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January-February 2017

What I’ve learned about diversity teaching in a small, rural Quebec town

Young, queer, and Tamil, Badri Nayaranan knew uprooting from Toronto to rural Quebec would be a challenge. What he didn’t expect was a complete re-evaluation of his identity

Badri Narayanan

A photo posted by Jann Lavigne-Stevens (@ykwimm) on

A photo in Beauce, Que.

When I talk to the student in the English classes I teach in Saint-Georges, Que., I try to be as open and approachable as possible. I started the job in September 2016 as part of a program teaching English to French-speaking students, and spent most of my first two months making introduction presentations about my life. I talked about my cultural background; what my life was like in the Toronto area, where I lived before I moved to Quebec; and the jobs I worked before the gig.

During one presentation, I let students know that I am trilingual and that I juggle English, French, and Tamil on a daily basis. My teacher interrupted me. “When you say Tamil, do you mean, tamoul?” he asked. Many students started sniggering and speaking in hushed tones. “I don’t know if you know this,” the teacher added, “but tamoul is a bit of a slur around here to describe any person that is brown or non-white.”

The term originated in the mid-1980s, following the exodus of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. It is used today as a slur, particularly toward Arab and Muslim people. I stood shocked, trying to compose myself to finish the lesson.

Before arriving, I knew that racism was an issue in Saint-Georges. I tried not to judge—racism, after all, is a problem in Toronto, too. Still, the adjustment from urban to rural was jarring. I was born in India, raised in Dubai for my first few years, and lived in Toronto ever since. I have had the privilege of living in bigger cities my whole life, where I have interacted with people from different communities and backgrounds. When I moved to SaintGeorges, it was the first time I would be living in a small city. I was unsure of how my brownness would be perceived and how I would be treated by others.

The classroom situation is just one example of the cultural challenges I have faced in Saint-Georges—one that has illuminated the differences between my former urban homes and the small rural city I was learning to call home.

I only heard of Saint-Georges when I received my acceptance letter for the position; during the interview process, I was not told where I would be placed, just that it would be in New Brunswick or Quebec. Naturally, I started looking for everything I could about the region and the city. When I asked on a Quebec Reddit forum about Saint-Georges and Beauce, the region it is located in, one user answered: “Beauce is known for three things: farms, small businesses, and ‘rednecks.’”

I knew I was about to enter a very white region—white enough that Saint-Georges’ riding of Beauce has the highest percentage (99.3 percent) of residents who identify as white/Caucasian, as per the 2011 National Household Survey. Maxime Bernier, now a frontrunner in the federal Progressive Conservative leadership race, is the riding’s Member of Parliament. I wondered days before the move how I, a queer, left-leaning, brown, bearded immigrant would survive, let alone adapt.

I packed up and moved anyway.

***

Learning that part of my identity is considered a slur in Quebec made me frustrated with the cultural ignorance of those around me. I know it is largely a product of the fact that few people in Saint-Georges look like me, let alone understand the intricacies of my culture. Most people that I have spoken to about this, many of whom are college-level students, say that prior to meeting me, they had no idea what being Tamil was, but knew what the word meant to them. It upset me that so many people chose not to look into what the word’s origins were or what it actually means, regardless of age or education.

I spent days dwelling on the moment I learned tamoul’s connotations: the way the students snickered, my shock and unease. I know that my brownness is immediately visible, and I began to wonder if tamoul is what goes through people’s heads when they see me for the first time.

I refused to stay silent. I decided to talk to my class about the meaning of the word. My duty is to be an educator, and this was a teaching moment. For the next few weeks, I would make sure to address tamoul to the class.

“How many people here have heard of the word, les tamouls, before?” I asked my students in the weeks following that initial presentation. They giggled, raised their hands. I then asked if anyone wanted to explain what it meant. The laughter turned into visible discomfort. Few wanted to address it.

“It’s a racist word. We use it to describe, like, Muslims and terrorists here,” one student responded. More digging revealed most students didn’t understand the origins or meaning of the word. One student thought tam referred to Taliban and moul to Muslim, relying on stereotypes to fill in the blanks. Educating these students about my identity and history was exhausting, as a result, but worthwhile: I realized if it were not for me, there was a good chance many of those students would have never known what Tamil actually means.

***

Quebec’s identity as a French province in an overwhelmingly English continent has created a culture of fervent protectionism of anything French. To be Quebecois is widely interpreted as to be a descendant of the white French settlers who started arriving in the 16th and 17th centuries. While there are elements of globalism that affect society in all regions, there are also many regions, such as Beauce, where the majority of residents are born and raised here and tend to interact almost solely with their neighbours. Immigration has been a controversial issue for decades. The nationalist movement goes through waves of support and decline, but most people here sincerely view themselves as a nation within a nation.

It’s with this in mind that I continue my work in Beauce. I remind myself every day that there are few others like me here, and that there is still much work to be done to tackle racism. Education is a great starting point.

On the same day I learned about the connotations of the word tamoul, my teacher made it a point to tell the class why I was there in the first place. “How many of you know of people who are not from Beauce?” he asked. In the class of 20, I saw two hands go up. The teacher then explained it further. “We don’t realize it often, but we are a very insular region,” he said.

It was after that presentation that I wanted to understand more about the region. Doing so has made it easier for me to deal with micro-aggressions that I rarely encountered in Toronto. It has also helped me realize that living in a big city is a privilege. It is a privilege to be able to live in a place where there is diversity, where multiculturalism is celebrated, and where there is immediate access to multiple forms of information and education.

Still, I’m grateful for the opportunity to see how different things are in a region that is just a 10-hour drive from my home.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that French settlers began arriving in the 15th century. This regrets the error.

Badri Narayanan is working as an English language assistant at a CEGEP in Beauce. He graduated from Ryerson University with a Bachelor of Journalism degree in 2016. In the past, Badri has done a little bit of everything: He has served ice cream, promoted universities, and worked as a journalist.

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