09/18/2014 05:40 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:59 EDT

Racism Is Canada's Problem Too - Let's Talk About it

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Irony -- when Canada's Minister of State for Multiculturalism is the victim of a racial slur. Minister Tim Uppal and his family walked into an Edmonton tennis club this past week and overheard a woman express disgust that the Sikh-Canadian family was allowed membership. She went on to suggest that Uppal was probably unemployed. It was an ugly reminder that Canada may be the land of multiculturalism, but we are not immune to racism.

The recent shooting of a black teen by white police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent mass protests, provided rich fodder for Canadian media punditry and office water cooler debate about racial problems in the U.S. We saw little mention of the related issues of racism and discrimination in Canada.

The majority of Canadians embrace our diverse identity and resoundingly reject overt expressions of racism. But many still bristle at any suggestion that Canada has deeper problems, like racial profiling or discrimination in our justice system and workplaces. Racism is Canada's problem, too, and we need to talk about it as a nation.

In 1987, high school teacher Darren Lund risked backlash to help his students establish an anti-racism group. Their city of Red Deer, Alberta, had been rocked by the trial of Holocaust-denier James Keegstra, convicted on charges of hate speech. White supremacists were setting up a camp in the nearby town of Caroline. Two decades later, Lund instructs aspiring teachers on bringing social justice into the classroom as a Professor at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Education.

We asked him what he learned from addressing racism in schools that might apply in our families and communities to help Canadians hold a positive dialogue on racism and discrimination.

Perhaps the most important lesson he shared: never assume people aren't ready to take on a sensitive issue.

In 1999, a pair of students begged Lund's help to fight discrimination against gay and lesbian students like them. Lund was sure that talking about homosexuality in their community would be like sticking his head in the mouth of an angry bear. But when the two students described the hate and abuse they often endured, there were tears in the teacher's lounge as the entire staff erupted in a standing ovation. The students received unanimous support to start Alberta's very first Gay-Straight Alliance.

And while discrimination is a serious topic, that doesn't mean you must always address it with finger-wagging solemnity. Lund learned that sometimes a light-hearted approach can encourage others to feel more comfortable talking about the problem. Lund's students took on racism with events like a school rock concert featuring student bands, and local aboriginal rap groups. Between acts, speakers shared their experiences with racism.

If you overhear an offensive remark, don't immediately go for the jugular -- especially with youth, who are still finding their identity and struggling to fit in with friends and society. Lund was alarmed one day to find a swastika drawn on a Grade 11 student's notebook. Rather than haul him before the class or send him to the principal's office, Lund took him aside to chat about the destructive power behind the symbol. Years later, the student sent Lund a Facebook message thanking him, saying Lund's guidance had made the teen re-evaluate and avoid taking a negative, possibly dangerous, path.

In a tip sheet for teachers, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation offers this important advice: when someone talks about the discrimination they've encountered, don't minimize their experience by assuming they're exaggerating, or that it's all in their head.

And finally, let young Canadians lead the way. Time and again, Lund saw his students more willing to tackle hard issues and walk the sensitive paths where adults feared to tread. "I was constantly reminded that young people get it right more often than not. Adults would be wise to listen," Lund said.

As Canadians, we're justifiably proud of our diverse nation, and our reputation for politeness. But good manners don't neutralize the racism and discrimination that exist here, too. Fixing the problem begins with talking about it.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.