English 12 Exploration of Societal Attitudes

*This blog post is based on a lesson where English 12 students did an impromptu read of a recent Maclean’s article. The students’ responses are raw and show some of their current thinking and experiences. The teacher’s role in such conversations is to carefully challenge some of their ideas so that they have a deeper and wider understanding of complex social issues. The hope after such disc  ussions is that students will continue to explore and challenge their thinking and that of their surrounding communities and society. *pamela smith1

My English 12 classes at Byrne Creek have read and discussed several pieces of First Nations literature throughout the semester exploring spiritual practices and land issues as well as the lasting effects of residential schools. We are now in the middle of preparing for the provincial exam; however, after watching the National on CBC yesterday evening, I felt compelled to share the January 22, 2015 article, “Welcome to Winnipeg where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst: How the Death of Tina Fontaine has finally forced it to face its festering race problem,” by Nancy Macdonald. The article made the front page of Maclean’s Magazine and is causing more than a controversial stir across the country it seems.

As we are preparing for the Provincial English Twelve exam, studying essays and discussing their tools of effectiveness, I decided to read this important article that is causing so many people, including the mayor of Winnipeg, to open their hearts and their eyes and notice that there is a problem in the city, perhaps across the country, according to some of my students.

After reading the article to two classes, one student stated that here in Burnaby where he lives, when police came to respond to a complaint about the Aboriginal tenant in his homestay family’s basement, the officer was overheard saying something discriminatopamela smith3ry regarding the tenant to the landlord.

This student then looked at me and said, “They shouldn’t be saying that.’

Pausing in the middle of the article, after describing how Jenna Wirch was put to work in the sex trade before her tenth birthday and watched two of her friends stabbed to death in front of her, “one with a machete,” painting a graphic image of life for an Aboriginal girl in the North End of Winnipeg known as a mostly native populated area, I asked my students who was surprised to learn this was happening in Canada. Most of them raised their hands.

One young woman expressed her shock and dismay to the class, contrasting her well protected life as a Caribbean Canadian to Jenna’s, bursting into tears in front of the class. She was so full of empathy for Jenna.

When asked what they would say to the people of Winnipeg, students were quick to observe that admitting there is a problem needs to happen before anything can be changed. After that, they said that identifying the real problem is necessary. Other ideas that followed included breaking stereotypes by asking questions about why people take the positions they have. Start a conversation and invite others in, especially in schools. A lot of influence, they noted, comes from people in power, so it is important to educate students but to first educate the adults who are teaching these students and making judgments, according to the article. The rest of the population needs to understand the background of Aboriginal people and put themselves in their positions.

“J.” who arrived in Canada from Kyrgystan in 2011, explained, “I always thought America was the most racist country, but after (reading) this, it just opamela smith2pened my eyes.”

This led us to discuss the question of how to get rid of racism.

“Start at the roots,” someone said. “If parents are racist they need to get rid of their racist attitudes so they don’t hand them down to their kids.”

“It is such an eye opener because here in Vancouver we appreciate Aboriginal culture such as celebrating this at the Olympics, or the English Bay Inukshuk mentioned in the article, but in Winnipeg the way they treat the Aboriginal culture, especially starting at the age of ten there is very disturbing.”

The bell rang and classes ended far too soon, before our growing conversation had a chance to come to a natural pause, for it will continue I have no doubt. Many students stayed to continue the discussion, each expressing gratitude for the article being shared with them.

“That was so powerful,” several told me as they were leaving.

It is reassuring to hear that they are open to exploring this very real concern we have regarding societal attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes of Aboriginal people in Canada.

Pamela Smith

Byrne Creek Secondary

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