TORONTO — Thousands cheered as astronaut Chris Hadfield launched into his message of freedom of choice at the fourth annual Freedom Day celebrations in Toronto.
Hadfield, who returned home in May after five months as commander of the International Space Station, talked about his experience growing up in Sarnia, Ont., wanting to be an astronaut, even at a time when no Canadians had that job. He said the fact that he was able to accomplish his goal when there was no clear path toward it is proof of the freedom enjoyed by Canadians.
“I’ve had the chance in my life to do so many incredible things,” he told The CJN. “It’s really imperative to come back and talk to people about it, to share the experience with others, and let people know, especially young people, what opportunities exist.”
More than 3,500 students flocked to Toronto’s Dundas Square for the Sept. 25 event, with the farthest groups coming from schools in Belleville, Ont. Freedom Day is held annually on or around Sept. 20, the anniversary of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s death in 2005.
Wiesenthal was a Holocaust survivor who was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 1985.
This year’s event was bigger than ever, said Avi Benlolo, CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, which organized the day. He said each year has ended with great reviews from students, who not only get to experience the program on the day itself, but also look at various aspects of freedom with their teachers in advance, using a curriculum supplied by the centre.
Following the event, many of the students write journals and complete projects to gain a deeper understanding of the values and what they can do to stand up for them.
“We must continue to preserve the values of democracy and freedom,” Benlolo said, urging students to use the Internet, and social media sites in particular. “You can help change the world.”
The presentation was filled with music and dance, as well as both sad and inspirational speeches. Students took turns reading testimony and speeches from famous freedom activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year in an attempt to silence her activism.
Chris Alexander, minister of citizenship and immigration, cut the ribbon with Hadfield to officially open the high-tech Tour for Humanity bus, which has been described as a “mobile tolerance education centre.” The bus will visit a number of towns and enable students, educators and law enforcement representatives to learn about topics like genocide, bullying and leadership.
Alexander underlined that freedom is at the core of Canadian values, and explained he was there on behalf of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in New York City on a trip that included a meeting with Yousafzai at the United Nations.
“Freedom is one of the fundamental values that underpins everything we do,” Alexander told The CJN. “I believe in the cause of freedom, including remembering the catastrophe of the Holocaust and preventing that scale of disaster anywhere in the world anytime in the future.”
Holocaust survivor Max Eisen also addressed the students, sharing his own story of being in Auschwitz. He described the feeling of living without freedom and not knowing if he would ever experience it again.
“There is no freedom without responsibility,” he said, leaving the students with that one message. “Let every day be the day you stand up to be a hero.”
Nevertheless, Hadfield said in his keynote speech, despite the damage people have done to the world, both to the environment and to its people, when you look at the grand picture – or at the earth itself from the space station – “the beauty of the world outshines the ugliness.”
One just has to look up and see the space station pass by to remember some of the good that can come when countries and people from different backgrounds learn about each other – perhaps by learning about each other’s languages and beliefs – and work towards something good, he said.
Freedom Day 2013 [Cara Stern photos]