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November 22, 1999
A High Voltage Lesson in Race Tolerance
A P Kamath
When Canada's Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson planned to visit a school in Surrey last week, she knew she had help its students appreciate diversity -- and put behind racial animosity.
A brawl had erupted at the Queen Elizabeth school between Sikh and white teenagers recently connected with the trial of five young men accused of killing a Sikh caretaker of a local gurdwara.
A court recently sentenced the five for the beating death of Nirmal Singh Gill, a care-taker at the Guru Nanak gurdwara, about two years ago.
Three of the young men had studied at the Surrey school, and one of them, an immigrant, had told the court that he had been constantly bullied by Indian Canadian students who had made fun of his Polish accent.
Clarkson reminded the students, teachers and parents that Canada cannot go back on being a multiethnic community.
"What is socially unacceptable in Canada is racism,'' Clarkson, who had come to Canada as a Chinese refugee and married a white Canadian, said.
"Our laws must always be against it.''
Clarkson, the first Asian to become governor general of Canada, addressed in her speech several dark periods of racism in Canada and the myth of white supremacy.
Clarkson, who was greeted by the students in more than a dozen languages, including Urdu and Punjabi, said she decided to visit Queen Elizabeth because of its ethnic diversity. Over half of the school is composed of children of Chinese and Indian ancestry.
Though she did not directly refer to the brawl or the growing influence of racist groups on the youth, she reminded the crowd that she was speaking on Douglas Day, named in honor of Sir James Douglas, the first governor of British Columbia and a man of mixed race.
"The myth that somehow this place, British Columbia, has always been some pure, white sanctuary... is simply that -- a myth,'' said Clarkson.
"James Douglas was not an example of some superior master race. He was a man who was a product of muddled colonialism and of human instinct."
Clarkson's speech was well received by the students, said Vice-Principal Judy Henriques. She also said tension in the community is occasionally reflected in the schools.
"But generally . . . I don't think our school has overt racial issues to deal with,'' she told reporters.
Saika Kanwal and several other South Asian students agreed with their vice-principal.
Clarkson also reminded students of how much has changed in Canada since the time of racist laws that led a Chinese head tax and the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.
"What is wonderful about Canada is that it is capable of change,'' she said. "And we have changed."
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