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Pioneering group of Sarnia high school students challenged racism head-on

Tara Jeffrey Duane Gibson could have let it get him down — the slurs he heard in high school back in the ‘90s.
The Origins of MAC_1996-1999 (dragged)_1
Members of Northern’s Multicultural Awareness Committee received a provincial certificate on March 21, 1997 from city councillor David Boushy, second from left, who was then Sarnia-Lambton’s MPP. With him are, from left, Elena Grant, Preetam Sengupta, Maria Grant, and Kit Malo. Submitted Photo

Tara Jeffrey

Duane Gibson could have let it get him down — the slurs he heard in high school back in the ‘90s.

“There were times where preppy, often hockey-playing white students would say the N-word walking down the hall,” the Canadian rapper and motivational speaker recalled of those days at Northern Collegiate.

I remember times when one of them would say the N-word to me and laugh, really thinking it was a joke.”

But the racism he and other students experienced motivated them to respond by educating their peers about diversity and inclusion inside Northern’s halls.

Original MAC poster

Thus was born the first MAC, or Multicultural Awareness Committee.

“They were just wise beyond their years, really,” former teacher Sheri Henderson said of the teen committee, whose membership also included folk singer-songwriter Preetam Sengupta, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sami Khan, local entrepreneur Paresh Thakkar and others.

“Having dealt with racism, and growing up in a predominantly white community, it felt as though there was a cultural divide,” recalled Thakkar, a popular local chef and former contestant on the Food Network show Chopped Canada.

“A lot of the students there did not understand different races, cultures, as that was not what they grew up with.”

The new group swiftly got to work, starting with small changes around the school: posting ‘Welcome’ signs in more than two dozen languages; hosting a ‘heritage dress’ fashion show and tweaking the morning announcements to recognize occasions like Rosh Hashana, Diwali and Chinese New Year.

The committee’s effort expanded to include anti-racism presentations for elementary schools; attending diversity and leadership conferences, and working alongside school board administration to tackle discrimination.

Heritage Dress Fashion Show, 1997

“At the time the MAC was starting out, the Lambton County Board of Education was implementing a new Anti Racism and Equity policy,” said former vice principal Linda Jared, noting MAC members provided input on the policy’s rollout.

"The work done by the MAC students started the school on a pathway towards recognizing and celebrating the diversity existing within the Northern community.”

The school celebrated Black History Month long before it was recognized in the curriculum; parents signed waivers so Henderson could show Spike Lee films in class, and students signed up for ‘Read-In’ events showcasing black authors. The school’s fastest growing club that year soon had 30 to 40 members.

In March of 1997, the group invited the entire community to a ‘Foods of the World’ fundraiser. The showcase of international cuisine and culture marked the launch of what would become a Northern tradition known affectionately as ‘MAC Night.’

Held to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Discrimination, the event prompted an official proclamation from the City of Sarnia.

At the time, school officials received threats that members of a local hate group (linked to the now disbanded neo-Nazi, white supremacist Heritage Front) were planning to crash the event, prompting local police to get involved.

“No hate mongers showed up,” Henderson recalled. “And none of the participants involved, including the students, were aware of this until much later.”

Nader Mumtaz and Paresh Thakkar, 1997

Instead, more than 300 people gathered to enjoy food and entertainment from 14 different countries. The celebration included a harmonium solo performed by the family of then student Sumon Chakrabarti, today one Canada’s leading infectious disease specialists and a national media commentator on pandemic issues.

“I'd like to think the group was inviting. Introverts and extroverts, racialized and white students interacted, and there was a common bond,” said Gibson, aka D.O., who has released eight albums and in 2003 set a Guinness World Record for the longest freestyle rap.

As a motivational speaker, Gibson has spent the past two decades travelling Canada to share his anti-bullying message and promote Canadian Black History.

“A big reason that I have built this 20-year career is because of Sarnia,” he said.

After moving to Toronto, Gibson returned to perform at MAC events over the years, and was amazed by what he saw.

“It was inspiring to see the next generation take the vision and make something even bigger with it.”

Henderson eventually left Northern and spent 18 years travelling and teaching on four continents. But none of that, she says, compares to her time spent with one special group of kids at Northern.

“Everywhere I look now, it matters,” she said, pointing to the Lambton Kent District School Board’s commitment to anti-oppressive education. This year, the board’s website includes a ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner to highlight Black History/African Heritage Month.

“But it mattered to us, 27 years ago, you know?”

Filmmaker Sami Khan said he almost lost touch with that ‘idealistic energy’ that surged from a group of naive students and their allies.

“Even now, you can look at our young people and find remarkable inspiration,” he said.

“Today’s student activists are so much smarter and more impactful than we were. But I hope we planted some seeds."

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