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Bullying Politicians Should Take A Lesson From Pink Shirt Day

Politicians should set a better example, but too few do.

Pink Shirt Day started out small, in the best of ways: just kids at school standing up for a classmate who was being bullied for wearing a pink shirt to school.

Twelve years ago, Grade 12 students Travis Price and David Sheppard in Cambridge, N.S., realized that a Grade 9 student at their school was being bullied for wearing a pink shirt to school.

They wanted to do something, so they went to the store and bought up a bunch of pink shirts for them and some of their friends to wear to school.

This simple act showed the Grade 9 student that he was not alone, and showed the bullies that they were. The bullying stopped.

Within a few years, students across Canada were organizing their own Pink Shirt Days, and the event has grown into a major fundraising and educational initiative for anti-bullying programs, with communities and organizations — including Unifor — participating across the country. This year's Pink Shirt Day is Feb. 27.

As gratifying as all that growth is, the sad fact is that we need Pink Shirt Day now more than ever.

Pink Shirt Day may have begun as a group of teenagers trying to help one of their own, but the worst bullying we see today has moved far beyond the schoolyard, with the proliferation of mobile phones making cyberbullying a growing and dangerous problem.

With bullies able to reach their victims anywhere, anytime, even in the safety of their own homes, bullying is becoming more and more difficult to fight. Thankfully, there are hotlines for victims to call and laws meant to clamp down on cyberbullies, but they aren't enough — not in the face of political leaders who seem to regard bullying a central part of their governing style.

U.S. President Donald Trump took the bullying tactics of his business life to the White House. When the most powerful politician in the world is willing to resort to cruelty — whether directed to migrant children and their parents at his country's southern border, or 800,000 federal workers forced to live without paycheques during his government shutdown — in pursuit of his policies, he emboldens bullies in his country and beyond.

Politicians should set a better example, but too few do. Closer to home, Ontario Premier Doug Ford seems to have made bullying a central part of his political brand, just like Trump.

This is a guy who once told the father of a child with autism to "go to hell" and accused him of being part of "jihad" for being part of a group trying to establish a home for teens with autism in his hometown of Etobicoke.

Now it would seem that the provincial government is making such bullying tactics a basic part of how it runs the province, with a group of behavioural analysts, for example, saying Health Minister Lisa MacLeod threatened to make their lives miserable if they didn't support coming changes to autism services.

It was "more akin to meeting with a mob boss than an elected official," recalled one member of the Ontario Association for Behavioural Analysts who was at the meeting.

MacLeod later apologized if anyone took her threats as, well, threatening, and the association graciously accepted it, but the message was clear: the bullies are in charge at Queen's Park.

The rest of us need not be so quick to put the incident behind us, however. With such conduct, the government is setting a bad example for would-be bullies. Like Trump, the Ford government risks emboldening bullies with its behaviour.

Keep in mind, too, that the Ford government's fiddling with the sex-ed curriculum has left the province with a curriculum that pre-dates cyberbullying and sexting, and puts gay and trans kids at greater risk of bullying — a point made recently by author and advocate Amanda Jetté Knox, mother of a trans child.

"They mock, name call and outright threaten those of us who fight for the rights of marginalized people to be preserved. They've always done this, of course, but their voices, now emboldened by the very politicians and public figures they support, are growing in number and getting angrier."

Just as Price and Sheppard realized 12 years ago, we cannot just ignore bullies. Bullies thrive when others are intimidated into doing nothing. Staying silent in the face of bullying only gives the bully strength.

On Wednesday, wear a pink shirt and show everyone that you won't stand for bullying anytime or anywhere.

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