Jennifer Chang knows childhood bullying can be devastating.
She was picked on in elementary school, but the Grade 12 student is about to graduate from Agincourt Collegiate Institute (ACI), which has taken a leadership role in the last few years in standing up against bullying and promoting positive relationships among students.
“I am so glad to be at a school that has taken this position and to be an anti-bulling environment,” said Chang, at a celebration at her school on April 12 to mark International Day of Pink. “This is a great opportunity for students to feel accepted and to promote diversity within the school because a lot of people feel scared to really be themselves because so many people are judging them.”
Principal Roy Hu said his school took a position four years ago to be inclusive.
“You are welcomed here at ACI regardless of race or orientation,” he said. “We value you for who you are and we are very bold about that. We painted our lockers in rainbow colours as a reminder that Agincourt is made up of people of all colours, faiths and orientation. That is our strength.”
The Toronto Police Service (TPS) partnered with ACI to celebrate this year’s International Day of Pink. The Day was started when a Nova Scotia teen was bullied for wearing a pink shirt to school. His fellow students rallied – by all wearing pink – and showed their solidarity against LGBT-based discrimination.
“I am proud of the TPS members here today,” said Deputy Chief James Ramer. “We are undertaking a tremendous change in the Service, one that will make us more efficient and effective. Partnering with students and educators not only puts us where we are needed the most, but is also a shining example of how community relationships make for safer cities.”
Ramer stressed that the Service’s relationship with the LBGTQ community remains strong.
"It’s built on respect and mutual understanding that we will continue every day to look for ways we can do better,” he said. “It’s not enough to stand by. Achieving true change in supporting the LBGTQ community is not about silence. It’s about attending events such as this and lending your voice in an active and supportive way.”
Superintendent Barbara McLean, a senior adviser of the Services LBGTQ-Internal Support Network, thanked the ACI community for collaborating with the police to stage the annual event.
“It’s important for the Service to work with young leaders, like yourselves, to stop bullying now,” she said. “I see those of you who are stepping out and speaking up to make things better for others. For that, I am truly grateful. You are so impactful by your leadership and your caring. I can honestly say, when I was going to school, I wish I had friends and peers just like you.”
After watching the San Francisco Police Department’s video, It Gets Better, which raised the bar for police organizations demonstrating their support for LGBTQ members, the Service’s LBGTQ-ISN partnered with Martin Blake of Video Services, four years ago, to create a TPS anti-bullying video, Together We Can Make It Better: Stop. Bullying. Now.
A new video, Speak Up, launched at last year’s event, was shown to the students.
“This video showcases our LGBTQ police officers, our civilian members as well as our colleagues who are our allies,” said McLean. “There are three messages I would like you to think about as you watch the video. If you are a bully, stop. If you see someone being bullied, speak up and provide your voice to someone who is unable to speak for themselves. If you are being bullied, you will see that there are a lot of people who can, and want to, help you.”
Mayor John Tory, also a member of the Toronto Police Services Board, attended the celebration.
“I believe we are moving in the right direction,” he said. “For all the threats that are posed by social media because it makes bullying, in some aspects, easier and painful, we have had a change in attitude. We have student leadership, we have the support of the police, we have the teachers taking a leadership role so that people understand very clearly and they celebrate the fact that in Toronto, we celebrate differences, we understand differences and we move quickly whenever we seen any instance of people being bullied or discriminated against. We are not perfect, but we are really moving forward.”
Toronto District School Board Director of Education John Malloy said people need to know it’s important to speak up when they see any form of bullying.
“When I get the opportunity to visit one of our schools, like today, it fills me with pride because, not only here at Agincourt, all across the city today, we are remembering how important it is to make a change, to make a difference and to ensure that bullying no longer exists and that acceptance, compassion and empathy are key,” he said. “…Acceptance, though, is not enough. We must know each other, engage each other and understand that someone else’s shoes, perspective and experiences are different from ours. That is the diversity to be celebrated.”
Toronto Argonauts offensive lineman Tyler Holmes and Brock McGillis, a former OHL hockey player were celebrity guests.
“One of the big messages I am going to leave with you, today, is going to be about language and its importance," McGillis told the students. “Words have meaning and they have power. When I was in locker rooms or in high school, I would hear words like ‘gay’ and ‘fag,’ which are terms that are used and people say to their friends openly, but in fact can hurt people.”
McGillis was friends with Brendan Burke, who was also gay. The son of Calgary Flames president Brian Burke was killed in a car accident on February 5, 2010.
“Two days before his death, we exchanged messages on Facebook and he wrote: ‘I can’t wait until the day that you’re out like I am.’”
“Those were his last words to me,” said McGillis. “He was the only person who knew my secret and he was gone. I cried for days. Shortly after, I told my younger brother, also a semi-pro hockey player, and with his support I came out to the rest of my family.”
Holmes, born in Ottawa, was excited to be representing the Argos at the event.
“It’s great to get out and support the community any way we can,” said Holmes, who played for the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League in 2012, before joining the Argonauts the following season. “The LBGTQ community is so important to the city of Toronto and this is a great opportunity for me and the Argos organization to support their initiatives.”