Dear Ms Clarkson,

This photo was taken on 19th November 1999 during a conversation we had  in the library at Queen Elizabeth secondary in Surrey, B.C. That morning you had given a speech about the promise and possibilities of our multicultural society.

At this moment, we are talking about teaching. We are not talking about the reason you chose to visit our school.

A month before this picture was taken, in October 1999, we had heard that you wanted to come to our school after you had read about the racial tension amongst our student population being played out in frequent fights between our Indo-Canadian and Euro-Canadian students. This tension had been sparked by events during a court case that had resulted from the murder of Nirmal Singh Gill, a caretaker at a local gurdwara who was killed by members of a White Supremacist group.  Our school had been mentioned in the legal defence of the accused who said that being teased for their Polish names and accents while attending our school was the reason for their actions.

As the Governor-General, you wanted to see for yourself if what you had read about our school in national and local newspaper articles was true.

Do you remember being greeted in 42 different languages by students who represented each of the ethnicities in our school population?

Your visit came three days after the accused were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced. But in this photo you and I are talking about students’ responses to Shakespeare’s Macbeth which was what my students were studying. 

I can’t remember all the details of our conversation beyond that, but I do remember that you did not ask me where I was from.

I have been told that I have an accent (I can’t hear it of course!) and so am frequently asked that question. But you didn’t ask. You just assumed I belonged here.

I thought about our encounter while I listened to (and read) your Massey Lectures on Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship.

Over the many years since your visit, I have replayed our encounter over and over again in my mind and each time have found another layer of significance.

Five years after our encounter, while I was working on a graduate paper about racialized identities, I realized the irony of this moment. You had  come to the school to find out about the racial tension while I was in a state of complete denial of it all.

You had only recently become the Governor-General, I had only begun working in my first permanent teaching position in Canada.  As you can imagine, that was quite challenging and perhaps that is why I completely blocked out the images I had seen weeks before your visit. Images of my Indo-Canadian student with blood streaming down his face after he had been hit by a Euro-Canadian student. Images of police officers opening a car trunk filled with baseball bats, not intended for a game, just meters from my classroom door.  Police wiretaps had revealed that an attack on a school had been planned. I only remembered all this in vivid detail, five years after your visit.

Perhaps the reason I had blocked out the images was that somehow my mind could not accept that the scenes I was witnessing were happening in Canada, so far away from my birthplace of South Africa, where racial violence had been legalized and was orchestrated by the Apartheid state.

Part of the reason the court case had garnered so much attention was because it was the first major case in which the Crown used subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code to argue that the accused should get life sentences because their crime was motivated by hate.

Laws against hate were the antithesis of what I had known growing up in South Africa. 

It was loving that was the crime.

Under a law called the Immorality Act, it was a criminal offence for people who were classified as White to make love to people who were otherwise racially classified.  The act of loving was seen as such a threat to the state that special police resources were expended to catch people in the act. There were frequent news reports of people being caught making love by police who spied at them through holes in walls.

The government could not of course stop people from making love, but they did ensure that children who resulted from unions between Whites and members of other ethnic groups were classified “Coloured”, a racial category on the second rung from the bottom on South Africa’s race ladder.

As a person officially classified “Coloured”  I was a member of a community rejected by the White community as inferior and resented by the Black community because of the relative privilege of my in-between position.

Though racial segregation existed in various forms throughout the era of colonialism in South Africa, when the National Party formed the government in 1948, a systematic process began to separate the population into ‘races’ that had different rights and varying degrees of access to national resources.  It’s widely believed that population separation was inspired by Jan Smuts’ visit to Canada where he learned about the Aboriginal reserve system but some scholars dispute the connection. 

A few days after my birth, a ‘race classifier’, having noted my parents’ ‘habits, education and speech, deportment and demeanor in general’ and having also looked at the curl of my hair, shape of my nose and colour of my skin especially around my fingernails, designated me as ‘Coloured’, as required by the Population Registration Act of 1950.

This meant that under the law I was “a person who [was] not a white person or a native”, the latter category reserved for the “racially pure” aboriginal races of Africa and the former for those who “in appearance [were] generally accepted as a white person.” The language of the Act specifically stated that, though a person may appear to be White, they could not be so designated if they were “generally accepted as a coloured person”. This “general acceptance” depended, according to the Minister of the Interior, on the “judgement of society – conventions which had grown up during the hundreds of years [of occupation by the Dutch and English colonizers]”.

Having “Coloured” entered in the space for ‘race’ on my birth certificate meant a circumscription of my choices in life, but not as many as I would have experienced had I been classified ‘Native/Bantu’, a term used to refer to aboriginal Africans.

Politically, it meant that I would not have any access to power structures within the government, since only White people could vote in parliamentary elections.

Economically, it meant that I could only consider work and careers designated for me under laws that controlled access to employment, but it also meant that I had more choices than those occupying a lower rung on the ‘race’ ladder. It also meant that I could own land, a privilege denied ‘Natives/Bantu’.

Socially, it meant that I could only visit certain beaches, attend certain cinemas, ride on certain buses, eat in certain restaurants, enter post offices at certain entrances and sit on certain park benches, restrictions shared by all non-Whites.

Living on the border between Whiteness and Blackness in South Africa meant that my enculturation was distinctly European, and I grew up learning the culture of the people who designated me as a second-class citizen. I did not learn the languages or the culture of the majority aboriginal African population with whom I shared characteristic physical features.

As a consequence of my early experiences in South Africa and my experiences as a new Canadian, the concepts of belonging and citizenship are ones I grapple with when I try to articulate what they mean to me. I’m not even sure I’m succeeding in expressing what they mean to me here. But please bear with me.

At the time this photo was taken, I had not yet begun teaching the Humanities Co-op, work that feeds my soul while I face the ongoing assault against public education by our BC Liberal government.

For me, the Humanities Co-op provides a way for students to experientially explore many ideas about belonging and citizenship that I first heard you express in your speech to us in 1999 and then again in your Massey lectures.

In a Humanities Co-op, Grade 11 students have all their courses for one semester with the same teacher who is responsible for teaching academic courses and for monitoring students when they are on six weeks of work experience in the community.

Originally intended as a ‘co-operation’ between the fields of education and business, the model was supposed to prepare students for the world of work with its characteristic competitive, alienating and hierarchical structures. But whether or not a teacher actively tries to create collaboration and connectedness in the classroom, a sense of community arises naturally from the day-to-day interactions between students who share the same space for six hours each school day.

Because QE’s student population is comprised of 46 ethnicities, our classrooms are like a microcosm of the global village with a range of cultures and beliefs. This is fertile ground for seeds of transformative ideas about belonging and citizenship.

For the past sixteen years, I have seen my teaching role as not only covering learning outcomes in academic courses, but also nurturing collaboration within a caring classroom community. While I prepare students for their work experience placements, the main focus of my program is not the world of work so much as the work of social transformation. In other words, my work is to create a space for students to explore and to experience what it means to belong and to be a citizen.

Students’ exploration of the concept of citizenship is facilitated by an online simulation (created by a brilliant friend and colleague) called The Civic Mirror, which turns our classroom into a country with a government and an economy.

Through online and face-to-face interactions, the simulation provides a space for students to grapple with political, economic and social issues.  Students “live” as citizens in a virtual country in which they elect a government, trade goods and services and perform many roles of citizens in the real world. 

The brilliance of the simulation’s structure is that unless citizens co-operate, their country will disintegrate into chaos with catastrophic consequences for everyone. They learn fairly quickly that citizenship is not something that is simply acquired like a badge but that it demands a careful balancing of individual and group needs.

But long before students are ready for this exploration, they engage in activities aimed at breaking down the barriers between them, barriers built up as a consequence of the 10 years of structured separation and grade competition in schools.

From the moment they enter my classroom, students are in situations that provide opportunities for them to check and change what they think they know about themselves and about each other. They are challenged to learn something about themselves that may surprise them, to discover something about others that they did not know, even though they have “known” that person since elementary school. Through experiences and discussions, they slowly learn to see each other quite differently.

This student’s year-end reflection is typical of the kinds of transformation in attitudes that I am always hoping for:

Before going into [this class] I saw people very differently. I never wanted to talk to people who were classified as the “freaks” or even the “geeks”. I always thought they were different than me and I didn’t want to interact with them. The first month of school was an introduction to a new perspective. … On the field trip I got to interact with a lot of my peers that I most likely would have never talked to in such depth with when I was in school. I learnt a lot more about who they were and how they saw aspects differently from me, and to my surprise they weren’t any different than me. Some girls on the field trip couldn’t eat beef because their religion, so I asked them questions on it and learnt a lot more about their religion. Before the field trip I would have thought that was stupid, but since I took the time out to ask and learnt how to listen to other people’s views, I learnt the respect that they have for themselves and their background.

The field trip mentioned in the reflection is a three-day camping trip during which they canoe, complete ropes courses and engage in various teamwork challenges. One of the first activities is a potluck, a “multicultural lunch” that has students sharing cultural foods. For some students, it’s the first time they’ve shared a meal with people from a different ethnicity and the first time they’ve tried foods like sushi or perogies.

I remember a particular trip when I entered the largest room in our log cabin around midnight to persuade students to go to sleep, and found myself in the middle of a passionate discussion about the lives of Muslim and Sikh girls, the assigned occupants of the room. I was surprised to see that visitors to the room included two European-Canadian students who normally did not associate with the Muslim and Sikh girls in the class. They sat on a bed seemingly enthralled by stories being told about virginity tests, about duties to serve males, about restrictions on movement while brothers were free to roam. 

In a reflection written after the field trip, one of the Euro-Canadian students said: 

That night was the most intense moment of the trip, or even the year for me. I thought a couple of the girls were going to start to break out into tears. There were moments where I wanted to cry for them. I didn’t think that I would be able to connect myself to any of the problems they were having until one girl spoke about how her family doesn’t get along. I know how that feels. My family is very distant. … Many family moments are destroyed by anger and greed. 

During the field trips, I have frequently found students in the middle of deep philosophical debates and discussions at all hours. No matter what I do, I can’t stop the conversations that sometimes go on all night, conversations that have them discovering what it means to be someone else.

Reading  these kinds of reflections each year is like a healing to me. There is something about watching my students learning about each other and working together in new ways that gives me hope for the future of our civilization.

I could share many other stories, stories that had not yet happened when we met all those years ago. I have a sense you would be interested in them, given your work during your tenure as Governor-General and since.

Next week I will greet my 2015 Humanities Co-op class. One of our activities for the first week of the semester, synchronistically the start of Black History Month, will be to read and discuss your second lecture, the one you presented in Halifax, the one that references the destruction of Africville.

I should confess that I listened to your lectures out of sequence. I was first drawn to fourth one, on ubuntu, mesmerized by your images of Madiba’s memorial, comparing them with my own memories of the broadcast. As the lecture continued I was riveted by your argument about a kind of ubuntu existing in Canada.  I found myself agreeing with you until my mind recalled all that has happened in Canada during the Harper years.

I suspect that if we met today we’d have much to talk about beyond the violence in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  We could talk about my “two degrees of separation” from Madiba. We could talk about why I believe adopting an ubuntu philosophy is the only way we will have any hope of surviving climate change. Or we could talk about my amazing students who, every day, fill my heart with hope and love.

Yours sincerely,