Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

Schools should be teaching more about systemic racism, says CBC Kids News's Arjun Ram

Arjun Ram is encouraged that anti-racism protests in Canada and around the world are sparking renewed discussions about systemic racism. But the discussions are far from over, and he argues that it should be given a greater spotlight in schools.

CBC Kids News contributor recalls being confronted by student about Justin Trudeau brownface scandal

Hamilton's Arjun Ram is a contributor to CBC Kids News and a former competitor on Canada's Smartest Person Junior. (CBC)

Arjun Ram is encouraged that anti-racism protests in Canada and around the world are sparking renewed discussions about systemic racism.

But the discussions are far from over, and he argues that it should be given a greater spotlight in schools.

From contributing to CBC Kids News to interviewing Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry in a viral clip, the Hamilton teen is no stranger to unravelling complex stories and what they mean to young adults like him.

Ahead of co-hosting this week's episode of Checkup, Ram spoke with Duncan McCue about his own view of race and racism in Canada, his own encounters with racism in the schoolyard and more.

Here is part of their conversation.

Everyone has been watching all of the marches and protests right across Canada and around the world, really, about systemic racism. As a young person who's graduated from Grade 8, what's been going through your head as you've been watching that?

At first there was shock. Watching that video of George Floyd with a knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds was just shocking, because... as a Grade 8 [student], you think things like this don't really exist as much as they used to.

But when the protests started to go on, and more people started to express their opinions and go out and march…. It's hard to describe because, like I said, you don't expect this sort of thing to go on.

A large crowd took to the streets of downtown Vancouver on June 19 to march against racism and celebrate Black culture. The commemorative holiday known as Juneteenth marks the day the last slaves in the U.S. were freed in 1865 following the American Civil War. (Maggie Macpherson/CBC)

But I was feeling at the same time a bit happy that … people started to realize the whole concept of systemic racism still exists in the world. And that was something that made me feel happy.

And I guess it made everybody else in my class, in my school, feel happy as well, because it starts to show that people have to realize that this is a problem. And people from all cultures and religions, all ages, they started to express their views on it.

I was also happy about the fact that we started to look back at the history of the events that led up to these moments, from the death of Emmett Till that sparked the civil rights movement, to Martin Luther King [Jr.], to Malcolm X, to all these different events that led up to our Black Lives Matter movement today.

You mentioned the death of George Floyd, and the protests that resulted about police brutality in the United States. What did it make you reflect on, about Canada's history with regard to racism?

Well, in the first few days of the protests in Minneapolis and all across all 50 states, I started to wonder, will we have protests in Canada?

And once the protests started to go on, I was really happy to know that it was not only for George Floyd, but to realize that institutional racism in Canada does exist, and we've had a long history of it.

Checkup host Duncan McCue interviews Arjun Ram of CBC News Kids - at a pandemic-conscious physical distance. (Richard Goddard/CBC)

[I also realized] I was not educated about it as much as I wish I was. So I went on and I read about the history of racism in Canada, from the 17th and 18th century where we took slaves, to abolishing slavery in 1793 to, you know, discriminating [against Black people] when they first came from the Underground Railroad, to just so many examples.

It's hard to believe that we've never learned about this. And it really made me take a step back and look at our history, because we talk about the history in the United States.

But I think as Canadians, we should know our own history, and the events [that] have led up to the moments of the protests that have sparked all over Canada.

You said you didn't get a chance to learn about that in school. Tell me a little bit more about that.

History was always one of my favourite subjects. I love to learn about those things. And I love how we talked about the history of the First Nations, the residential schools, the derogatory remarks, or people stealing their land from them and cheating them.

It really made me realize that our country is so great [because] we acknowledge these facts and we talk about them.

And I always thought, well, why can't we expand our curriculum to other cultures and other immigrants or other people who were discriminated [against]?

It was really disappointing, because I think as students, we have the right to learn about these things, because it shapes our future. It shapes Canada [into] what it is today.

You had a chance this year to work on some projects that opened your eyes to Canada's history, in particular about the Komagata Maru. What was that like for you to learn about it?

It was very interesting. My teacher assigned us a project on ... the country that you come from, how they immigrated to Canada. And I chose India. I researched more on the Indo-Canadian community and how they immigrated from India to Canada.

And the large part of my project was talking about the Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship that carried 376 passengers in 1914 on the eve of World War One. And it was bringing people from India to Vancouver — Indian immigrants.

The Komagata Maru arrived on Canada's West Coast on May 23, 1914, anchoring in Vancouver's Coal Harbour. Nearly all of the 376 passengers were denied entry and the ship sat in the harbour for two months. (Simon Fraser University Public Affairs and Media Relations)

When it arrived in Vancouver, they turned it back and said: "You guys need to go back." 

[Editors note: Nearly all 376 passengers were denied entry to Canada. When the ship returned to India, a riot ensued with police there, leaving 22 people dead while others were sent to jail.] 

When I was reading all of this information, the first thought that came into my mind was, why aren't we learning about this [in school]?

It really showed me, when I see my grandpa or great-grandpa and my ancestors, the amount of things they had to go through in order to finally settle in Canada.

As a young Grade 8 student, what's your observation on racism now, and your generation? What's the experience of, say, a school or on the playground? Have you encountered it?

I have encountered it. In October 2019, I was outside and a boy came up to me and he asked me, how do you feel about the infamous brown face incident? And I was confused at first.

With Prime Minister Trudeau, you mean.

Yes. And I was confused at first. Why is he coming to me and asking me? When I asked him why, he said, "Because you're Justin Trudeau's brown face."

And I was very confused. Why did he call me that? What's the point of saying that to someone?

You talked with your parents about it. Was there anything else that you felt like you could do?

When I talked to my parents, they were telling me about how, you know, this day was going to come. It's something that we've all gone through.

But it really opened my eyes and it really prepared me for high school, especially because, of course, high school is a whole new situation, a whole new environment.

And if I ever go through something like this, I know how to handle it and I know what to do. So it really prepared me.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from Duncan McCue. Q&A edited for length and clarity.