New slang and new self-awareness for native teens in Vancouver high schools

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 four in a series.

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 In the United States, sociologists and scholars have noted communities’ reclamation of derogatory terms such as the N-word and queer. In the 2007 book The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why, author and Emerson College professor Jabari Asim charts the reconfiguration of the word as a cultural insider term, particularly in black American hip-hop and rap. 

 Works by sociologists and cultural studies scholars such as Steven Seidman in the mid-1990s used the term queer to refer to individuals who didn't fit into the mainstream lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements of the time. Similarly, chug shifted from a racist slur to a more fluid term used amongst natives, especially urban youth.

 An “insider term” divides urban native community

Cheryl Robinson, 34, a youth coordinator at Red Fox and a native youth worker for almost two decades, says non native kids called her "chug" in elementary school. She didn’t hear it used between native kids often until she started hanging out with other native teens and experimenting with drugs and alcohol in the early and mid-1990s.

 “It was more like sarcasm,” she says.

 Shaydean Wilson (pictured below), a Grade 12 student at Britannia Secondary school, agrees.

 “It’s a racist word that was put onto us, thinking that we’re like drunks and that’s all we do,” she says.  Wilson went to elementary school with teens who now hang out on the Drive.  “Some of them do volunteer work and most of them aren’t a bunch of chugs like people say they are.”

 Wilson also volunteers at Red Fox. She skipped school and fell behind in Grade 9, but that changed after she transferred to an alternative program for native youth at Britannia. She liked Britannia much better than her former school, and began attending classes regularly. Next year, she wants to get her diploma in hotel management and tourism services.

 Wilson was born in Bella Bella, a small island town 1,300 kilometres north of Vancouver. She identifies as a member of the Heiltsuk Nation. She lives with her parents in East Vancouver where her father grew up.  He attended Britannia Secondary, which was as ethnically diverse back then as it is in 2011. Britannia’s student body reflects the diversity of Commercial Drive. In the last few years, more Middle Eastern and African refugees settled in the neighborhood and sent their children to elementary and secondary schools. These children mingle with their first- or second-generation Vietnamese, Italian, and Chinese peers, most of whose parents came in the last three decades. The result: a colourful mix of students in the hallways at lunchtime.

 Wilson says interracial dating at school is common.

Her dad loved Britannia, and encouraged his daughter to attend. He was friends with people from outside Canada, and Shaydean says he didn’t experience a lot of racism at school. Britannia was a respite from the racism outside school, which he found hurtful and damaging. Wilson says he wanted something different for her.

  “He doesn’t want his kids to grow up in that kind of environment, he wants his kids to look at different options,” Shaydean says. “And not to be racist.”

 However, for Posey this is a difficult lesson to teach to some of the native youth he interacts with on the Drive. It’s difficult to convince them not to use a term that’s so familiar to them.

 At Red Fox, Posey finds it difficult to convince the native teens he reaches out to that chug is a racist term.

 “Trying to explain it to them is complicated,” he says. “You can’t explain it all at once. Just over time. People change over time.”

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