When we started the WE Movement nearly 25 years ago, we couldn’t have imagined how much it would grow and the incredible shape this work would take. I often feel like I’m pinching myself – did we really build a hospital in rural Kenya? Have we really brought clean water and sanitation facilities to more than a million people? It all seems too good to be true.
But perhaps the one thing we do that still surprises us to this day is our global WE Day tour. Celebrated in more than 15 cities across four countries, WE Day is the Superbowl of service, a chance for tens of thousands of students to come together with their peers and recognize all they’ve been able to accomplish together. Of course, as exciting and inspiring as every single WE Day is, there are a few moments that stand above the rest, and I wanted to share our top five most powerful WE Day memories from the past ten years.
1. A warm West Coast Welcome
Our first ever WE Day in Toronto was a true labour of love, with staff coming together to create a day of celebration and inspiration for the young people we worked with. We knew the day would be fun, but we couldn’t have anticipated the massive outpouring of excitement and energy we received.
Within a few years, we’d moved from the Ricoh Colosseum to the Air Canada Centre – more than doubling the size of the event – but the real turning point came in 2011 when we celebrated our first ever WE Day Vancouver. Until then, WE Day had just been a local celebration, held close to where our movement began, and we worried that far away from Toronto it wouldn’t have the same amazing turnout – how wrong we were!
WE Day Vancouver was a smash hit, with more than 15,000 young people showing up in celebration of their peers. That was the moment we knew WE Day could be so much more than a regional event, or even just a Canadian one. It paved the way for the two annual tours we hold today, visiting more than a dozen cities across four countries.
2. Celebrating the Legacy of Gord Downie
Over the years we’ve had the good fortune of welcoming an unbelievable lineup of innovators, activists, celebrities, and world leaders to the WE Day stage. Everyone from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Malala Yousafzai, Former UN Secretary Generals Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon, Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron and Selena Gomez have joined us to share their stories.
But perhaps no one’s had a bigger impact on us, or shared a stronger message than Gord Downie. After the Tragically Hip’s final show in Kingston, Gord travelled with us to WE Day stages across the country to tell the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died running away from residential school. By then Gord was already a WE Day veteran, and we couldn’t have been more honoured or touched that he chose us to help him spread the vital message of reconciliation.
After Gord’s death, we’ve continued to recognize his legacy, not just by featuring his work and story onstage, but by making reconciliation – the most vial conversation taking place in Canada right now – a central part of these events.
3. Welcoming WE Day Royalty
At WE Day we also love a good surprise. When they arrive in the morning, young change-makers know to expect plenty of moments of inspiration, learning opportunities, energetic performances, and chances to meet fellow activists – what they often don’t expect is a surprise visit from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
During last year’s WE Day UK, we were able to deliver just that. While this was Prince Harry’s third WE Day speech, and we’ve come to expect the huge level of excitement that surrounds his visits, it was the first time we were joined by Megan Markle, and she absolutely brought the house down. It was a moment that the thousands of young people who joined us will never forget, and I don’t think we will either.
4. WE Day Canada brings the movement to new heights
On July 2, 2017, in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday we had the unique opportunity to use the existing Canada 150 stage to host a WE Day like none other. Visitors flooded Parliament Hill in recognition of the ability we all have to create meaningful, lasting change, and to see some of Canada’s greatest heroes onstage. Throughout the day we were honoured to welcome so many amazing Canadians, from leaders like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Governor General, to local icons including Lilly Singh, Gord Downie, and Chris Hadfield, who alongside the Barenaked Ladies played his most epic show yet.
This was a chance to expand WE Day even further beyond the hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic young people who join us each year, spreading the energy of this movement to countless new Canadians. Stepping out on the Canada 150 stage to see an audience representing this whole country was incredibly humbling, and something my brother Marc Kielburger and I carry with us to this day.
5. Broadcast to millions
While webcasts and livestreams were a huge part of our early WE Days, giving those who couldn’t join in person a chance to watch from their classrooms, offices and homes, in 2015 we had the opportunity to bring this to an entirely new level with ABC.
Hosted by Selena Gomez and featuring Jennifer Hudson, Demi Lovato, Kid President, Magic Johnson, Nick Jonas, Josh Gad, Paul Rudd and Macklemore, as well as a video contribution from U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama (to name just a few special moments!) the show was a new and powerful way to share this work with the world. We were absolutely blown away by the reception the show received, and more than 2.1 million people tuned in to take part in the inspiration.
This brought a whole new awareness to our work, and more words of support than we ever could have imagined. WE day went from engaging roughly 250,000 people every year to millions, and it was absolutely surreal to be able to go home at the end of the day and see this perfect representation of our movement on TV. This truly broke through the final hurdle – an event we’d shared with a few thousand in Toronto had grown across Canada, then the U.S., and now, the world.