Learning, gratitude, and hope: my Canada’s Walk of Fame experience
To the left, I witnessed a polar bear feeding its cub. On the right was the shocking scene of a glacier calving in front of my eyes.
In 2016, at the age of 14, I travelled to the Canadian Arctic on an expedition of 200 people from around the world. There, I witnessed climate change firsthand and learned about its impacts on Northern communities, where suicide rates are up to 11 times the Canadian national average. I began to understand how the loss of land results in changes to identity. Changing climate has impacted every aspect of life in the North, changing the people of the land along the way.
After returning home, I discovered shocking news: my Inuit friend’s boyfriend had shot himself while she was away on the Arctic expedition with me.
Personally, I struggled to understand what happened to my friend and her community. Climate change and suicide in the North had seemed like such abstract issues based on statistics before. Now, it was personal.
Working with my brother Sukmeet and my friend Andrea, we came up with a proposed solution and created a non-profit organization called Break The Divide (BTD), with the main goal of breaking down barriers between communities in Canada. BTD would serve as a means of personifying the impacts of climate change through dialogue.
BTD began by connecting youth living in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and my classmates in Delta, BC. Youth at my high school learned about climate change from the personal perspectives of students in Inuvik, their newfound friends. My peers learned about the impacts of climate change, food insecurity and the effects of inter-generational trauma from residential schools. The students from Inuvik explained how climate change was an adding stressor in their lives, contributing to the changes in lifestyle and community instability. It was powerful seeing the students find an outlet to talk to other youth about important issues and begin working together to make a change.
Upon realizing the potential of BTD’s empathy-building conversations, my team and I expanded the program to schools around the world. I spoke at conferences across North America about the importance of personalized learning rooted in shared dialogue and mental health advocacy. Now, as we have grown, over 1000 youth from countries including India, South Africa, Colombia, China, and Taiwan have been inspired to lead initiatives through our international network.
In the fall of 2019, as I was beginning my first year here at U of T, still trying to figure out how to balance my academics with extra-curricular activities like BTD, my high school social studies teacher and environmental club sponsor Michael Iachetta – who had actually helped pilot BTD – reached out to me. He told me he wanted to nominate me for Canada’s Walk of Fame Community Hero Award. It was open to any Canadian youth doing meaningful work in their community. I remember asking him if this was the same Canada’s Walk of Fame that had inducted the likes of Terry Fox, Wayne Gretzky, and Chris Hadfield over the past decades?
I wondered whether a 17-year-old like me could actually be on Canada’s Walk of Fame Stage. Nevertheless, Mr. Iachetta submitted the nomination form, and I continued with my day-to-day life of classes, studying, and meeting new people in Toronto. Then, one afternoon early in October, I remember receiving an email in my inbox from Canada’s Walk of Fame. I quickly opened it. Someone from the office of the CEO wanted to speak to me sometime over the next week. I was excited. I thought this might be an interview for the award – better yet, perhaps a chance to make a meaningful connection with someone in this important organization. Later in the week, I hopped on the phone call and to my surprise, it was the CEO of Canada’s Walk of Fame Jeffrey Latimer who began talking to me.
He explained how he and his team were proud of the work I was doing. He wanted the work to be recognized and to help me elevate to the next level. Jeffrey told me I was the winner of the Canada’s Walk of Fame 2019 Community Hero Award. As a part of the program, I would attend the event Gala and Red Carpet, receive $10,000 for BTD, and be matched with a mentor to help support my mission. I was elated and honoured. Above all, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for those around me and my team that had helped me get to this point.
Before I knew it, the evening of the Canada’s Walk of Fame Gala was here. My parents, my brother, and my friend Andrea had flown in to Toronto, and I had prepared a 5-minute acceptance speech for the award. I walked down the Red Carpet with my brother and Andrea, spoke to the media, and met all sorts of icons. I chatted with Jim Treliving from Dragon’s Den, Robert Herjavec from Shark Tank, musician Alessia Cara, hockey hall-of-famer Mark Messier, and astronaut Chris Hadfield.
The Gala began, and soon I was backstage with my brother and Andrea, ready to give remarks in front of the entire audience. I was called to the stage, and I was in a state of awe. Politicians, business leaders, award-winning musicians and the best of athletes in front of me, I thought once again in my head, “thank you.” I began my speech with my story. I then expressed gratitude for everyone around me and for Canada for giving me all the opportunities that it had. I talked about my parents, giving up everything they had to immigrate to a new country for me and my brother. I ended my speech with a simple statement – that empathy itself is rooted in Canada, and as Canadians, it is up to us to unite and tackle the greatest challenges we face today. I thanked everyone once again and walked off the stage. Only later did I learn that I had in fact received a standing ovation.
Much of the aftermath of the Canada’s Walk of Fame Gala is still a blur for me. I recall meeting a countless number of people, smiling for hours, and maintaining a deep sense of appreciation for all those around me. I connected with the CEO of Bell Media, Randy Lennox, communicated via email with Chris Hadfield, and met with Juno Award-winning music producer Bob Ezrin. I presented to the Canadian Board of Journalism about the precedent for climate action, worked for national charity Taking It Global to learn from their founder Michael Fudryk, and spoke to news outlets and programs across the country about my experience.
Now, over a year removed from the experience, I think the themes that prompted the foundation of BTD – climate action, mental health advocacy, reconciliation, and empathy – reign more true than ever before. A pandemic has come upon us while the climate crisis continues to threaten billions. As a nation, we battle with the threat of systemic racism and still struggle to protect our most vulnerable.
Yet, I know we can rise to the occasion.
The Canada’s Walk of Fame journey for me has taught me that community heroes are ordinary people that simply try to make a difference. BTD only ever began as a connection between two high schools. However, it was because of community support and unity that it has grown into a powerful global network. Today, our current moment as a world calls on us to unite and to make a difference – to start small in our daily lives, in our communities, and to support the people around us.
It is through this process of learning, sharing, and growing as people that we will create a better world.
It is through this process that we will Break The Divide.
Abhayjeet Singh Sachal is an alumnus of the 2019-2020 Munk One Cohort. Along with his brother Sukmeet and friend Andrea, he founded Break The Divide, (BTD), a youth-centred non-profit that aims to break down barriers between communities in Canada. His work was recognized by Canada’s Walk of Fame and he was awarded the Community Hero Award. A year later, he reflects about his path and how the experience has inspired him.