The Canadian Senate has long invited local children up to the red chamber for festivities in recognition of National Child Day, but this year, organizers felt it was also a time to address serious issues with the young audience.
Jeremy Dias, executive director of Jer’s Vision, was asked to give the keynote address about harassment and bullying he faced in high school because he is gay.
“In Ottawa, we’ve had some very sorrowful tragedies that have taken place and two suicides,” says Liberal senator Jim Munson. “We feel it’s important that messages are sent out, that no longer can we hide away in our closets, shy away from who people are and what they are. We should celebrate people’s differences, especially differences in children.”
In her opening remarks, Conservative Senator Ethel Cochrane reminded the young audience of their potential.
“You can do whatever you want to with the gift of your life,” Cochrane said. “You are the master of your own destiny. Above all, we want you to know that you are never alone on your journey. Help is all around you. Just ask.”
Liberal Senator Terry Mercer asked the kids to crumple their programs. He then told the children to smooth out the paper and apologize to it.
“Even though you said you were sorry and you tried your hardest to fix the paper and put it back to the way it was, the scars are still left behind,” Mercer said. “They will never go away no matter how hard you try to fix them. That is what happens when someone bullies another person.”
Dias spoke about being hospitalized after he was beaten by fellow students. He remembered how the school principal said it would “toughen him up” and how janitors refused to clean homophobic graffiti off his locker.
He said he accepted the abuse until a classmate finally stood up for him.
For Dias, the ability to speak in the Senate was an honour, but he gives most of the credit to the team at Jer’s Vision.
“The entire team has been working hard to be part of the national community when it comes to issues of bullying, discrimination, human rights and youth issues, and especially the work of our board president and our countless youth volunteers,” he says. “They’ve really elevated the organization into something that can be folded right into the work with any kid in any grade, of any age, anywhere – especially at the national level.”
Dias says he is excited to be able to address issues not often discussed in schools.
“Homophobia and transphobia happen in schools and youth communities, and it’s a huge problem, and I think the only solution is to talk about it and to engage kids at every age and every part of our country about it,” he says. “We can have as many amazing websites and resources and teacher guides as we want, but the real solution is working with kids on the ground level, working with teachers and parents and individuals and really speaking to them about these issues.”
Munson hopes these type of talks will help change attitudes among the children who attend.
“It’s trying to open up the minds and hearts of some of these young children who are in grades five, six and seven, and for them to walk out of here and have one message in the back of their mind when they go back to a playground, in their neighbourhood or in a shopping centre to say, ‘Hold on, just a second - words hurt,’” Munson says. “Words really hurt. That’s the message we’re trying to deliver today.”
With Jamie Hubley’s suicide still fresh on people’s minds, Munson is keenly aware of how important that message is.
“Everybody always says we wish we could have done more – well, we’re just trying to do our little bit as senators, to do a little bit more.”