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The Importance of CARE

When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul – and not just individual strength, but collective understanding – to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.

- Adrienne Rich

Last spring, in honour of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21), the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 hosted our first annual Cultural Awareness Relationship Education workshop – CARE. In this workshop, students work together to find solutions to ethnic-based violence and bullying. The workshop teaches students the practical skills to address these issues and to shape positive relationships at school and in our communities.

Our Museum Education team starts each program development project with a Community Led approach. In developing CARE, our community—particularly youth, but also teachers and parents—were telling us that cultural competency and bullying are huge issues in their classrooms and in their communities. I would like to believe that bullying based on skin colour, religion or other cultural or ethnic grounds expired with the kinds of kids that used to call me “carrot top,” and other (beyond PG) epithets about the colour of my hair and my presumed heritage that, to this day, I am uncomfortable saying aloud, but that would be ignoring the reality experienced by today’s youth.

I remember, just a few years ago, walking into a high school classroom with a girl wearing a hijab and someone yelled: “go home terrorist.” Some students laughed, some looked away. The bully had no problem saying this in front of all of his peers and in front of me, an adult and a teacher. As a parent, it breaks my heart: I want to hug them all, bullied and bullies alike, and keep them children. As a person, it enrages me that there are people so hurt by ignorance that they hurt others. As an educator, I know we have a big job to do and I’m rolling up my sleeves.

We didn’t go looking for stories of racism or bullying, but when we walked through classrooms, or talked with students, parents and teachers at the Museum, in our neighbourhoods and in our schools about what was happening in their communities, these are the stories that emerged. While there is still overt, brutal, and cruel racism that includes violence, exclusion, racial slurs and vicious language—and we heard many horrifying and sad examples of this when talking with students—what they told us is that for the most part, the racism is sneaky and more subtle, and therefore harder to combat. Students feel hopeless and powerless. Below are a few examples of the stories that we heard (some have been modified to protect the identity of those involved).

Stories about Identity Assumptions and Appropriation

Chinese Canadian

One 6-year-old girl told us that she is often singled out in her community group to represent what life is like in China. She has visited China only once and although she was born there and says she “looks” Chinese, she has been raised her whole life by Canadian parents in Nova Scotia. She enjoys talking about and learning about Chinese culture, but she told us she feels embarrassed and anxious about being a token and being singled out as something different from her peers.


One 15-year-old told us he hates how all of his classmates call him ‘Africa’ in place of his name. His skin is black, but he says he’s never been to Africa and his family has been in Nova Scotia for many generations. Ironically, he says there is a boy in his class who has white skin but is from South Africa. No one calls him ‘Africa.’

Always a Refugee

Another student told us he hates the teaching assistant in his classroom because every time there is a guest speaker or someone new in the class, or whenever they go on field trips, she always points out or introduces him as a refugee. He says he feels just like all the other Canadian kids and he is a Canadian citizen. He doesn’t like constantly being reminded that she sees him as different. She wants him to share his experiences, but he is not comfortable talking about it in a large group or with strangers.

Stories of the Misinformed

Countries like Africa

A university student and representative from an NGO approached me and asked if I would donate money. When asked what the money would be used for, they told me that in countries like Africa they don’t even have ambulances.

Single Lens

When I spoke with one school administrator about cultural competency and holiday celebrations in his school, he asked what my religion celebrates for Christmas.

Personal Space

A young man told us that when he was in high school, other students used to constantly touch his hair to see what an afro felt like. He did not have an afro but they did this because he had black skin and black curly hair.

Stories of Prejudice

Prejudice is Here

A parent told us that their children were taunted and things were thrown at them regularly at lunchtime and on the bus because they were of mixed race. The parent said they felt angry, scared and helpless.

What’s In a Name?

A junior high school boy told us that one child at his school calls him a Nazi because his last name is German. His ancestors immigrated to Canada well before the war and had no connection to the Nazi party. The boy said that the bully also bullied other students for their perceived culture or heritage.

Political to Personal

A 10-year-old boy told me that students pick on him because he is an American citizen. They always say that he voted for Bush and that he is obsessed with war. He said he feels people hate him because of where he was born and because he’s proud to be an American-Canadian.

After hearing these stories, we knew we had to do something.

We knew that although bullying is a primary issue of concern for most parents, students and teachers, that new immigrants, ethnic minorities and language learners are at a statistically higher risk of being bullied. Given our mandate at the Museum, we felt that this was an important area where we could make a difference. We set about doing research and developing a plan. We surveyed a number of students, mostly grades 5 and 6.

Although not surprisingly, few (20% of the total or 30% of Canadian born) admitted to having bullied others based on their language or level of language (including accent), ethnicity, race, culture, religion or country of origin, almost all (93%) said that they had witnessed it. 33% of the students surveyed were born outside of Canada and had primary languages other than English or French. All of these students said they had witnessed bullying, been treated differently and had been bullied based on language or level of language (including accent), ethnicity, race, culture, religion or country of origin. 80% of Canadian born English speakers said they had been treated differently and/or bullied based on language or level of language (including accent), ethnicity, race, culture, religion or country of origin.

What these stories (and many more) and our research highlighted for me is that this is a pervasive, complex, multilayered problem that extends beyond simply one side against another. Many of the parents and teachers we talked to discussed the issue as it exists with the youth in their lives today, but they also brought up their own experiences either of being bullied, or witnessing bullying, as I did at the beginning of this blog. Clearly these events have longstanding impacts on our self-esteem and mental health, and on the health of our society.

After reviewing the research and other successful programs, we decided on a two-pronged approach for our CARE workshop. The first half of our program focuses on Cultural Awareness. This includes learning activities that help students recognize systematic discrimination, racial and cultural discrimination in immigration history, the challenges of cross-cultural communication and the dangers of culturally-based assumptions and prejudice. The second portion of our program focuses on relationship education. We know from research that bullying is, at its core, a relationship issue connected to power inequalities. Students engage in activities that help them build empathy for one another, celebrate their individuality and their community, and improve communication. Included in these activities are calls to action where students are asked to work together to create solutions and to individually make pledges to the ways in which they can personally make change. The end result is a positive, fun and inspiring morning of motivating guest speakers and engaging activities.

When it comes to finding solutions to ethnic-based violence and bullying, education really is the key.

Hear what participants in our 2013 workshop had to say about CARE: