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Ethnic segregation a reality for Vancouver high school students

Immigrant and first-generation teens struggle to define what it means to be Canadian. They turn to buzzwords like multiculturalism, tolerance and acceptance. Some say it’s like a passport, or that it’s ancestral. Others just don’t know. In the wake of Macleans' 'Too Asian?' controversy, The Vancouver Observer asked 35 teenagers how they see themselves and each other. Part three in a series.

“Birds of a feather flock together,” says a senior at St. George's, the city's all-boys private school, when asked why his peers segregate along ethnic lines during school assemblies.

He could easily be talking about Churchill, Britannia or Gladstone – just a few of the seven schools reporters from The Vancouver Observer visited during the course of a two-month investigation into how youth see themselves and each other in Vancouver high schools.

At Churchill, it's lunch break and Sarah* (a Vancouver-born white girl) and Rebecca (half Sri Lankan, half British) scroll through emails and tap their metallic blue nails on their Blackberrys.

When asked if 'birds of a feather flock together' at Churchill, the girls answer with a swift, "No."

Yet clean-cut, neatly segregated clusters of Asians, South Asians, and white kids pack Churchill's halls between classes. In the cafeteria, tables of Asian kids predominate – while white French Immersion students seemingly shun the cafeteria to sit at benches by their lockers talking, flirting and nibbling on snacks.

But when it comes to English as a Second Language (ESL) students, Sarah and Rebecca fess up to deep divisions.

“It’s not intentional,” Sarah admits. “It’s not like we’re against each other.

“It just kinda happens.”

Rebecca goes a bit further than her friend.

“It’s just harder to communicate with them,” she says. “And from what I know and what I’ve seen from my classes, they kind of like being on their own.”

Then Rebecca pauses.

“I don’t want to generalize, obviously, but a lot of them don’t really like talking to us, because they like being able to put off speaking English for as long as possible.”

Having just spoken to a number of ESL students – who seemed to have a good handle on English and enjoy talking as much as any kid – the notion they won't speak to their peers, or don't know English, was surprising to us.

“We want everyone in the school to participate,” Rebecca continues, “but a lot of the time, a lot of the ESL kids don’t know what's going on.

“Because you know, we’re not really like, communicating with them – or they’re not communicating with us.”

Rebecca looks up and shrugs.

“Student council this year has not only grade reps, but also ESL reps,” she adds. “So we’re trying to like, make sure ESL students are included in dances and, like, all the events we do.”


Proud to be partially Canadian

“I’m proud to be partially Canadian,” says Rebecca, one of the six million foreign-born Canadians, according to the 2006 Canadian census. “I’m proud to live here.”

“I have a citizenship, so I guess technically I’m Canadian, but I think if someone asks, like, where your home is and, like, where you’re from, I would say England, originally.”

Rebecca is biracial. Every now and then, her friends jokingly call her “brown girl.”

“But no one really notices it, and it doesn't really stand out,” she says. “And when I tell people, they think it’s kind of cool.”

“People call me brown girl, but I don’t look brown. I think that’s why it’s funny.”

Her friend Sarah jumps in. “’Cause we like brown people.”

When asked if she identifies herself to friends and strangers as a “hyphenated” Canadian (British-Canadian, in her case), the teen shakes her head. Identifying herself as a “hyphenated” Canadian, Rebecca says, “sounds very weird.”

“Originally our whole family is from England. So I’m not Canadian at all. I just live here.”

Our conversation turns back to the school's evident ethnic cliques.

“We’re pretty multicultural,” says Sarah.

“We got Kwoku,” Rebecca adds – referring to their black friend sitting nearby. Kwoku hears his name and looks over. He gives a small wave in the girls' direction.

“My parents lived here their whole life,” Sarah continues. “My grandparents lived here their whole life.

“I'm completely Canadian. I don’t know what I am.”

Sarah laughs. She doesn't know if her ancestors came from Ireland, Scotland or England.

“I'm just Canadian," she says.

* Students’ names have been changed.

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