March 2002
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Building Bridges of Understanding – There is hope
By Shoilee S. Khan, SNN Editor, Grade 12, John Fraser Secondary, Mississauga, ON

In a country where basic freedoms are not only enjoyed but demanded by citizens, it is often very difficult and many times may seem impossible for people here in Canada, to understand or even fathom what life is like for people around the world where gun shots and poverty are the norm.

Classrooms all over Ontario however, are attempting to bridge the gap and pave the way to better understanding, through the implementation of an OAC (grade 13) World Issues course, which explores the many integral and most significant issues that affect different parts of the world.

A specific activity required by students in the course is to explore political, geographical, nationalistic or religious issues through the interpretation of a piece of music. Once every week since the beginning of February, a pair of students introduce their classmates to their chosen piece of music, which is directly linked to a specific geographical area in the world. Facts and opinions are presented, and then the discussion opens up. This is when the sparks begin to fly.

"The discussion is where the meat is," expresses one student. "This is where our opinion matters, where we get to say what we think, and make our own small attempts to finding a solution to all the problems we're presented with."

The first piece of music presented was in a foreign language addressing the battle for the province of Kashmir between the nations of Pakistan and India. Once the discussion opened up a controlled, yet heated debate broke out between the students of whether religion and politics should ever 'go together'.

"I don't see why any country needs a national religion," one student says. "There isn't a need for it, I mean we [Canadians] don't have a national religion and we're able to live."

"I disagree. Politics and laws in Canada are very connected with the Christian tradition," another student argues. "Whether we like it or not, religion and politics are definitely connected with one another."

This dialoguing continues until every student in the classroom feels that all opinions and views have been addressed and a fair attempt at finding a solution has been made. In the Kashmir issue, students more or less mutually agreed that in order for any solution to even be fathomed, there must first be a ceasefire and both sides must compromise. A fairly simple solution, yet stubbornness on both sides of the conflict has resulted in only intensifying the problem, threatening to reach conditions that are out of control.

The crisis in Kosovo and the Arab-Israeli conflict have been among the other powerful and emotional presentations, but most recently the song "Zombie" by the Cranberries seemed to spark a discussion that extended to almost all conflicts all over the world. The pair presenting this piece of music seemed to leave a large piece of the puzzle out of the picture when they discussed the Irish Republican Army's terrorist acts in Northern Ireland. At first, the discussion sprung towards basic comments on how "violence is wrong" and "they should have tried other methods" to solve their problems. Yet, some students had puzzled looks as they tried to decipher exactly what would push a group of people to bomb and terrorize those they felt were responsible for their misfortune. The World Issues course instructor completed the puzzle.

"I think a large piece of the puzzle has been left out," she began. These people [the Catholics in Ireland] suffered from intense poverty, it's unimaginable. You mention that other paths should have been explored before they resorted to violence, I think that digging a little deeper into the issue, you would have discovered, that many attempts had indeed been made throughout the course of this conflict, before the IRA resorted to their terrorist activities."

In response, some students expressed how violence was wrong in any context and only intensified the problems rather than solved them. They also felt that religions clashing with one another also contributed to a vast majority of the world's problems. One student however spoke up and expressed her unique opinion.

"I think, more than religion, it's oppression that drives people to violence. We, living in Canada can hardly relate to the immense oppression and violence that is a part of some people's everyday lives. I mean, imagine seeing your mother or father getting shot, imagine that someone in your family dying, or someone you know getting killed is an everyday event in your life. These people, witnessing this everyday, don't just use violence because it's supposedly easy; they resort to violence because they feel all other attempts at their freedom have failed. They feel that violence is the only way to release them from such oppression."

Students agreed how it was very difficult to relate their lives, which are relatively free and peaceful, to the lives of so many others that are witness to intense violent wars and cruelty everyday. Almost on the verge of resorting to a pessimistic conclusion, where no solution to the world's problems seemed possible, the students reluctantly continued dialoguing and realized that they were living a potential solution.

"Education, I believe," the course instructor began, "is a huge part of finding solutions to many of the world's problems. Presenting facts in an unbiased matter and discussing them like we are in this class is the first step to solving these problems."

Needless to say, the OAC World Issues course has literally opened up a world for students to discover. Discussions, debates and the expression of opinions is indeed the first step down the path to building a bridge of understanding and perhaps a bridge of hope for peace, in the many war-torn countries that sometimes seem so far away.