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The Winnipeg Free Press

Feisty Canadian Page's Fire for Social Justice Burned at Age 14

Winnipegger's protest part of a life of activism

Lindor Reynolds

Brigette DePape, 21, stepped into the political spotlight Friday when she stepped onto the floor of the Canadian Senate and held up a handmade sign, designed in the shape of a red stop sign. She was briskly removed from the Senate chamber, detained by security officials, and fired from her job. Page has criticized the Harper government for its priorities and stance on environmental issues.

Brigitte DePape wasn't looking for her 15 minutes of fame when she held up an anti-Harper sign in the Senate. The feisty 21-year-old already had a lifetime of social activism under her belt.

I met DePape when she was 14 and a student at St. Vital's Collège Jeanne-Sauvé. She was a bright kid involved in a life-changing project. Teacher Diane Plamandon challenged her Grade 9 class to change a small corner of the world. She wanted them to realize that every individual can make a difference. DePape was one of those who answered the call.

Over four years she, her classmates, parents and other teachers worked furiously to assist the residents of Mbour, a small French-speaking village in Senegal. In their graduating year, a number of the students travelled to Africa to meet the people with whom they'd been intimately connected.

I documented the four-year journey and the trip to Mbour.

There are countless memories of that dusty village and its grinding poverty. Most of them involve hunger, deprivation and tears. But there is one glorious memory and it features DePape.

One night, we bumped along dirt roads to be feted at a celebration. We sat under the dark sky, a dancing fire and kerosene lamps our only illumination. Dinner was eaten squatting in the sand. After dinner, our African hosts entertained us. Then it was time for Canadians to return the honour. The students offered a hearty version of the Voyageur song. It was fine, but inadequate.

DePape borrowed a local man's walking stick and used her years of baton twirling to entertain the crowd. She was a thin kid with a great smile and, with apparent joy, honoured and entertained our hosts.

"Now I have the experience to share," she told me on the eve of her departure from Africa. "I know things I can teach other people. It's not just pictures in a magazine anymore. For me, it's real."

It wasn't the baton-twirling that defined her Africa. It was the chance to reach outside herself and see there was a world of need and there were countless communities to learn from.

I lost track of DePape after Africa. I knew she'd been awarded a major scholarship to the University of Ottawa. Friends told me she'd starred in her own Fringe play. She'd been a protestor at Toronto's G20 summit.

Here's part of what she wrote for this paper after the summit. She says her father doubted the protests would have an impact:

"But my question for him and his generation is: what will change things, then? If protesting is meaningless, as he suggests, what can we do to create a more just society?

"Surely my parents and others are concerned about the same issues we are. But what are they doing about it? Too often they don't challenge them directly and they don't encourage their kids to do so either. My dad reminds me that some choose to work quietly at incremental change rather than taking to the streets. But has that worked?"

DePape was formed in her high school classroom as she and others worked for an African village. Some of her character was hatched at home. She's not the only family member with a burning interest in social justice.

She didn't flash the Harper sign because she wanted the attention of someone like documentary-maker Michael Moore. She wasn't looking for job offers. If anything, she might have harmed her chances of employment.

I don't approve of how she made her point. Her gesture was disrespectful. You don't accept an invitation to someone's house and spit in the soup.

But she's 21 and the fire of righteousness burns within.

She made a choice and it made her briefly famous. That wasn't the point of the exercise. She's a young woman now and she is continuing on a path of social activism. If that annoys people, I don't think that matters much to DePape. It shouldn't matter to the rest of us either, unless we care to look at our kids and ourselves and ask how the passion for change resonates in our lives.

She cares. That's more than most people can say.

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