs game. But the movie screening wasn’t so much about hockey as it was an opportunity to talk to the kids about bullying and harassment. After the film, Nilan appeared and spoke to the kids about the effects of bullying on his life. Anyone who’s followed the former Hab knows that he has had his share of difficulties. Like a lot of former hockey goons, he has struggled with emotional problems that, in his case, led to severe addiction along with other forms of self-destruction.

Nilan is a legendary fighter, holding the record of the greatest average number of penalty minutes per game, as well as the record for the most penalties in a single game. On the ice, he played first and foremost with his fists. But his message for the young people of Eeyou Istchee was that exciting as it may look, the path of a goon is a dark road to travel.

Bullying sounds to a lot of people like the ugly side of child’s play – bad behaviour, but nothing serious in the long run. Speaking to the Cree youth delegation, Nilan said that though he’s had 30 operations to fix his body, and all those have healed, it’s the things that people have said that have truly damaged him. He takes issue with the old saying that sticks and stones may break bones, but words can never hurt you – words, says Nilan, can hurt in a way that even a beating from the toughest thugs in the NHL never will. A beating can bruise your body and hurt your pride, but the kind of long-term tormenting that gets called bullying can ruin your life forever, going so far as to drive some young people to suicide. Even harassment over the internet, via Twitter or Facebook, Nilan cautioned, is vicious and can leave its victims damaged for years.

Speaking after Nilan, former Argonaut Chuck Winters took the stage. Since losing his brother to a drive-by shooting in 1998, Winters has become an advocate for conflict resolution in communities, working with Stop The Violence and Last Play Training, which uses sports to provide kids the lessons in discipline and self-control they need to succeed in academics and in life. On finishing his presentation, Winters stuck around for nearly an hour, talking and taking photos with as many kids as wanted to meet him.

Early the next day came the main event: Free the Children’s We Day Montreal, a day-long event promoting youth empowerment and active citizenship. Focussing on the slogan “From Me to We”, We Day celebrates and promotes acts of social change and improvement both at home and away. The event encourages young people to see themselves as having the power to bring about positive change and fostering connections between youths across different countries and cultures in the name of improving the standard of living for young people worldwide.

CRA Department of Justice and Correctional Services Director Donald Nicholls underlined that when approaching the Cree School Board for students to recommend, the Department of Justice and the Public Health Department underlined that they didn’t want the trip to be open only to straight-A students.

“We wanted a cross-section of students from every community,” said Nicholls. “We wanted the school principals to recommend some kids who are struggling to get by, some kids who are doing well, and some kids who are in between. This sort of message shouldn’t just be for the kids that are doing the best in school. There’s something of value in there for every young person in Eeyou Istchee.”

With more than 15 performers and speakers, the day’s roster was overwhelming. It included fan-favourite R&B singer Shawn Desman, Kenyan Maasai Warriors Wilson & Jackson, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, a dancer from Cirque du Soleil’s One Drop, and the astonishing Spencer West, a man with no legs who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro using only his hands.

While it was Desman who most of the Cree youth seemed to be looking forward to see, it was West who left the most lasting impression with his message of “redefining the possible”. Telling the story of how he followed the path made by previous climbers up the mountain, West encouraged kids who feel doubtful, sad, or helpless not to give up, returning again and again to the refrain, “There’s a path. Keep going.”

Speaking later, Virginia Wabanno, a resource/ remedial teacher at Waskaganish’s Wiinibekuu School, said, “When I saw Spencer West, I had goose bumps. It was amazing. To do something like that, it makes an impact on the youth, to show them they can do something if they’re determined to do it. I think these are very powerful messages.”

Eastmain student Nancy Mayappo agreed: “Spencer was my number-one inspiration. A lot of people spoke on a lot of things, but Spencer was the inspiration to not lose hope.”

Colin Esperon, a Secondary-2 student from Great Whale and a player on the Cree Nation Bears, put it even more bluntly: “Spencer West – that guy was great!”

Though West was easily the most impressive speaker, the day was full of engaging figures, such as Kahnawake Mohawk and water-polo Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller, who gave a shout-out to the Cree delegation in the crowd and called on the youth in the room to help solve the human-rights issues in Canadian Aboriginal communities.

“This is not an Aboriginal issue, this is a Canadian issue,” she said. “No child in a country as wealthy as [Canada] should ever have to go hungry or cold or suffer unsafe homes and schools. We can spend billions of dollars to build an oil pipeline across some of the harshest territory in this country, but we still can’t bring clean water and safe homes to our citizens.”

Local youth Candice Pollack also spoke about the need for improvements at home, speaking of the example made by the late student activist Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat, who didn’t let being only 14 years old stand in the way of bringing attention to the desperate situation of schools in that community – long before the crisis in Attawapiskat reached its peak last December.

Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff said, “The message is clear: change comes from people. It doesn’t come from leadership or government, it comes from individuals. If you act together and find ways to do things together, that’s how change happens. This is encouraging youth to take action, stop bullying, get involved in their communities, get involved regionally and internationally.”

Iserhoff’s message seemed to hit home with Cree youth in attendance.

Roslyn Diamond, a Secondary-4 student from Waskaganish, said, “I guess everybody knows how to change, but I got the shivers once they were talking.” Citing the problem of bullying, she said, “[Bullies] keep pushing and pushing and they can’t stop. It has to stop, right away. It’s too much. Everybody has to stand up and talk about it.”

But Diamond was equally excited by the We Day message encouraging young people to travel to other countries to help out abroad.

“There’s a lot of interesting places out there – like India! There are so many interesting stories there. And the language and the religion!”

Nancy Mayappo from Eastmain said, “It’s great to be able to be a part of something as big as this. It helps you feel a lot of confidence in helping others, and helping yourself. I’d love to see a lot more kids [in Eastmain] get involved in the environment. For example, we don’t really have recycling – we have it for cans, but not paper and plastic. I’d love to organize something like that. I see a lot of inspiration today, and while I was here, to be the first one to help out in the community, with environmental issues or anything. It gave me a lot of confidence.”

That message was, no doubt, precisely what the Department of Justice and the Public Health Department hoped the Cree delegation would take away from the trip.