As a Canadian, I feel lucky to live in a diverse culture, a country that has offered refuge and opportunity to newcomers from around the globe. It has been our way of life to share classrooms, workplaces, neighbourhoods, and communities with other Canadians who trace their descent from countless countries around the world. Indeed, my favourite activity in the classroom is to play “Where in the World Are We From?”, inviting students to show each other on the map where their forebears have lived, and celebrating our First Peoples whose roots are right here on Turtle Island.
As a Canadian parent and educator, I have watched in horror events like the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, recent attacks in Paris, Nice, and Belgium, and countless other shocking crimes throughout the world. I have made these observations from what felt like the outside, counting myself fortunate that I live in the relative peace and safety of Canada. Indeed, I think this sense of good fortune among Canadians sometimes lulls us into complacency. One could even argue that as a collective, we have a slightly smug NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) response, as we hide our heads under the comfortable pillow of Canadian diversity and acceptance.
All of these (mis)conceptions of mine were exposed in January with the senseless murder of six men at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, a mosque in Quebec City. Any superior notions we may have had about Canada being a peaceful, tolerant country have been laid bare, leaving me shocked and dismayed in a way that I could not even grapple with, let alone articulate.
This event left me with the unenviable—yet oh so crucial—task of trying to unpack the attack and its aftermath with the young people in my life. When I asked my 14-year-old whether his school had recognized the attack, his response was no. He found it very difficult to discuss with me, looking for opportunities to change the subject wherever he could find them. I got more traction with my 10-year-old, and when he told me that he thought the shooting was “about racism,” I acknowledged the racial element but struggled to add depth to the analysis—depth that I know is required. How do I help him to understand the incalculable power of hate, and come to terms with the reality that it can be wielded unpredictably and with such devastation? It seemed impossible to delve into the discussion and still preserve that fragile, cherished innocence that I, perhaps selfishly, want him to maintain. So I chickened out, pulled back when he had no questions, knowing that I should be doing more.
I tried a different approach with my grade 10 class at school. Rather than trying to teach about hate, trying to start with the answers—a strategy many of us fall back to when the content is tough—I started with a statement and a question.
“I am so sad and discouraged by what happened to the families and the community in Quebec City, and I don’t know what to do with my hurt and my fear.”
Then the question:
“What do you think I can do about these feelings? Because I am really struggling….”
And what happened next was one of the more beautiful and poignant professional—and human—moments I have experienced in a long time. One student after another began to talk about how they feel. We talked about and challenged the idea that Canada is a safe place to live. It was a conversation, with give and take, differences of opinion, but respectful listening. Soon enough, I think we stopped thinking about answering my question and instead became immersed in an incredibly important discourse. Where stereotypes floated to the surface, we tried to expose them. We unearthed a lot of confusion, fear, and anger, and these were pretty uniformly represented emotions, across a diverse classroom community—a true snapshot of the Canadian mosaic that makes me so proud.
There are many students of Muslim faith in the classroom, and I felt very touched to hear them speak. Among other responses, I was most taken by the resilience I heard. The attack was framed by one young Somali-Canadian woman in these terms, “In the world there are people with hate in their hearts and people who are good,” graciously making the tragedy less about one faith group vs another, and more about what lies at the core of individuals.
And the rest of the class heard her. Hers is a powerful voice, refusing to accept the easier paradigm of us vs them, choosing instead to acknowledge that the Quebec shooting was the act of one person. She gave a master class in being mindful that an individual—like a miniscule minority of radicalized members—does not represent an entire group, an entire faith, an entire nationality. I fleetingly wished some of our world leaders could have heard her.
But then I realized that the voices and opinions shared around our circle weren’t for anyone else but us. For now. The more students share together, argue about and wrestle with those things important in their lives, the more they will realize the incredible agency they possess. I could easily tell my young student she is strong and she can change the world (because she can). But think how much more effectively she will come to understand her potential by sharing her ideas with her peers and getting them to listen. And eventually to speak up about what is important to each of them.
Ultimately, we didn’t arrive at any answers or solutions. But I think the discourse is helping us to know one another and accept our differences. The Quebec attack was horrifying, but working to have empathy for those in our community, making strangers our friends…maybe that is the way forward. And this is language that teens understand. They are in that developmental process of figuring out the world and themselves anyway. I think it is crucial we model for them that part of this discovery has to be about getting to know those around them, seeking out connections to everyone in their community. No “them,” only “us.”
As lead learner in the classroom, what was brought home to me was an enduring lesson: the power for change is engendered and made strong in conversation. From the first awkward, less than successful foray into a difficult topic—like my attempts with my sons at home—to the next, less surprising discussion, followed by each subsequent opportunity to express fears, attempt to analyze feelings, and discover moments of (self) realization…discourse may be messy, but how will we encourage our young people to be independent thinkers and leaders without it? How will they know what it takes to be a true friend and caring community member?
Beyond crystallizing this understanding for me, this experience with the students in my classroom reinforced that it is ok not to know the answers—as a parent, as an educator. Making oneself vulnerable might feel like the hardest thing, but wow, did it work in the days following the shooting. While I was unmoored by the killings at the Quebec City mosque, and I will be working through the aftermath for some time, I can thank my generous, open-hearted students for giving me back the hope I so desperately needed—hope for them as strong individuals and hope for the role they can play in our community’s future.