An Ontario teacher included in his reading list the Diary of Anne Frank. He asked his students to reflect on any passage in the diary and connect it to their personal lives. One wrote: "I was bullied last year. This is why I changed schools. When I read this passage by Anne Frank, I started crying and cried for hours. I couldn't stop. This is exactly how I felt last year, except Anne had much more strength and courage than I do. She said that 'peace and tranquillity will return again.' I didn't think I would ever be happy again."
The passage the student was referring to was written by Anne Frank on July 15, 1944, in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, in a dark and stuffy attic where she was in hiding along with her immediate family and family friends. She wrote: "I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, and I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again."
It is shocking and unacceptable that a 14-year-old in Canada today can be victimized to the extent that she must transfer schools and finds herself so emotionally distraught and depressed, she identifies with Anne Frank, who lived through one of the most horrific times in the history of our civilization.
And yet, we all know there are many young people in Canada today – bright, sensitive, full of promise – who are sitting in their rooms or walking home from school or sitting alone at lunch and hearing, in the words of Anne Frank, "that ever approaching thunder."
In the pages of this newspaper and others across the country, we read all too frequent reports of the damaging effects of discrimination and bullying in our schools today. Among the most vulnerable are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, and those struggling with mental illness. There is a link between suicide, the second leading cause of death among teenagers in Canada after motor vehicle collisions, and an inability on the part of many Canadians to accept difference. This must change.
Young people have a fundamental human right to enjoy life exactly as they are, true to their values, traditions, faiths, ethnicities, abilities, and their own unique ways of being in this world.
The Canadian Centre for Diversity's Peer Leaders Network is a national, youth-led program that helps high school students become diversity and inclusion leaders in their schools. The program consists of two large components: curriculum-based, in-school workshops and e-learning courses, and a variety of experiential activities that take place throughout the year. Through a social justice lens, students learn, promote diversity, inclusivity and respect, and collaborate on events and projects that engage the whole school population with the goal of creating an inclusive environment.
We explore bullying as the direct manifestation of a lack of respect for diversity, and promote a school-wide approach to addressing discriminatory and bullying behaviour. In every school where the program is implemented, the students work as leaders over the course of several months to organize school-wide initiatives, events that bring the entire school community together and clearly demonstrate the value of embracing diversity and maintaining a safe and inclusive school climate.
It works because we do not impose anything on the school community. Instead, we use a student-driven, whole-school approach and engage and support the students as school leaders so that they can become agents of change in their communities. We provide the tools, the guidance, the mentorship – but the change comes from within.
We all have a responsibility to ensure that schools are inclusive and safe, that they help young people to see diversity as their collective strength that binds and unites us and enriches who we are as individuals.This, we believe, is an investment not just in the safety and human rights of our students but in the future of our proudly diverse country.
Linda J. Dawson is chief executive of the Canadian Centre for Diversity.