Last September, on a warm autumn day, I joined Angelo Kon and Bernateta Dak, in their backyard, after tragedy struck their family. Surrounded by leaders from the south Sudanese community, we sat in lawn chairs, in a semi-circle and collectively mourned the loss of their daughter, Abeg, who died by suicide. Their grief was palpable as they spoke, heavy with loss and tears, lamenting the health and wellbeing of their community’s children and youth.
As Angelo shared Abeg’s struggles with bullying, several other fathers in the semi-circle nodded and shared their own stories of how the bright lights within their own children were being dimmed by experiences of bullying and racism. These stories are not new to me, and that is why I made a promise to these families, that I would do everything in my power to prevent bullying and promote anti-bullying policies and practices in our province.
That is why today, on Pink Shirt Day, in addition to wearing my pink shirt, I want to have an honest conversation with Albertans about bullying. This conversation begins with awareness of bullying behaviour, an understanding of the insidious impacts of bullying, and an awareness of resources to help those who are victims of bullying.
Bullying is described as intentionally hurtful, mean behaviour inflicted on another by someone with more power. Bullying can take many forms, including verbal, physical, cyber-bullying, and social exclusion. Bullying can also happen to anyone - children and adults alike. Current statistics show that almost one-third of all Canadian adults have experienced bullying in some form.
The impacts of bullying can be devastating. Victims can feel pain, humiliation and depression, and may have suicidal thoughts. Behavioural changes can take place, including increased dependence on alcohol and drugs. Children experiencing bullying may be fearful to attend school and have trouble concentrating. These impacts can linger for a long time, leaving physical and or psychological scars.
It is also important to highlight that bullying can harm bystanders. Whether bystanders choose to be silent or feel powerless and fearful that they could be the next victim, the dread of feeling unable to speak up or intervene can manifest itself in feelings of shame, anxiety and helplessness. These are the corrosive and widespread repercussions of bullying.
Bullying behaviour has also appeared to increase in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past year, I have spoken with many people from different ethno-cultural communities who have been on the receiving end of racial discrimination and bullying. In addition to the uncertainty and anxiety associated with the pandemic, the additional burden felt by Albertans subjected to bullying behaviour highlights the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on certain communities. It is important to acknowledge and address this issue.
So what can we collectively do to combat bullying? It begins with awareness. We must recognize different forms of bullying, and identify the warning signs and impacts. We must understand the role of the bystander, and know what resources are available to help. There are resources available on the Government of Alberta’s website that can assist. Please visit alberta.ca/Bullying.
Alberta’s government has invested in many bullying prevention initiatives and we are actively reviewing them to ensure they are reflective of the needs of all communities across our province.
Let’s recall the reason for Pink Shirt Day. Fourteen years ago today, two teens from Nova Scotia saw one of their classmates being bullied for wearing a pink shirt to school. These students took a stand and created a legacy of action by buying dozens of pink shirts and handing them out to students and teachers at their high school. While it was a simple gesture of support for their schoolmate, it made a powerful statement: Bullying would not be tolerated in their school. Today, let’s channel these teens and wear our pink shirts while taking every opportunity to stand up to bullying. And in light of the increased isolation people are feeling as a result of the pandemic, let’s be extra vigilant in letting people in need know that help is available by calling the Bullying Helpline at 1-888-456-2323 or through the online chat available at alberta.ca/BullyingChat.
While I know that Angelo Kon and Bernateta Dak‘s tragedy will not spell the end of bullying, I hope Pink Shirt Day 2021 is a reminder to Albertans to stand up to bullying in all of its forms, and brings greater awareness to the many resources available to those suffering.
Rajan Sawhney served as Minister of Community and Social Services from April 30, 2019 to July 7, 2021.