Ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests:
A few weeks ago, the mayor of Winnipeg said something that very few politicians in our country are willing to acknowledge. Glen Murray was commenting on the stabbing deaths of two MÃ©tis women in the city and made the following statement: "We live in a racist society . . . anyone would be foolish not to acknowledge that."
After making this remark, Mr. Murray received both praise and criticism from the media and members of the public. Some people commended the mayor for attacking the denial mentality that exists in Canada about racism. Others criticized him for exaggerating the problem and suggesting that all Canadians are racist.
However, I think that Mr. Murray's critics missed his point. I do not believe that he was suggesting that all Canadians are racist or that Canada is some kind of Neo-Nazi paradise. He was directly and forcefully asking Canadians to face up to the reality in our country.
Although Canada may have a good human rights record compared to other countries around the world, we are far from perfect. Both overt and systemic racism are pervasive and continue to have an adverse impact on visible minorities and Aboriginal peoples. Racism also damages Canada's reputation as a place of justice and equality.
In 1985, after taking the oath of office as the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, my acceptance speech indicated that I would encourage and support our youth. In this regard, I met young people of all ages and from various walks of life. I was involved with them in the cadet movement and the military, scouting, the Duke of Edinburgh Award ceremonies and voluntary organizations. I also visited some 235 schools throughout Ontario. My message to young people was simple and hopefully effective: "Stay in school, work hard, have confidence in yourself and stay away from alcohol and drugs." Many subsequently wrote, thanking me for the direction I had given them, which was encouraging. Today, I would send the same message to young people, but I would also tell them that they should respect one another and appreciate the diversity that exists in our society.
During my tenure as Lieutenant Governor, I found that the spirit of our society is embodied in our youth. I have been extremely impressed with their excellence, enthusiasm, hard work, vision and energy. Generally speaking, young people realize that they hold the key to the future of our nation, and most of them are actively preparing themselves in various ways for their future roles in society. In my view, our youth will accept responsible leadership from adults, but it must be sincere and not paternalistic.
I believe that teachers and administrators must encourage, assist and inspire. Educators play a unique role in our society. They have an excellent opportunity to mould the minds of our young. They indirectly shape our collective future. Teachers impart values to our children and youth in classrooms, schoolyards, and sports arenas. Administrators paint the picture of the world for our young people through the curriculum, the school environment, and school board policies and practices.
I myself experienced racism as a young boy, growing up in Toronto's East End. I have no doubt that my boyhood passion got the best of me on more than one occasion. I reacted strongly to the hurtful name-calling that I faced simply because I was a kid of a different colour. Later on, I also experienced racism when I was refused service in a restaurant, even though I was wearing my Royal Canadian Air Force uniform. I also faced discrimination when seeking employment after graduation from McMaster University, and as a law student at Osgoode Hall. I was fortunate that the Dean of the law school didn't fail me after I challenged him for making racist remarks. But others may not have been so lucky.
Now, fifty years later, children and youth are still coping with racist name-calling in schoolyards, or watching schoolmates being recruited by hate groups in their schools. Here in Nova Scotia, there have been racial tensions at Cole Harbour District High School and Digby Regional High School.
In British Columbia, violent clashes broke out last fall between white and South Asian high school students. These clashes were linked to a sentencing hearing for five skinheads, who were convicted for beating an elderly Sikh man to death.
We have racist propaganda on the Internet targeting our youth, instilling ignorance and inciting them to hate. We may have textbooks that appear perfectly fine, yet they make some students feel that their heritage is inferior. We have discriminatory policies and practices unwittingly embedded in our institutions.
And what about the impact of racist attitudes on visible-minority and Aboriginal students - We know that if young people feel unfairly treated, they may either drop out of school or fight back aggressively and get into real trouble. Zero-tolerance policies against violence are very popular today in schools across Canada. I am not necessarily opposed to such policies but I believe that they must be applied equally to all students, regardless of race. They must not be used disproportionately against visible minority or Aboriginal students. We must also not lose sight of important values such as due process and rehabilitation.
Research has shown that children as young as three years of age can absorb racist values. That means that some visible minority and Aboriginal children can be severely damaged because they feel that there are people around them who do not value them because of their skin colour.
Racism, and all that it entails in terms of its impact on our youth and our future as a nation, should be of great concern to all of us. I think that more than anyone, our young people recognize that racism is very real and frightening.
A few years ago, I came across a poem by Grace Jefferies, a former student at Cole Harbour District High School. Grace wrote:
The fear washes through my veins
Contaminating the deep red blood.
It travels through my body,
The rage heats my skin
Igniting a blazing fire It burns my brown skin,
The sadness flows through me
Touching my heart in the most sensitive places
It brings tears to my eyes
As the wall of racism,
Slams against my face.
That is the devastating effect of racism. Racism hurts deeply. It is stupid, non-productive, and dangerous. It hurts our young. And ultimately it hurts our cities, provinces, and country. Racism and racial discrimination are ripping holes in the fabric of our society, and our education system is not immune to it.
To eliminate the impact of racism, Canada has already legislated positive change through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, and various provincial human rights codes.
Yet, racism and racial discrimination continue to be deeply ingrained in our thinking and behaviour. Racism exists in our institutions, in prejudicial attitudes, and in the stereotypes some people accept regarding non-white groups. Legislation can act as a catalyst for change, but in the long run, reducing racism in Canada ultimately requires more than equal-rights legislation.
Our schools are a microcosm of the diversity that exists in our society. I believe it is important to applaud the fact that strides have been made in eliminating racism in schools. But we still have a long way to go. Here are a few criteria that we can use to assess the progress accomplished so far:
* Are boards of education examining the school curriculum for racist content?
* Have they started implementing policies and procedures that promote equality?
* Are genuine efforts being made to hire more visible minority and Aboriginal teachers?
All of these things are important. But the elimination and eradication of racism requires far more in order to change the ingrained attitudes of those who believe that a person's ethnocultural background is sufficient grounds for differential and inferior treatment. Among other things, we must teach Canadian history, warts and all, to our youth. We need to provide role models for visible minority and Aboriginal students, while also involving their parents. And we have to maintain positive expectations of students' achievements regardless of their colour or ethnic origins, recognizing that excellence has many faces.
Only then will we have schools that not only celebrate diversity, but also take full advantage of diversity. We will have schools where the environment is conducive to learning for all students, regardless of race or ethnic origin. We will have schools where no student's full potential is wasted because of the barriers created by racism.
The Canadian Race Relations Foundation intends to listen to and work closely with educators across the country. We are committed to a Canada where our youth and all of us can be free from racism.
I believe very strongly that we can succeed in overcoming racism in Canada. Eradicating racism from our schools in this new millennium is attainable. To achieve this, we must ignite the collective will of the people.
This igniting of our collective will can happen:
* If our education system reflects the diversity in our schools;
* If decision makers adopt concrete measures to combat racism; and,
* If our teachers, staff and students realize the enormous individual and social benefits derived from racial harmony and equality.
I would like to challenge all of us - principals, teachers, students, and parents - to reaffirm our commitment to work hard to promote the establishment of schools that are dynamic, respectful of different cultures, and which genuinely believe in levelling the playing field for all. As long as all work together, I am confident that we can build schools that provide a place in the sun for all our students. Thank you.