We are saddened today by the terrible news that a 15-year-old Quebec girl committed suicide after years of bullying from her schoolmates. Despite recent measures to fight such abuse in schools, much remains to be done and I wish to pay tribute to the Foundation for Tolerance/La Fondation de la Tolérance (FDT), a group of community leaders from Québec’s Jewish community founded in 1995.
The group’s goal was to counter expressions of intolerance and stereotypes among the youth. Over the years, the group has hired young, motivated animators to spread the message of tolerance to students of senior high school age and educate them about the dangers of intolerance and expressions of racism in society. It is clearly an exercise in building for the future.
The animators, currently led by respected journalist and community leader Anne Lagacé Dowson, run three programs across Québec secondary schools, two in French and one in English. The FDT is funded through private donations and government programs. In the interest of full disclosure, I served as co-president of the group from 2006 -2009 with current president, Marc Gold, a respected community leader.
For the third consecutive year on Monday night, the FDT has handed out the Paul-Gérin Lajoie prize to citizens who have made the values and the mission of the foundation part of their professional lives. It was a way of acknowledging that education in the formative years is vital to a productive engagement in the adult years.
This year, the FDT has given the award to two people: they are 13 year old Maxime Collard, and her mother, Isabelle Marchand. Both were responsible for mobilizing the local population against discrimination and bullying in school yards. This year’s recipients follow two prestigious winners, Dr. Guy Julien (social medicine ) in 2009, and Fr. Emmett “Pops” Johns (community work ) in 2010.
Back in 2007, as co-president, I published an article entitled “The Path to Tolerance.” In the light of this week’s terrible tragedy, I wish to share some excerpts that I believe reflect the vision of the FDT and its work:
“First, political and community leaders at all levels must quickly condemn in unequivocal terms any expressions of intolerance. This must be done not in singling out a specific group, but by repudiating any acts of violence or intolerance by referring to values universally recognized by human-rights advocates. Hesitancy to react can only encourage a recurrence of such events. Hatred is hatred, and it is wrong whoever the perpetrator is. No political situation can justify acts of intolerance in a democratic society.
Second, we need to elevate the level of political debate in civil society beyond the daily concentration on current problems. It is time that voters, editorialists and leaders insisted on a value-oriented debate within the political framework. We need to remind ourselves of fundamental democratic values that allow us to interact as a society, and permit us to look beyond and see how we can deal with the challenges of diversity in our communities. The recent celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights rehashed the controversial political events surrounding its passage, while the real significance should lie with the greater protection of individual rights. Public debate involving more than specific policy proposals and addressing the subjects of vision and values can have an educational benefit for all in society.
Third, schools at all levels must play a more proactive role to promote diversity, tolerance and understanding. It is heartening that politicians acted quickly to condemn potential acts of intolerance against Muslim communities following the events of Sept.11. We need more solidarity of this nature by average Canadians in good times as well. Dialogue about what divides us might be essential but understanding our common bonds and the need to live and grow together by celebrating our diversity is what will make us a stronger community.
We cannot export tolerance like we export goods and services, but we can send a compelling message by being a shining example to the rest of the world in making sure that we have a policy of zero tolerance for any behaviour that promotes hatred and runs counter to the respect of communities and their differences.”