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Winnipeg’s mini-United Nations

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Sisler High School boasts the highest student body in Manitoba — some 1,885 kids — and 43% of its students were born outside of Canada.

A few weeks ago, principal George Heshka paid for East Indian traditional suits when a few students performed their traditional dance at the school’s Fall Feast, which highlighted and celebrated the school’s different cultures. He invited a few of the school’s immigrant students from India to sit at his table and feast with him.

Students born in the Philippines make up 34% of the student body while 5 per cent were born in India. Almost 25 other countries are represented by at least one immigrant student at the school.

But a lot has changed since 78-year-old Heshka was a high school student himself. He guesses he must have been 14 years old when he saw a Japanese person for the first time.

He says he gives his students the same speech at the beginning of each school year: work hard because there are people out there who will work harder for smaller wages.

"Canada is a nice place to live. Things are easy here compared to where a lot of people’s parents come from. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. So when it comes to immigration, pack them in. They provide excellent competition for the people who were born here."

Competition, he adds, keeps everybody honest.

Grade 12 student Neeko Tang, who emigrated from China five years ago, says the lifestyle in Canada was hard to adjust to at first. But things like extra holidays in the school year, no strict rules on wearing a uniform and easier loads of homework have made up for it.

"You do the essay, hand it in and that’s it. In China, the homework just keeps coming. It’s horrible," she laughs.

She was a student in the English as an Additional Language, or EAL program, at Sisler for a short while before she began taking regular classes.

Classmate Maria Miranda immigrated from the Phillipines two years ago and says the diversity at Sisler is like nothing she’d ever seen in her home country.

"You share things from different cultures. Its fun to learn things like that," she says. "Like Henna tattoos. At first I was like, ‘Holy, what’s that?’ I’m not judging them but I know there’s something different about them. I asked my East Indian friend and found out it’s a part of their culture."

Monika Sharma, who sports a Henna tattoo on her right hand, emigrated from India four years ago.

"When I first came here I was scared. I thought, ‘How am I going to get into the program? How am I going to get along and get new friends?’ But then I got familiar with Sisler and then I made friends," she explains.

Harjas Kirad, a Grade 11 student from India, is in the initial adjustment stage. He moved here five months ago and has been at his new school for just over two months. He speaks Hindi, Punjabi, and is developing his English through EAL.

"We can talk with any of the people in the community. We share our language to them and they share their language to us," he says.

One of the EAL program’s mantras is that English, as the school’s common language, must be used in the classroom as much as possible to include everyone.

EAL teacher Lacey Collins lines the door of her classroom with masking tape, inking "English Only Zone" on it.

Collins alternates seating patterns in her classroom to make sure students have to speak English when they turn to their neighbour to chat. She says it’s a way to break what she calls a "silent period," which can last up to two years.

"The silent period can be a difficult time for EAL students because they will literally just not talk to anyone. That’s more of a personal battle some students deal with when they realize their life is totally changing."

The EAL program consists of almost 400 students. Up to 80 new immigrants enroll in the school each year.

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