“Sometimes it breaks my heart to talk about it, but I lost a 13 year-old cousin in Fort Chipewyan who took her own life because of bullying.”
NWT Commissioner George Tuccaro was speaking to a room filled with tiny, attentive faces in a sea of pink during the Pink Shirt Day assembly at Fort Smith’s JBT Elementary School last Tuesday.
“I still feel sad because of it,” he said as children and teachers in the room listened, rapt. “My eyes water. We should never, ever have that situation happen to us, so I want you to really, really pay attention. I didn’t want her to pass from this world without anybody knowing, and to learn from that.”
He too was bullied as a youth, he said, because he had a funny eye that kids at school made fun of. Tuccaro shared his story of coming to terms with his bullies; he eventually came to the realization that everyone is worthwhile and important, despite – and maybe, even because of – their differences.
“Each and every one of you are born with a special gift,” he said. “You know why? Because God doesn’t make junk, just beautiful people.”
Tuccaro, who is a renowned country musician, then got his guitar out and sang Canadian singer/songwriter Donny Parenteau’s Imagine a World, which calls out bullies and urges children to “love without insecurity.”
A popular commissioner who is an accomplished musician and storyteller is a tough act to follow, but up next was young rapper Jomei Newkirk, 14. He enthralled the audience with his dramatic, animated and in its own way, equally powerful piece on why bullying is bad and caring is important.
The hard-driving yet poignant anti-bullying anthem Area was an original rap written by Newkirk when he was 10. An alumnus of JBT, he has been authoring rhymes for four years and rapping for nearly eight. Newkirk arrived at JBT that morning with a re-worked version of the song, put to a new beat.
“You wanna be a bully?” he sang. “Not in my area. You wanna be a pusher? Not in my area!
Ain’t tryin’ to be mean or even unfair to ya, but that ain’t welcome here, and this we’re trying to make clear to ya!”
When Newkirk wrote the song, he was often the target of bullies at school. To process what he was going through, he asked his dad whether he could rhyme about that experience with his newest song.
“At the time, in my class it was really popular to be mean,” he said. “I already had two raps out and I asked to write this one because I came home really frustrated at one kid in my class. At first it was almost like a battle rap because I was really angry, but we worked on it and changed it around and it became this positive, ‘it’s not cool to bully’ kind of rap.”
At the end of his performance he spoke clearly and directly to the gathered children, telling them teachers at the school had helped him whenever he needed it, were all available to anyone in need, and to trust and talk to them.
The JBT student leadership committee then followed with a brief skit about kindness and a Grade 3 class sang a song about treating each other well.
Tuccaro’s last official day as commissioner is May 11. He was invited to Fort Smith for the special visit by Salt River First Nation Chief Frieda Martselos after a student was dropped on his head and injured in a bullying incident at JBT in October.
“It’s been an honourable and wonderful experience being the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories,” he said. “It’s been the best five or six years of my life.”
He said he wanted to continue helping out with national Pink Shirt Day as long as possible.
“Bullying is so real,” Tuccaro said. “It’s so in our face all the time. We need to be able to talk about it so we can gain a better understanding and we can make more educated choices about setting boundaries in our lives about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Being able to teach young kids what’s acceptable. Bullying is not acceptable.”
“How many times do we cross each other’s boundaries during a school year?” he asked. “I want to let the children know (suicide due to bullying) does happen, and be cognizant and understand it. It’s hard to get that message across so I always bring a song with it. Much the way we heard from Jomei, who did a wonderful job with his rap song, and the choir, all the words that come out.”