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Dissed for being different

Kids — and adults — can be cruel.

My father grew up in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He was a tall guy, the only big Slavic kid in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood, the son of two immigrants from a small town near the Prypiackija baloty, the Belarussian Pripet Marshes.

Being the only one of anything can be a lonely place. An incredibly gentle man, Dad told me stories of being beaten up regularly on his way home from school, just for being different. Not only beaten up; because he was physically larger than his classmates, it was apparently fair ball for him to be jumped by two or more attackers at a time.

I grew up in Halifax, in a class full of MacDonalds and MacInneses, Kinleys and Douglases. Halifax in the 1960s and early ’70s was hardly a hotbed of diversity. With the last name Wangersky, I was out of the ordinary and got a fair amount of abuse for it. I was never beaten up, never even threatened effectively, but I was singled out. My treatment, though, was much less harsh than that of my one Asian classmates in my earliest school years, Robert Chen. I can only imagine the treatment received by the only black student in my entire Halifax elementary and junior high school.

Stop for a moment and think about what it’s like to be singled out.

Most people know exactly what it feels like; most have experienced it. But some more than others: being obviously different, being gay or transgender and “out,” or, as a requirement of your religion, being required to dress a certain way — dresses and headscarves for Mennonite and Hutterite women, Orthodox Jews who wear dark clothing and yarmulke, Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab — all of that immediately singles you out even more.

It’s one thing to be in the comfortable majority. Just imagine that the shoe was on the other foot. Take a hard look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’d like to be picked out as someone’s heavy-handed election issue, treated with disdain, told you should just assimilate and leave your Anglican, Baptist or Catholic religion behind.

When you’re a kid, you can be picked on for a whole bunch of things: having red hair, “talking funny,” wearing the wrong clothes, having a nervous laugh. It is horrible, and it is altogether too common a part of growing up.

With kids, we call it bullying. With adults, it’s apparently federal politics.

Remember, though, throughout history, when it isn’t kids anymore, when adults take to singling out people who are “different,” far more horrible things have happened than schoolyard beatings.

Dad went back to his parents’ hometown when I was a teenager; it had been razed. He found the location, but it was a collectivized wheat farm, acres and acres of wheat but no houses, no people. Apparently, the government had decided that the inhabitants of a small agricultural town were too close to the Polish border, their loyalty too much in doubt, and, as a result, too likely a threat to the Soviet state. So they were “dealt with.” My father never found even a trace of any of them. They’re not “different” anymore.

Canada, we’re not schoolyard bullies. We’re better than this.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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