Ottawa Catholic Teacher Antoinette Nehme champions democracy and multiculturalism

Antoinette Nehme is an elementary French Teacher at St. Bernard School of the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) in Gloucester. She brings an amazing personal story to her classroom.

Antoinette was born in the Maronite Catholic village of Kahale, located 13 kms up in the mountains overlooking Beirut, Lebanon and beyond to the Asian coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Her family still operates the farm where she was raised with her five sisters and one brother amidst olive groves, fruits, vegetables, and chickens. Antoinette still expresses a deep connection to this ancient land that has remained within her ever since she left her war-torn home for Canada in 1991.

When I visited my family in 1995 post-war Lebanon, the country was riddled with checkpoints, and daily life was upside-down. For Antoinette, who lived during the war for 15 years, endless upheaval was the norm. “You passed through my village Michael in peace time, but it was the front line,” she shared with me. “Every day was a surprise. You had to watch for snipers and bombs in the hills. Imagine going to school like that! Sometimes we would take refuge in another more secure village.”

Antoinette emigrated from Lebanon at the age of 22 and settled in Ottawa. She brought with her certification in Early Childhood Education (ECE), and obtained Canadian ECE requirements at La Cité Collégiale, but she felt a greater calling to teach older students. She upgraded her education in several stages, first working hard to earn an undergraduate degree from Ottawa U in Canadian history with a related interest in Indigenous People’s issues. Teachers College followed and that led to a position with the OCSB in 2003.

Beyond being a gifted communicator and energetic educator, Antoinette shares something very special with her students, her wartime journal entries made between 1983-84. “My own teacher gave us The Journal of Anne Frank, and said we could start our own journal and fill it with our thoughts,” she recalls. “I still have it and show my students every year. I eventually stopped writing, I tell them, because it was never ending, over and over, is how it feels in a war. It was tedious, because war can destroy not only buildings but also dreams. Peace is something that everyone has to fight for in their hearts and in their actions. I think that is my main message for my students.”

Antoinette takes her Canadian citizenship very seriously. In 2009, she rallied support from her principal and the OCSB to attend The Teachers Institute on Canadian Parliamentary Democracy, a remarkable program sponsored by The Library of Parliament. “80 teachers from across Canada assemble for a week on Parliament Hill. I always took my students to the Hill to meet MP David McGuinty, so when I learned about The Institute, I thought, wow, what a great professional development opportunity to expand my knowledge about governance and democracy!” Antoinette pursued other workshops with a passion, including enrolling her class in the Student Vote program of CIVIX, a national charity dedicated to strengthening democracy through civic education. “Every time we have an election, we get the maps, federal, provincial, municipal, and discuss the vote. This past year we did a workshop on how to spot fake news that was amazing!”

Coming from a country ravaged by sectarian war has inspired Antoinette’s appreciation of Canada’s efforts in multiculturalism. “My 30 students identified as coming from 17 different countries of origin,” she says, always reminding them that all that really matters is to be good friends and neighbours living in peace. “I felt a real connection with the Syrian and Iraqi refugee families in my school, because we speak the same language. I always make sure they learn that receiving so much from Canada means they must give back in return.”

Antoinette herself is certainly a shining example of that lesson.

Antoinette Nehme is an active member of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.