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What You Have Taught Your Teens About Strangers Is All Wrong

10/21/2015 04:38 EDT | Updated 10/19/2016 05:12 EDT
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Bored teenagers standing next to wall

"I think I have just met one of the worst human beings on earth and she happens to be in grade eleven." I received this text from a teacher this week and it worries me a lot.

My colleagues and I at the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust spend a lot of time in schools around Canada, encouraging young people to think critically and to talk about their rights and freedom. We encourage lively debate and respectful disagreement about all the issues that affect democracies. And we hear as many opinions as there are people in the schools. But something different seems to be happening these days.

We are finding young people who are ignoring what they have learned in school about tolerance, and dismissing what their anti-bullying curriculum has tried to teach them. They are letting their inner meanies out in waves.

The text the teacher sent me had to do with a girl who expressed the view that Canada should not admit any more immigrants or refugees because they "ruin the country." How can someone get to grade eleven in Canada believing this? Unless she is a member of the First Peoples, chances are good that her family originated somewhere else. Likely, so did the families of her friends, teachers and the bus driver who took her to school. So what is she really thinking? I can only surmise.

I believe that the prolonged election campaign focused on "them and us" like few others. We have all been exposed to an onslaught of warnings about stranger danger for months. Who are these people who differ from "us" and why do they want to come here? They have religions that differ from those practiced by the largest number of people in Canada -- and some of them even wear things that are unlike the clothes we have grown accustomed to seeing. What could be hidden under those clothes? There is no way of knowing, so just to be on the safe side, our newly vocal nasties suggest we simply keep "them" out.

This attitude reminds me of a story I heard a number of years ago. A Boy Scout troop was on an overnight hike when one of the boys went missing. Search parties were brought into the woods where they called his name and searched every spot they could think to look. Fortunately, after three days, he was found alive. But here is the really scary part: he had heard his name being called and had seen the searchers through the trees. Every time they had got close to him, he had run away. Why? Because he had been taught never to talk to strangers.

If we don't do a better job of teaching young people that there is a difference between the stranger who has come to help and the one who comes to cause harm, we are not only likely to lose a lot of Boy Scouts, we are going to impoverish our country.

While we may find that there are some dangerous strangers, to decide that we should make negative assumptions about everyone we do not know is downright foolish.

The election is over. It is time to go back to celebrating the fact that our Canada is the welcoming and tolerant country in which we raise our children to respect and include all of us. Wherever we came from.