In mid-October, Ontario elementary school teachers were offered a workshop on rethinking white privilege — a subject considered controversial by some with critics, including Toronto's next mayor, saying it does not exist.

Sonia Ellis-Seguin of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Toronto led a session for educators on recognizing that white people are given opportunities that aren't offered as easily to others.

The lesson is that white privilege can be an invisible but insidious form of racism.

"White people will have benefit or have advantages within society purely because they are white," she said.

Ellis-Seguin said how teachers and media discussed the deadly Danzig shooting in its aftermath reignited the conversation with her fellow teachers and ultimately inspired the workshop.

She said the training is needed, though it could be uncomfortable for many teachers.

"There will be anger. There will be frustration. A bit of ambivalence. It's something new — you're asking people to move to a point of discomfort," according to another teacher.

Ellis-Seguin defined the concept in the context of job promotions. "I've applied for a job and I've gotten it, and the comment and response is, 'Maybe there's a quota that they had to fill?' Or 'Well, you got the job because you're black,'" she said.

"It could never be because I was qualified and competent to do it, right? And who's making those comments and what makes them think they can say that? That's privilege."

The sessions were optional for teachers and were led by the union without school board involvement. The workshop will not change the curriculum in classrooms, the union promised.

Does white privilege exist?

Regardless, there is criticism of the very idea that privilege exists according to skin colour.

A Toronto newspaper columnist called the workshop "racist" and wrote that white privilege does not exist.

"To presume the colour of your skin determines whether you’re privileged is frankly wrong," wrote Christina Blizzard when word of the workshop first popped up.

During the municipal election campaign, John Tory, who takes office next week as mayor of Toronto, was asked bluntly: "Does white privilege exist?"

Tory's response was, "White privilege? No, I don't know that it does."

Sam Hammond, the union president, defends the workshop.

"We are not putting on workshops to educate people on white privilege so that those teachers can go back into the classroom and say, 'You white children are privileged and you on the other side of the room are not,'" he said.

The goal isn't to be divisive, according to the union, but to recognize the things that may hold teachers and students back.

For Ellis-Seguin, the takeaway is not for white people to feel shame or guilt, but instead feel a sense of responsibility.

"Just recognize the power you have," she said. "You have privilege. So what are you going to do with that privilege?"

With files from Nil Köksal