A description of the white privilege workshop

A description of the 'white privilege' workshop, held by the province's teacher's union. (Elementary Teachers' Federation)

Ontario's largest teachers' union is defending its decision to hold a workshop on "white privilege" at an upcoming convention, saying it has never been afraid to tackle controversial issues.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which has 76,000 members, has a posting on its website looking for presenters for a workshop called "Re-thinking White Privilege."

"What we're trying to do is spark a conversation about this and raise awareness and a growing understanding about white privilege," ETFO president Sam Hammond said Thursday in an interview.

"An example is housing: people of colour feel they are discriminated against, that there is racism in play there when it comes to housing."

Hammond said as "a white guy in a suit" he's never been stopped by police for a random check, unlike many men of colour, and he's usually not challenged by security guards when he enters buildings after office hours.

The planned workshop has triggered a lot of debate, especially on radio and TV talk shows, said Hammond, who likened the controversy to the union's efforts in the late 1990s to help those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer communities get their rights respected.

"We got a very similar push back to that, but when you look at it now 15 years later, we're in a very different environment," he said.

Education Minister Liz Sandals said Thursday the course does not set off alarm bells.

"It's really up to ETFO to decide what seminars they're going to do," she said. "They're an independent organization and they will have a look at what courses they're teaching I'm sure."

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

"There's lots of things that unions do that I don't necessarily agree with, but … they have a right to their own path," said Sandals.

Teachers do need to learn about the diverse backgrounds and cultural differences of students in Ontario schools, added Sandals, who appeared uncomfortable with the term "white privilege."

"Getting away from the title of the course, it is important that we have teachers who are sensitive to the fact that there are children who come to our schools from all around the world," she said. "I don't know what's in this particular course, but the need to address diversity is a real need."

However, Sandals ducked the question when asked if children of new Canadians should be taught that the white kids in their classes are privileged.

"I can't comment on content that I didn't do," she said. "My job as minister of education is to make sure that we have schools in which kids from all backgrounds, and that includes everyone, feel safe and secure."

ETFO president Sam Hammond was expected to disclose more details about the "white privilege" workshop later Thursday.

Members of ETFO who want to present the "Re-thinking White Privilege" workshop have until Friday to submit their ideas for the program.