Katie Delay, left, and Sunny Enkin Lewis are co-presidents of Grant Park High School’s Students for Social Justice. (photo from Sunny Enkin Lewis)
Earlier this year, Winnipeg Grade 12 student Sunny Enkin Lewis won first prize for her age group in A&E network’s contest Lives That Make a Difference. The contest receives hundreds of submissions from all over Canada.
“The prompt [for the contest] is along the lines of, ‘Write an essay about someone who has made a significant contribution to Canada in 2018,’” Enkin Lewis told the Independent. “So, I wrote about Autumn Peltier, who – I believe she’s 15 now, around there – is an indigenous water keeper. She’s an activist for clean water in indigenous communities in Canada. She’s spoken at the UN, she’s spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. So, she’s done a lot of amazing activism.”
Peltier is Anishinaabe and is from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario.
“I chose her for a couple reasons,” said Enkin Lewis, who was born in Toronto, but has lived in Winnipeg for the past 10 years. “First of all, I think her cause is really important in Canada. I’ve always been really upset with Canadian society and government, because we tend to look at ourselves as pretty flawless in terms of human rights. And, it is true that the quality of life for Canadians, overall, is really good. Yet, there are people, a lot of people, who don’t have the most basic of their needs met – water and shelter … and I think she has brought more awareness to that.”
In her essay, Enkin Lewis points out that Peltier not only stands up fearlessly for this cause, but that she does so from a unique worldview as an Anishinaabe person.
“She thinks of water as deserving of rights,” said Enkin Lewis. “That’s not something we would generally think of and I think it’s a really strong statement – that someone can stand up and speak of things in a way that contrasts the common logic of general Western ideas. I think that helps validate indigenous worldviews in a Western context a little more. Also, I was just inspired by her, as a young woman. I think it’s so important that young people’s voices are heard and that’s how I believe change will happen the fastest – if young people are given a platform and are accepted and respected – and she really embodies that.”
As for as why Enkin Lewis’s essay may have been chosen, she said, “I think my choice of person was really relevant in Canada today, especially since, now, I think, there’s a big focus on indigenous rights, and I think it was maybe a bit refreshing to see someone like that. I haven’t read the other people’s essays, and they didn’t tell me why mine was specifically chosen … just that they thought it stood out.”
Growing up, Enkin Lewis learned that “a big thing in Judaism is valuing life over everything, and knowing the value of human life. And, I think a big part of Judaism is also just respect for people and … everyone should have a good quality of life.
“The fact that, here, in Canada, there are people who don’t have their basic needs met, I think that’s not OK in Judaism. I think it’s important for other cultures to listen to each other, just as I think it’s important for Christian people to listen to Jewish people. And, I think it’s important for Jewish people to listen to indigenous perspectives. As a European Jew, I’m not native to this land … and it’s important to respect the people who are the caretakers of this land and who have been for thousands of years.”
Last year, Enkin Lewis led the organizing of a social justice conference at Grant Park High School, which, in turn, led to the development of a student social justice club at Grant Park. Enkin Lewis and co-president Katie Delay created the club and, because they and the teacher involved in helping to form the group will have left the school by the start of the next school year, Enkin Lewis hopes the younger members will pick up the ball.
“I think our club is very student-centred, very much about what we care about right now, and it gives me and other people an opportunity to get involved in a safe and constructive way,” she said.
As Grant Park has many newcomer Yazidi students, events organized by the club have been focused on building community awareness of the Yazidi situation.
“We did a drive for school supplies for underprivileged students in Winnipeg, and the biggest thing we’ve done is organize a coffeehouse and a couple other events for Yazidis with the help of a local organization called Operation Ezra. We had a bake sale where we sold traditional Yazidi foods, a Yazidi dance class to educate people about the culture, etc. I find that people are not really aware of what’s happening to the Yazidi people.
“We had a coffeehouse in the evening and invited community members, students, parents, anyone to come. There were student performers and a speaker talking about what’s happening, and a Yazidi performer.”
Enkin Lewis’s essay win comes with a $3,000 cheque for her and a $1,000 cheque for her school. She plans to follow her family’s Jewish custom of donating a portion of everything they earn. “I haven’t narrowed it down to a specific organization yet,” she said, “but I’m going to donate it basically to her [Peltier’s] cause – water in indigenous communities. Other than that, I will probably put it toward my education.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.