Roughrider Brendon LaBatte teaches rural students importance of respect and healthy relationships

Brendon LaBatte speaks to students at St. Louis School on Pink Day, Feb. 27, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

The Red Cross and the Saskatchewan Roughriders are hoping that by looking beyond bullying to conflict resolution and healthy relationships they can help end bullying for good.

Grey Cup winner and six-time CFL all-star Brendon LaBatte brought that message to St. Louis school Wednesday as he spoke to students from four area schools on Pink Shirt Day.

Pink Shirt Day is an initiative led by the Canadian Red Cross and was inspired by students in Nova Scotia who wore pink shirts to school in support of a classmate who was bullied for wearing pink.

The theme of the 2019 Pink Shirt Day was Be Someone’s Hero.

LaBatte serves as a Red Cross ambassador, speaking to students across the province about the importance of respect and conflict resolution.

“There will always be conflict,” he told the students. “It’s how you deal with it.

“We want our emotions to come out in a good way. We want to respond, not react.”

LaBatte’s presentation encouraged kids to be assertive without being aggressive. It talked about what a healthy relationship looks like and what to do if you are being treated without respect.

He tied certain experiences back to his life, such as times he wasn’t welcoming to a new teammate in the dressing room.

“I was a bad social bullier,” he said.

“Until two months ago, I would walk right by you.” He also spoke about cyberbullying – something he sees personally on Twitter after he’s had a bad game. He said that sometimes, he can get dozens of hateful messages sent to him on social media. He asked the students how many agree that it’s easier to be mean from behind a computer screen than in person. Almost everyone put their hands up.

‘The best way to deal with this is to control the message,” he said.

“It takes the same amount of energy to be positive. No one wants to wake up and be a mean person, but it’s easy behind a screen. If you wouldn’t read it with your family around, you shouldn’t send it out around the world.”

It’s important to remember intent versus impact, he continued. While you may not have intended to hurt someone’s feelings, it’s important to think about how what you say could be interpreted by others.

He added that each person in the room has the same power to stand up and say something when someone is being bullied. He called a student up to the front and handed him a bookmark. He asked the student to tear it. The student did so, easily.

“That’s how one person who is bullied will feel,” LaBatte said, “broken.”

He then handed the student a stack of bookmarks. He told him to tear them all at once. The student couldn’t do it.

“You can’t break that,” LaBatte said. “If we all combine our powers,  you will be somebody’s hero. You can’t believe the effect you could have if you intervene.”

St. Louis vice principal Greg Walker said hearing those messages from someone like LaBatte would have a stronger impact than just hearing it from their teachers or parents.

“His celebrity status gives him an appeal to the students,” he said.

“They maybe listen to him a little bit differently.”

LaBatte said that serving as a Red Cross ambassador has also led him to re-examine his life.

“It’s been eye-opening,” he said.

“When you start to get the technical definition of things, you realize that you’re no angel yourself and that you’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.

“It makes you become more self-aware of the way you treat people and the way you conduct and hold yourself.”

LaBatte and Walker hope that self-awareness is something the students take away from Wednesday’s event.

“Kindness and respect,” Walker said when asked what he thought the key takeaways were.

“A big part of his message was to think about your impact, not just your intent, that sometimes we do things not meaning to hurt other people’s feelings, but we do need to be aware of how actions affect others.”

“I hope they’ve learned what’s acceptable in a healthy relationship and how to surround themselves with it,” LaBatte said.

“If conflict or bullying does arise, hopefully, they have a better understanding of how to deal with it. There are a lot of good skills and lessons the Red Cross is teaching here. If we can get some of those through, some of the other problems we’re facing have a way of alleviating themselves.”