In what has become an end-of-February tradition, people of all ages across British Columbia have put on pink shirts today and joined together to take a stand against bullying and discrimination. It's a day that reminds us all that each one of us can make a difference, and make our schools and communities more safe and welcoming.
It's also a day to be inspired by the kindness and hope displayed by young people, who, again and again, show that they are ready to do their part to make their schools more welcoming places.
I remember standing with the Vancouver District Student Council last Pink Shirt Day to call on the government to do more to protect youth from homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools. It was inspiring to see these youth call for action that recognizes that bullying isn’t just about the actions of individuals, but is a symptom of larger systemic issues and a reflection of a culture in which discrimination is still prevalent.
The students argued that in order to be successful, strategies to eliminate bullying need to be more sophisticated than just saying "don’t be a bully", and must include proactive steps that take on discrimination that is at the root of much bullying and violence in schools today.
Students want to be part of creating a culture of acceptance in our schools, but they can't do it alone. The B.C. government has a key responsibility in partnership with school boards, teachers, and parents to ensure that students from all walks of life and of all different backgrounds feel safe and supported in our schools. Many school boards, teachers, parents, and community organizations have stepped up, but so far the B.C. government is largely missing in action.
Every year since I’ve been an elected MLA, I have stood in the legislature and implored the Liberal government to show that they take bullying seriously. I’ve urged them to take action, like the province of Ontario has, and bring in stronger province-wide standards for school codes of conduct to ensure that students are respected and that policy exists to ensure schools deal effectively with homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, and other forms of systemic discrimination. Every year little changes and the bullying continues.
It still tears at my heart when I think of David Levitt, who was in Grade 9 last year when he shared his story about attempting suicide due to the hate he faced as a young gay man. He shared his story publicly as a way to implore provincial leaders to act. It hurts that he’d be in such a position, a vulnerable young man, having to plead for action. Surely our province is better than this.
Young people like David are part of the solution. We must engage our youth in creating a school system that allows them to dream and to prosper. We must heed their call for action and ensure our province’s school codes of conduct clearly and explicitly prohibit all forms of discrimination, and that our provincial curriculum truly reflects the diversity of British Columbians. We need to do more than "tolerate" diversity, and instead move into a world of accepting and celebrating diversity. In our differences and diversity, we find unity and community.
I’ve heard people make the argument that we don’t need to have "special" language in school codes of conduct to specifically protect those who are more likely to be the targets of violence and discrimination. It’s an argument that might make sense in a world where systemic intolerance doesn’t exist, but we don’t live in that world.
Until we do live in that kind of world, targeted discrimination requires a targeted response. To suggest otherwise ignores the role that discriminatory attitudes play in normalizing and enabling bullying behaviours. Specific attacks require specific responses. That means not just prohibiting bullying, but explaining why it is important to respect people regardless of differences, and helping young people build bridges across cultural divides.
Pink Shirt Day started because young people stood up for another student who was being bullied for wearing a pink shirt. They brought together other students and made a stand by having everyone wear pink. They were standing up against homophobia and a bully’s attempt to stop a person from being who they were.
So when we think about Pink Shirt Day, let’s think about the example set by our young people. My colleagues in the New Democrat caucus and I will continue to work for comprehensive reforms to improve the experiences of all vulnerable youth in our school system. I'm hopeful, as I am every Pink Shirt Day, that seeing the energy and commitment of our young people, the B.C. government will take strong, immediate action to empower our schools and communities to do right by our youth.