Students win anti-racism contest

Parkdale Collegiate Institute students bring a message to the Minister of Immigration

Bloor West VillagerBy Erin Hatfield 

Seated: Jamar Burnette (red sweater), Allan Tran, Emma Lewis (front left) and Joelle Dell'Erede with Parkdale-High Park Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy, left, teacher Alison Mann, and Papineau Liberal MP Justin Trudeau. The students where in Ottawa on International Anti-Discrimination Day on March 21, and decided to bring a message about the challenges Roma students face in Parkdale.

Seated: Jamar Burnette (red sweater), Allan Tran, Emma Lewis (front left) and Joelle Dell'Erede with Parkdale-High Park Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy, left, teacher Alison Mann, and Papineau Liberal MP Justin Trudeau. The students where in Ottawa on International Anti-Discrimination Day on March 21, and decided to bring a message about the challenges Roma students face in Parkdale.

A small group of Parkdale Collegiate Institute (PCI) students used a chance meeting in Ottawa to take the government to task over what they say is discrimination toward people of Roma origin.

There are about 130 students at PCI from Roma families and one student, Jamar Burnette, said he has seen theses people struggle to make it in Canada and learn the language. He has also had Roma friends declined citizenship.

"Personally I have had one friend declined and just talking to him and knowing his situation and how serious it was, I can't imagine how all the rest of the 129 are going through this."

So when a group of students from PCI, along with their media arts teacher Alison Mann, were in Ottawa on International Anti-Discrimination Day on March 21, they decided to bring a message about the challenges Roma students face.

The students, Jamar, Allan Tran, Emma Lewis and Joelle Dell'Erede, were in Ottawa to be recognized for their 30-second public service announcement about racism for the national video contest called Racism, Stop it! Their video was one of 10 chosen nationwide in the anti-discrimination contest.

"It is basically talking about stereotypes for different races," said Jamar, 16. "The message that we were getting across was that it (discrimination) hurts, so why do it."

But the students decided they wanted to try and bring a message to Jason Kenney, minister of immigration and citizenship, about the discrimination the students say has been felt by Roma families.

"The students did mention in their speech at the end (of the awards ceremony) that they come from a very diverse school and they talked about how 38 languages are spoken in Parkdale and more than half our students are born outside of Canada," Mann said. "And they mentioned that although they celebrate diversity, they still see that a lot of work still needs to be done to end racism, which was a sobering but hopeful message."

They also brought a petition with them about the plight of the Roma people in Canada and the high rate of deportation Roma's face.

By chance, the students had an opportunity to speak directly to Kenney while Parkdale-High Park MP Gerard Kennedy was giving the students a tour of the House of Commons.

"They told him that they have friends they felt were being mistreated and they wanted them to be fairly treated, and the minister promised he would look into it," Kennedy said. "The students determined on their own that they wanted to have their say about this. They (students) are not highly political, but they just know something is wrong."

The students also had a chance to speak with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff; Marc Garneau, MP for Westmount Ville-Marie, critic for industry and Canada's first astronaut in space; and Justin Trudeau, Papineau MP and the official opposition critic for immigration and citizenship.

"They took the initiative. They won an award and they used their voice," Kennedy said. "It is how Ottawa should work, I guess."

Since returning from the trip, Jamar said the students are inspired and have lots of ideas on how they can continue to try to make a difference.

Kennedy is working with the local Toronto Roma Community and Advocacy Centre to develop local support services. He is also working with MPs to bring an end to discrimination in immigration proceedings.