COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — Nov. 9, 2012

Jessica Iron Joseph
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Following my “Slave Day” column last week, I received a lot of mail; some in support of my views, some in criticism. A reader in Montreal was quite upset with what I said, and let me know. I dedicate this column to him.

He took an opposing stance to Slave Day, having once participated in one himself. He thought it was nothing but charity-oriented fun and that I used “over-the-top” words to emphasize my points.

Perhaps there are many out there who agree with him. I think those dissenting opinions usually stem from guilt and/or bullying attitudes. Keeping Slave Day in schools only encourages bullying, disregard for equality, and teaches children about the subjugation of power: superior vs. inferior.

I know it is a very controversial topic, and last week I didn’t cover all that I could have. So, here is Part Two.

Slavery existed amongst nearly all groups across the world at some point or other but my focus last week was the race-based large-scale plantations of southern USA

Nevertheless, it was an abhorrent practice by whoever participated in it, everywhere.  

Slavery is still practised today; with an estimated 27 million men, women and children around the world enslaved at this very moment: forced into sex slave trades, child labour and human trafficking, among other sordid forms of abject exploitation. It is an abomination that needs to be stopped everywhere.

All the more reason we ought to abolish Slave Day from our schools.

The Director of Education for my son’s school division agreed that Slave Day had “a horrible denotation and connotation and that such naming of events and the mockery of enslavement was something that should have been eliminated years ago.” They have committed to re-naming their fundraising activity.

I was thrilled to learn this news, but the reality is that Slave Day is over for ONE school. Maybe it still exists in other schools in this province, maybe even across Canada – which is why I have written a second column on Slave Day.

If you still believe in your heart that it is a harmless, fun day, full of laughter, dancing, cupcakes, and tomfoolery, maybe you ought to also introduce a “Holocaust Day” or a “Residential School Day.” You could scale down the horrors and make them fun-sized for kids too. There’s no harm in that, right? How could anyone possibly be offended?

But before you unilaterally decide that these are viable options, maybe consult these groups and consider their opinions. If the Jewish and First Nations communities think these are great ideas, then you’ll likely also find support when you call up Anti-slavery organizations and tell them about your fun-filled Slave Day.

If you absolutely insist that you must carry on with Slave Days at school, then at least do the topic some justice and teach about it. That is what school is for, after all. Spend the day explaining to these kids why slavery was wrong and continues to be wrong. But if you can’t muster up the strength to teach these horrors to a Grade 1 student, then why on earth would you introduce the word “slave” into their vocabulary at such a young age?

If the language I chose for my column shocked you last week, perhaps now I’ve sent you toppling over your chair. Sometimes these things need to be said, so I will say them.

I knew when I agreed to write this weekly column that it would be difficult to navigate through controversial subject matter without being criticized, but I accepted the challenge anyway.

I didn’t take this job to be popular. I took it to point out truths, some of which are very ugly truths. I believe that change begins inside each one of us. Sometimes we encourage it ourselves, other times it is jerked out of us by circumstances beyond our control. As a writer, I realize I am guilty of occasionally using unorthodox means to facilitate change. I don’t apologize for that.

Confronting ugly truths will help us restore balance, contrary as this may sound. I know this from personal experience.

This is how I live my life. For the past several years, I’ve practiced this daily. In order to find inner harmony and balance, I confront those undesirable traits that I possess -- let’s face it, we ALL possess them. But I earnestly confront and work on my character flaws in an effort to grow.

By doing this, I am able to be honest with myself and clearly study my behaviour, as well as the behaviour of those around me. I have learned to push for change when it is needed and other times I have coaxed myself into practising patience, acceptance, forgiveness and compassion. Every situation is different, but by finding this balance and learning which end of the spectrum to utilize, I have watched my relationships around me transform -- all for the better. I grew closer to my husband, my children -- even my mother! I loved everyone around me with a renewed energy because as I changed, they changed.

Once I felt that I had learned these tools well, and had successfully applied them to my life, I looked around me and wondered what was next. Strangely, at that exact moment, I was offered this column, and it suddenly made sense to me: I could use these very tools to help improve the relations of people around me. Most would view it as a coincidence, but I see it as serendipity.

I don’t set out to pen diatribes. I write my columns with great care each week to open the eyes of people, those who might not see things my way -- especially those who differ from me.

I do it from a place of love. I do it as a way to bridge our communities. Pointing out these issues isn’t a sadistic joy of mine. I aim to address those points of contention that divide us. Because I am a minority, and have grown up with minorities, it is probably easier for me to spot issues that separate us. It isn’t an advantage, but an opportunity to stimulate change.

I don’t believe in writing people off, “deleting” them or leaving things unspoken. You cannot grow and learn together, fostering change if you merely close the door on someone. Honesty, dialogue and an earnest will to change will make the difference. If we are willing to recognize our issues, we can learn from them and take action to correct them.

I always vow to point out ugly truths that divide us, as a means to bring us closer together through courageous and candid conversations and ultimately, action. I think we’re all capable of making the world a better place, but it’s something we all have to do together. Change begins one day at a time; one issue at a time; one person at a time. All that’s needed is the seed of change within you.

Organizations: ONE school, Residential School, Jewish and First Nations Grade 1

Geographic location: Montreal, Southern USA, Canada

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