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Montreal students get a history lesson about the N-word

Click to play video: 'Teaching Montreal teens about racism' Teaching Montreal teens about racism
The Lester B. Pearson School Board has launched a series of lectures aimed at teaching students about discrimination. On Wednesday, students from grades 10 and 11 learned about the history and cultural impact of using racist language. Global's Phil Carpenter explains. – Mar 24, 2021

As part of Anti-Racism Week, the Lester B. Pearson School Board has organized a series of lectures for its schools to explore aspects of anti-Black racism.

School board officials say the presentations are part of a longer-term strategy to address issues of discrimination among the school population as well as in the broader community.

For some grade 10 and 11 students at John Rennie High School in Pointe-Claire, who attended one of the presentations Wednesday morning, it wasn’t just a history lesson. It was about empathy.

Read more: Lester B. Pearson School Board votes to review policies, create racism action plan

“We need to understand the degenerating feeling that this hateful word propagates,” said 17-year-old student Elysia Ross, who identifies as Black. “The N-word, in particular, we need to understand why it’s so bad to say this word, especially coming from a white person.”

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The guest lecture was given by Omari Newton of Overture With The Arts, an organization that promotes diversity. He was invited by the school board to speak to schools about the history and implications of a pejorative term used to describe Black people.

“I think a lot of kids are really disconnected from the origins of the N-word,” Newton told Global News following the lecture at John Rennie.

He said to help kids make that connection, he explores the history of the transatlantic slave trade, racism and segregation in his presentations.

“So my hope is that these kids are given a context for the origins of this word and the impact it still has today,” he said.

According to school board officials, the idea for the lectures came about partly in response to events involving some of the schools, such as a video posted last summer online of two students in blackface.  Following the incident board officials vowed to tackle racism and discrimination.

“We need to relook at how we do things,” emphasized Mathieu Canavan, director of educational services for the LBPSB. “We need to relook at the educational material that we use, we need to move forward together in a spirit of empathy and understanding.”

Read more: Lester B. Pearson School Board appoints two commissioners to fight racism within the board

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The school board also banned the N-word from use on campus, something Newton says he understands, but has a word of caution for those enforcing the rule.

“If they hear Black people speaking to each other and using that term,” he said, “they should understand there’s a difference between that and somebody using it as a racial slur.”

Following the presentation, students like 17-year-old Sophie Wugalter said they learned a lot from the presentation, especially about things she said aren’t taught in school.

“The whole idea that there could be like so many different types of racial slurs, that I just wasn’t aware of at all and nobody ever taught me about them, is just eye-opening to me,” she said.

Others like Ross, who said she has experienced racism, want others to know what it feels like.

“It hurts,” she stressed. “It makes you feel alone.”

School board officials say the lecture continues all week and will be given to members of school staff on Friday.

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