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As a child, she witnessed brutal bullying. Now she’s teaching thousands of kids to stand up to tormentors

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CALGARY—Just before the start of a new school year, Lisa Dixon-Wells is standing in front of a group of teachers, as she does countless times, with a message.

As she opens her session in the small, cluttered classroom, she jokes that if she had her way, she would have two full days to discuss the issue of bullying. But given the busy pre-September prep time, a three-hour talk will have to do.

Despite the lighthearted tone, she’s not exaggerating: Dixon-Wells is a fountain of facts, figures and statistics about bullying and its impact, and she has big ideas about how to create change — far more than she can fit into just a few hours.

It’s not about changing the bullies, she explains, but creating communities where bullying behaviour is unacceptable.

Her organization, Dare to Care, has brought bullying prevention and education programs to more than 1,200 schools since the group was founded nearly 20 years ago. She and her team work with kids, parents and teachers in an effort to make sure everyone in a school community has the tools to identify and address bullying.

When Dare to Care was founded in 1999, the organization was a one-woman show. Dixon-Wells handled every aspect of the work under a single corporate sponsor until making the official transition to a non-profit organization in 2013. Now the group has a volunteer board of directors and four trained contract facilitators who run sessions at schools. Dixon-Wells is focused on bringing more people onto the team so she can reach even more kids.

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Dixon-Wells’ work focuses on children, but her message is about the insidious ways bullying can affect everyone. During her session at the school, she asks the teachers to think about the names and faces of people who were considered their school bullies growing up. “I’m sure even now you can remember,” she says, as many nod along.

Those little bullies often turn into big bullies and bring the same behaviour into their adult workplaces and relationships, Dixon-Wells says. And that’s a cycle that she aims to stop in its tracks.

Dare to Care’s message emphasizes creating safe communities by educating the people who witness bullying but don’t do anything to stop it — and Dixon-Wells says she counts herself among those who have been bystanders. Sometimes people assume her passion for the cause comes from experiences of being bullied herself, but it’s the thought of a boy she knew through all her school years that reminds her of how damaging bullying can be.

“In Grade 8, this boy was in my homeroom and I watched daily as he was threatened, pushed down the hall, shoved into lockers, glasses stepped on — just absolutely ruthlessly treated,” she says.

Years later, he showed up to her high school reunion and Dixon-Wells decided she had to say something.

“I remember going up to him and saying, ‘I’m so sorry for how we treated you.’ And he burst into tears and said, ‘Thank you. You’re the first person who’s ever acknowledged how tough things were for me.’

“His life, I happen to know, has never recovered from that.”

Former CFL player Randy Chevrier is now a workshop facilitator with Dare to Care, a bullying prevention organization. He says the program has had an immeasurable impact on the lives of the young people it reaches. Follow the Toronto Star on social media:

Taking on bullying prevention involved a few unexpected turns from her original career plans. Growing up in Calgary, Dixon-Wells, 56, knew from the time she was 12 that she wanted to be a physical education teacher. As a competitive swimmer, sport had been at the centre of her life and family from an early age.

After studying kinesiology and education at the University of Calgary, she took her first phys-ed teaching job in Portage la Prairie, Man. But just a year after she arrived, Dixon-Wells was asked if she’d be interested in filling an unexpected vacancy for a school counsellor. She agreed to apply, and got the job.

“It was the worst mistake I made in my life,” she tells the gathering of teachers, nearly 30 years later, adding, “And also the best mistake.”

That mistake was the first step on the way to founding Dare to Care.

“I worked harder my first two years as a school counsellor than I did in all of my university, because now it was real,” Dixon-Wells says. “These issues were real, these kids were real, and I didn’t want to let them down.”

Bullying was an issue that stood out right away. At first, Dixon-Wells focused on the kids identified as bullies and their targets, bringing them into separate groups and working on skills to try to stop the cycle. But she saw, time and time again, that any progress was reversed as soon as the children went back to their classrooms.

“In the safety of that little group, (the targets) seemed to be thriving, but you send them back to the classroom where nobody else stood up for them and they quickly reverted to being a target again.”

After a few years in Manitoba, Dixon-Wells took a new job as the district school counsellor for the Golden School Division in British Columbia. She thought the job would be a significant step up and a chance to lead a team of counsellors working at all the different schools. But she soon learned she was a team of one: the only counsellor serving all the elementary schools in what was, at the time, one of the largest school districts in Canada.

Soon she was spending two to three hours every day on the highway between Field, Golden and Revelstoke, B.C., instead of spending time working with kids.

“That was my wake-up call,” she says. “I said, I’m going to burn out here and this is not what I want to be doing.”

Despite her efforts, she wasn’t sure she was having a lasting impact on the kids who needed help. And while that frustration led her to quit, it wasn’t because she wanted to give up. She returned to the University of Calgary to do a master’s degree in education, focusing on educational psychology, in order to figure out how to effect concrete change in schools.

Today, the vast majority of schools that have gone through the Dare to Care program are in Alberta. But Dixon-Wells has also taken the sessions for students, teachers and parents across western Canada, as well as to a handful of schools elsewhere in the country and internationally. Last year, they began giving workshops to amateur sports teams as well, with Dixon-Wells pushing to keep expanding the organization’s work.

Randy Chevrier, a former CFL player who is now one of the Dare to Care workshop facilitators, says that relentless drive is one of Dixon-Wells’ defining characteristics.

“She’s tireless,” he says. “Basically, she wears every hat for Dare to Care and she’s been doing it for years.

“From Lisa I’ve learned that if you’re passionate about something, the opportunities will come.”

Dare to Care’s philosophy turns the old focus on bullies and their targets on its head. Instead, parents, teachers and students are taught that the “silent majority” of bystanders who witness the behaviour have to create a culture where bullying is unacceptable.

“We may not change the 2 per cent of kids in the school who really are the ringleaders, the bullies of the school,” Dixon-Wells says, “but we can darn well empower the 98 per cent to take a stand to the 2 per cent.”

Nimue Lacelle, a Grade 9 student at Calgary’s H.D. Cartwright School, went through the Dare to Care program earlier this year. She said the all-day session went beyond many of the messages she’s heard about bullying throughout her school life: the basics about what not to do and to always tell an adult if someone is being bullied.

“I feel like Dare to Care dove deeper into what all of that actually means,” she said.

“The presentation definitely opened up some options for if I see bullying going on,” she said. “It helped me understand what, exactly, I can do to help.”

Eryn Willis, a Grade 8 student who attended the Dare to Care program at St. Matthew School, agrees.

“Before I saw the presentation, I thought that if you became a target, you would always be a target, and there’s nothing else to do,” she said. “But I learned there’s always time to start fresh.”

Dixon-Wells is full of catchphrases that help illustrate how bullying works: “stinking thinking” from adults in a child’s home life can lead them to adopt bullying behaviour to get what they want in their own relationships. And a “bag of excuses” is what bullies pull out to deal with feelings of remorse about how they affect others, placing blame instead of taking responsibility for their behaviour.

It’s all part of helping people understand why bullying happens and how to intervene. Dixon-Wells maintains that bullying is a learned behaviour, and it can be unlearned, but early intervention is key. She also emphasizes that it’s important to define bullying properly as a repetitive, intentional pattern of targeting someone.

“I would like to say that Dare to Care was one of the first programs to start looking at the bystanders as the secret,” she says.

Story Behind the Story delivers insights into how the Star investigates, reports, and produces stories.

Dixon-Wells’ work in bullying prevention happened somewhat by accident, but she says it’s not entirely surprising. She was a “rescuer” as a child, something she continues in her adult life rescuing animals. At one point, she had four rescue animals living with her — three cats and a dog — but she’s now taking care of just two senior cats.

“I seem to attract people who need to talk,” she says. “I seem to be the one people come to.”

And she’s motivated to help people feel capable of intervening in a way she never did for the boy she still remembers.

At the time, she says, bullying was a kind of “rite of passage” for kids, and nobody was dealing with it. Even up until Dare to Care was created, the conversation about what bullying is and how it can hurt people was still just developing. Dixon-Wells wants to make sure that message keeps moving forward.

Dare to Care’s facilitators are in front of about 45,000 students every year, and Dixon-Wells says those presentations can be especially intense. For middle-school students, it’s a full day of learning that can quickly become emotional.

“We often find that toward the end of the day, those kids who have been identified as the bullies are actually going up and having heartfelt apologies,” she says.

“Tears — lots of tears and a lot of relief that these kids are finally owning what they’ve done and realizing the damage they’ve done and making those apologies.”

Chevrier says the impact of Dare to Care’s message is clear from watching those sessions that the message Dare to Care brings is having an impact. Ultimately, they’re trying to ensure that the cultural change they advocate is woven into the cultural fabric of as many schools as possible.

“You don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives, but that eight hours a day … that might be the time they get to escape what’s going on,” he says. “Hopefully, the place you’re existing in with them is not the place they’re trying to escape.”

Dare to Care proves that the solutions aren’t necessarily easy, but he says they are simple.

“It’s treating each other with respect and having an awareness that everyone has a story.”

It looks as if you appreciate our journalism. Our reporting changes lives, connects communities and effects change. But good journalism is expensive to produce, and advertiser revenue throughout the media industry is falling and unable to carry the cost. That means we need you, our readers. We need your help. If you appreciate deep local reporting, powerful investigations and reliable, responsible information, we hope you will support us through a subscription. Please click here to subscribe.

The Star is profiling 12 Canadians who are making our lives better. Next week we talk to Indigenous culture booster Sage Paul.

Madeline Smith is a reporter/photographer with StarMetro Calgary. Follow her on Twitter: @meksmith

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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