Building bridges, breaking chains

Six years after Yukon Grade 12 student Mauricio Ruiz first set foot on Canadian soil, he has attained the country's most prestigious scholarship. For the Vanier Catholic Secondary School student the award was "unexpected.

Six years after Yukon Grade 12 student Mauricio Ruiz first set foot on Canadian soil, he has attained the country’s most prestigious scholarship.

For the Vanier Catholic Secondary School student the award was “unexpected.”

But for a community that has persistently seen Ruiz as a focal point of local and international affairs, it’s par for the course.

One of 20 winners chosen from more than 3,800 applicants, Ruiz’s TD Canada Trust scholarship for community leadership guarantees tuition of up to $10,000 a year, as well as $7,500 a year towards living expenses.

Midway through high school, Ruiz took the reins of Voces Latinas, a Spanish language community paper.

Under Ruiz’s leadership, the paper—sometimes published in three languages—became important for linking Spanish speakers to each other, and to the surrounding community.

A network was built, composed of both Spanish speakers and people who wanted to speak Spanish.

Previously isolated Latinos found Voces Latinas uniting them, fostering a sense of community.

“It’s a small community, but you don’t realize how many people you don’t know at first,” said Ruiz.

Ruiz and his mother left Bogota, Colombia, in 2003, settling for a year in Toronto before making their way to the Yukon.

Almost immediately, the gold-paved streets of Canada highlighted the blatant poverty of Colombia.

“As soon as you come to Canada you see the beautiful life that everyone lives and the opportunities that everyone gets,” said Ruiz.

Growing up in Colombia, Ruiz was used to poverty.

“There, it’s a normal thing,” he said Ruiz. “But as soon as you come to Canada, you realize that it’s not normal.

“We have so much here, they have so little there, why can’t we just spread it around?”

When he arrived in the Yukon, Ruiz re-established contact with a 60-child orphanage in his hometown of Bogota.

The project, dubbed Rompinedo Cadenas (Breaking Chains), appealed to Ruiz because he saw it as breaking the “cycle of poverty,” rather than just administering charity.

The project brings in the neglected children of Bogota’s drug addicts, street workers and drug dealers. At the age of 18, the children are outfitted with tuition for post-secondary.

“It’s a really well-managed plan that they have,” he said.

Care for children until adulthood is one thing, but if they are released into society with few prospects, they can easily drift into the drug-filled lifestyle of their parents—and the cycle begins again.

When Ruiz contacted the orphanage, his timing couldn’t have been better.

Colombian officials had recently inspected the project, and issued a jarring ultimatum.

“They ordered them to get new beds, and they asked them to do a whole bunch of renovations or else they would have to shut down, but they wouldn’t give them any money to actually do the renovation,” said Ruiz.

Gathering together a group of volunteers, Ruiz whipped up a Mexican dinner benefit that raised more than $1,300 for the project.

For another project, Ruiz brought up a shipment of sewn bracelets from Colombia. Vanier’s social justice club sold them at a local craft fair.

Altogether, Ruiz’s efforts have directed $2,600 towards the Bogota orphanage.

Despite his journalistic and humanitarian dealings, Ruiz believes his best chance at changing the world will happen out of the limelight.

In September, Ruiz is bound for the University of Alberta, to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.

“A better water well, a better hearing aid, a more efficient way to get energy—stuff like that makes a meaningful contribution,” said Ruiz.

The Yukon Latino community, served by Voces Latinas, is composed mainly of refugees and refugee claimants.

As a result, many of its members live on the brink of poverty and despair.

Deportations, spurred by an arbitrary refugee process, are common.

Ruiz’s publication looks beyond the immediate difficulties of the Yukon Latino community and celebrates the shared experiences of Latin newcomers to the North.

One story follows a Yukon marriage between a Mexican woman who can’t speak English and her non-Spanish speaking groom.

Miscommunications between the couple were commonplace, but Ruiz looked at how the couple found love despite language barriers.

“We focused more on love and how they actually lived, instead of the fact that maybe in a few months they’re going to be separated (by a deportation order)” said Ruiz.

“When people read (Voces Latina) they don’t have to feel sad or angry at something.”

Receiving Canada’s most prestigious scholarship can toy with a student’s esteem.

Ruiz’s accomplishments were stellar, but during awards ceremonies in Ottawa he couldn’t help but think he was “TD’s mistake.”

It was a feeling shared by all the recipients, Ruiz discovered.

When he first arrived in Ottawa, he expected to encounter a roomful of Mother Teresa-like icons, brimming with tales of superhuman accomplishments.

Instead, he found a room of ordinary people deftly juggling their sports, social and volunteer lives.

Ballet dancers, cricket players and inventors joined Ruiz in the ranks of TD scholarship recipients.

“We promised not to read each other’s profiles,” said Ruiz.

For a weekend, the students were lavished with ceremony and workshops.

Then they were let go, armed with a $70,000 degree passport to become “the leaders of tomorrow.”

TD CEO Tim Hockey jokingly tried to dispel stereotypes that bankers are part of a villainous elite.

“That came up a lot, they would say, ‘See, we’re not the bad banker,’” said Ruiz.

Naturally, jamming a roomful of Canada’s best and brightest can’t help but spark some creative ideas.

“We’re thinking of doing something, Canada-wide, all 20 of us together,” said Ruiz.

“Since we’re all proving we can make a difference, let’s see if we can join forces.”

TD calls them an important “investment” in the future. In almost two decades, the bank has funneled millions into the scholarships.

Expectations are definitely high.

“That stress is always there; that you’re representing TD, that you’ve got to show TD that you’re worth $70,000,” said Ruiz.

Contact Tristin Hopper at