As your typical WASP Newfoundlander from Conception Bay South, multiculturalism wasn’t something I ever really experienced first hand as a kid.
That’s not to brand myself as insulated or ignorant, just to point out a fact. Kids growing up in my community weren’t exposed to the same notions of diversity in culture or ethnicity triumphed by multiculturalism in the rest of the country.
Put it this way — homogeneity in ethnicity was the name of the game coming up through school. In three years of high school, during which time I went to class alongside 600 other students, the number of people I encountered that couldn’t be classified under the heading of “caucasian” could be counted on one hand.
There was no evidence of diversity, only invisible distinctions cast by Christian denomination. And even then, those were some pretty slight differences.
In fact, throughout my time at Queen Elizabeth Regional High, the closest thing I ever encountered to “visible minority” in any of my classes was Tyler Butler, my lab partner in Grade 10 for Science 1206, who was blind. And even then, he was a WASP, just like me.
Compare that to Carleton University, my new home for the next four years, and the story’s completely different.
For the first time ever, I’m part of the minority in some of my classes. Students at Carleton, like at MUN and other universities, hail from all over the world, and many of the people from Ottawa attending university also have their own unique cultural backgrounds. It’s refreshing, and it contributes to class dynamics and group discussion to have such diversity in culture, opinions and beliefs as a backdrop from which to draw, especially in an academic setting.
One of the ironies of moving away has been that it’s had me thinking a lot about home and realizing just how different my new surroundings at university are compared to my high school back in Conception Bay South.
When I started to juxtapose the realities of both schools against one another and to consider the benefits derived from a multicultural setting reinforced by cohesion and harmony between different cultures, I began to see the effects generated if a school’s level of diversity leaves something to be desired.
Without a culturally diverse presence at school, the same sensitivities for other beliefs and identities aren’t always enforced as they probably would be otherwise. What’s more, ethnic uniformity lends itself to developing a certain naivety and narrowed sensibility with regards to the world we live in, engendering behaviour that wouldn’t be socially acceptable in other parts of the country.
With a more balanced student population, words like “fag,” “pak” and “nigger,” used colloquially at schools, would undoubtedly be used less, maybe even not at all. There would be a greater understanding and empathy for others — plain and simple.
That being said, for my high school, and for most schools in the metro area, the lack of diversity is rooted in the fact that Holy Heart of Mary High School administers the region’s only high school English as a second language (ESL) program. This has served to funnel most foreign students into that school, effectively maintaining current low levels of diversity in ethnicity and culture in other St. John’s-area schools for years.
That is, of course, not to say that Holy Heart’s ESL courses are unilaterally to blame for other schools’ lack of diversity, because when it comes down to it, no one is really. It would be naïve to think that St. John’s and its surrounding areas come close to achieving the same levels of multiculturalism as much more diverse cities like Toronto or Ottawa in the first place.
But while it may just boil down to demographics, it is a pity that students from our province could miss out on a balanced perspective and worldview because of community environments way less diverse than other parts of the country.
Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is enrolled in the journalism
program at Carleton University.
He can be reached by email