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Caro Loutfi and Fabrice Vil in conversation

As we were unable to gather in person for 6 Degrees Montréal due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we invited two Montreal leaders to have an online discussion around community, activism, and community leadership.

Caro Loutfi is the executive director of Apathy is Boring, and Fabrice Vil is the co-founder and president of Pour 3 Points.

6 Degrees: How has the current context of COVID-19 changed your work? More specifically, how has it changed the impact of your work?

Caro Loutfi: As far as our programs go, our participants are currently meeting using screens, just like the three of us are doing right now. We think it’s important to continue to offer opportunities for young people to get together and find community in these isolating times. Having a community of peers to interact, learn and engage with, and with which they can keep their projects going is really valuable.

Fabrice Vil: Pour 3 Points is an organization that trains sports coaches to do outreach work with the young people they’re already interacting with. These training programs usually take place in physical settings like group retreats where everyone gets together. The sense of community we’ve built is still present in this remote context, but now our gatherings take place online.

Caro, you mentioned the word community, and that really speaks to me, because it’s been fundamental to how I first experienced this lockdown. What are some of the thoughts you’ve had regarding community leadership and notions of equality and social justice?

CL: Our mission at Apathy is Boring is to get young people involved so they can be engaged as active citizens in their communities and in our democracy. In times like these, civic engagement and collective engagement are really important. Our mission and our main objectives are directly connected to the issues currently affecting local and global communities.

This isolation and the fact that many of these young people who are working and active in their communities now have to do so virtually is a big issue. Some of them simply don’t have access to the internet, so that’s an issue we’re very aware of right now. What role should governments and businesses play when they have the power to decide who gets access? It’s about money and it’s about support. I believe internet service providers hold a lot of responsibility right now.

There are two issues we’re particularly focused on. Firstly, the issue of connectivity and how one can be engaged as a citizen without access, without that privilege. Secondly, what are we doing to support people who are dealing with mental-health issues? On the one hand, it’s important to respect social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but on the other hand, we are paying a price when it comes to mental health in various communities, especially with young people from marginalized communities.

FV: Those questions also speak to me. The issue of connectivity has been one of the major challenges our coaches face. Particularly for this one coach in Laval who told me, “Fabrice, I wonder whether I should just call Bell myself and figure out a deal with them so kids in the neighbourhood can have internet access.” That stayed with me because it’s also an issue for adults. For example, the easiest way to access emergency benefits right now is online. So, if you don’t have an internet connection and you’re unable to work, you can’t even access the financial resources you need to cover basic necessities.

Another factor that speaks to me is this issue of vulnerability. In the last few days, we’ve seen more and more data showing that Montréal-Nord is one of the hot spots for the virus; the propagation rate there is the highest in the city. Previously, it was Côte-des-Neiges, and now it’s Montréal-Nord, which also happens to be one of the poorest boroughs in the country. To me, this demonstrates just how many factors are at play here.

When the pandemic first started, people in the Black community were saying that the coronavirus was only affecting white and Asian people, not Black people. This disinformation was being spread within the community. So, I was part of this campaign where we were telling people, “Look, Idris Elba and Kevin Durant both got sick, Manu Dibango died…” Following this, Black communities mobilized and said, “Stay home! We’re affected, too!” And in the U.S., we’re seeing a disproportionate number of Black people dying because of this virus. But in Quebec, and I think in the rest of Canada, we don’t have access to data based on skin colour, so we just don’t have that information.

And then there are essential workers, who are often racialized people. People we don’t see. For example, hospital orderlies, delivery people, and many others. From an inclusion perspective, I believe this is a crucial factor – you can’t just talk about the population as a whole.

CL: It’s unbelievable that we don’t have racial demographic data telling us how COVID-19 impacts our communities, because the impact is obviously going to be different according to the context of each community. The government can’t offer services that meet the needs of specific communities without that data.

If we put enough pressure on the government, maybe they would start collecting that data.

FV: I just want to follow up on this idea of putting pressure on various levels of government, because in the current context I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of power and how individuals on the ground have this power that often remains unknown or invisible. This might be a strange parallel to draw, but we’ve now seen a virus enacting this! It’s this purely biological thing, but similarly in society there are conventional structures in place, and some of them have been weakened.

No one is really talking about our youth as being part of the solution right now. What do they have to say? They’re not necessarily being heard, but there is a latent power there. This pandemic has shown us that the people in suits to whom we’ve granted a certain legitimacy are only legitimate to a point, they’re not all-knowing. It would be cool to start honouring all forms of power throughout our social structures.

CL: Yes, that’s actually our vision at Apathy is Boring: for young people to find their power and to act on it. This doesn’t necessarily mean acting on that power in a formal way, like taking part in the election process. It can also mean community involvement, or involvement in terms of information sharing or community support.

I absolutely agree that this invisible power exists. We do a lot of research here, and we’ll be working on a report over the summer that will look at how young people across the country are reacting to the pandemic and how it will influence the ways in which they get involved in their communities, and how it will change their mentality. New ways of doing things and new issues will emerge. There already are concerns around the power our governments hold. There are historical examples of moments like this where governments have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that they don’t wield the same power over citizens in the aftermath of a situation like the one we’re in.

So, it will be interesting to see how young people will perceive the government and our institutions and leaders. And also, how it will change relationships between citizens. Between young people and decision-makers, like people in positions of power.

FV: I look forward to reading that report. It’s being released next fall?

CL: Probably. We’ll be collecting data over the summer. The report isn’t specifically focused on the pandemic, but it will be looking at how young people are getting involved in their communities. Are they engaged or not? How? What drives them? What are their interests? But given the current situation, we will be including a section on how the pandemic has changed the way they do or envision things.

6 Degrees: What is a call to action you might have for the government, individuals, or leaders on how to be active citizens in this current context?

CL: Following our conversation I would have three suggestions. I think the government and service providers should work towards offering free internet access. I think it would be really interesting if this could happen, especially for people who don’t have access right now during the pandemic.

Secondly, I think we’re in need of a better approach to mental health across all provinces. Each province is different, but there are definitely holes in our system as far as services go. We need to be offering free services to young people who, once again, really need these resources.

And finally, I’ll repeat what Fabrice said regarding this power we don’t necessarily see. I really appreciated the virus analogy. It’s this invisible power that has completely changed the way we do things. I believe we should be talking a little more about the power young Canadians have to mobilize, to change how we do things. They might perceive this power as being invisible, but it’s there nonetheless and it can have a huge impact.

FV: I agree with everything you just said, Caro, and there’s one other aspect that comes to mind: we’ve just witnessed that we have this real capacity to mobilize collectively when faced with an emergency situation. We’ve been able to achieve things together — as citizens, as businesses, as governments — that we never thought we’d be able to do. And now, I expect us to do the same for all these issues that may seem to be less urgent, whether they’re social or environmental issues. I believe that keeping up this pace and level of pressure is our collective responsibility.

Because when we’re not dealing with the virus in a few years, we’ll be dealing with water levels rising. And that’s coming fast. So, we have to keep in mind what we’re going through right now and remind ourselves that we’re able to make dramatic changes. I believe in us.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.