British Columbia·Matheson

'We're not all in gangs, doing drugs and bumming out of school': Surrey students defend their city

Students were given the chance to talk to the CBC about any stories they wanted to. No one topic was brought up more often than the unfair reputation they feel they have as Surrey students.

Students say reputation is based on ignorance and stigma of false Surrey perception

Students at Surrey's L.A. Matheson feel like they are stigmatized because of where they come from. Grade 11 student Parnoop Shergill's t-shirt sums this up. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When you spend an entire month back in high school, you hear a lot of stories.

Once the students get comfortable, they have no problem sharing their thoughts about anything and everything.

And the most common topic the students at Surrey's L.A. Matheson Secondary School wanted to talk about? The unfair reputation that comes with being from Surrey. 

"We are not bad kids," said Grade 12 student Samantha Czulinski, 18.

"We're not all in gangs. We're not all doing drugs and bumming out of school."

Grade 12 student Samantha Czulinski says people need to work harder to truly understand what happens in Surrey. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

It's a common sentiment in these hallways, but not just among students.

Like it or not, Surrey has struggled with reputation issues throughout its history. As a suburb which was traditionally lower on the socio-economic scale compared to Vancouver, stigmas have always been attached to the city and its residents.  

Struggles with gang violence has also exacerbated the perception and reputation of the city, but students here say it's high time those misguided ideas are put to rest. 

Living and working in Surrey allows Matheson teacher Annie Ohana to see first-hand the impact the reputation has on her students.

Some students say they feel that coming from Surrey negatively impacts how they're viewed. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We all walk with a chip on our shoulders," said Ohana, who teaches social justice.

"From a very young age, kids are very well aware that somehow our city is maligned."

Ohana is concerned that sometimes students subconsciously parrot that narrative.

"If all someone does is point you out as negative or say you have a problem, that's internalized and then often becomes a behaviour," she said. 

"You think I'm bad? Well then I'll show you I'm bad."

Annie Ohana lives and works in Surrey and says she sees the impact of the city's reputation on her students. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Stereotypes and stigma

Grade 12 student Kunwar Sandhu has lived in Surrey for most of his life, and said he often feels the stigma is felt deepest when Surrey students are compared to those who live elsewhere. 

Sandhu, 18, recalled one law field trip that brought together students from different schools in the region. 

"All the kids from our class were coming up with creative questions," he said. Meanwhile, students from other schools weren't nearly as engaged, yet the Matheson students felt looked down on.

"We're not worse than these kids, but we're viewed as worse than these kids.That's not fair at all."

Kunwar Sandhu, who is in Grade 12, has lived in Surrey for most of his life. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Sandhu is not the only one who's felt the stigma in his family. 

"My brother got a full ride scholarship into UBC but he's still viewed as thuggish because he comes from Surrey. It happens to most people who are here," he said. 

"It's crazy how people can go 'Oh you're from here? You look like this, you must act like this.'"

The hallways at Matheson are monitored during class. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Stigma in the hallways

The students say the stigma doesn't just come from outside Surrey — it shows up in their hallways and classrooms, too. 

The Surrey School District has a program called Safe Schools that operate across the city. Trained liaisons monitor the halls during class to ensure students are safe and to look out for any suspicious activities.

Some students at Matheson point to this as an example of how their reputation as Surrey students has an impact on the way they're treated. They say the feel that hallway monitors are policing them throughout the day. 

"If I'm outside of the classroom for two minutes, going to the washroom, I feel like it's so unnecessary to attack every student who walks through the hall [during class]," said Grade 11 student Jasmeen Saini.

"We're not rats infesting the school."

Surrey's school district is one of the fastest growing in the region. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Growing city offers means the chance for renewed reputation

Surrey is the second-largest city in B.C., with 800 new residents moving in each month, and its school district is one of the fastest growing in the region.  

That's having an impact on how Surrey is seen, according to Matheson principal Peter Johnston.

"The perception of Surrey and LA Matheson is slowly changing in the minds of people who end up coming out here," Johnston said.

"They realize we aren't a small and rural town anymore and our facilities and school districts are second to none."

L.A. Matheson is located in inner-city Surrey. (Evan MItsui/CBC)

But for that perception to continue changing, it's also up to the students. 

"It's part of our responsibility to get these students ready for the modern world to help change that narrative," Johnston said.

"The students have to take some responsibility for that too."

For students like Sandhu, they have a clear message to the rest of B.C. about Surrey's reputation: 

"Just because I'm from somewhere else, you think you're better than me? It's just not cool."  

This story is part of a series called Matheson, examining the lives of students at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, B.C. CBC journalist Jason D'Souza was given unparalleled access as he spent a month embedded at the high school in order to hear unfiltered stories of students today.