British Columbia

New superintendent vows to tackle systemic racism in Prince George schools

Cindy Heitman steps into the role following a report last year that found "clearly discriminatory and systemically racist" behaviours and practices throughout the district.

Special investigation last year found 'clearly discriminatory' practices throughout district

'So much of our [education] system is based on a colonial system which we know has done so much harm,' said new School District 57 superintendent Cindy Heitman. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

The new superintendent of the school district covering Prince George, B.C., has vowed to address systemic racism against Indigenous students and staff, an issue pinpointed in a provincially ordered special investigation last year.

Cindy Heitman was appointed School District 57's superintendent last week, replacing Anita Richardson, who took a leave of absence in January 2021.

She steps into the role following the resignation of two school board trustees in September 2021, both of whom cited racism and discrimination as key reasons they were stepping down.

"I'm committed to the work," Heitman said in an interview with CBC's Daybreak North guest host Matt Allen. 

Heitman said one of her biggest concerns was the fact Indigenous students in the district graduate at a rate 30 per cent lower than those of other students — a situation she vowed to change.

"There is systemic racism," she said. "So much of our [education] system is based on a colonial system which we know has done so much harm."

Cindy Heitman has been named the new superintendent of Prince George school district 57 in Prince George — the fourth person to hold the position since 2016. She says she's ready to take on the challenge, including implementing recommendations on a report on systemic racism within the district.

Heitman said she would use recommendations made by special advisers Kory Wilson and Catherine McGregor as a roadmap to help address some of the problems within the district.

That report was the result of an investigation ordered by B.C. Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside into the governance practices of the school district, following concerns raised by the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation and McLeod Lake Indian Band about the treatment of funds intended to support Indigenous education.

Heitman says the report from the special investigation last year gives her district a roadmap on how to tackle systemic racism. (School District 57)

Wilson and McGregor found what they called "clearly discriminatory and systemically racist" behaviours and practices in the district and made a list of recommendations about board leadership, relationships with local First Nations and how to repair a "culture of fear, bullying, harassment and racism."

"The recommendations outlined by the special advisers creates a roadmap for us," Heitman said.

She said one of the solutions is to establish several routes for students to graduate, "whether that be a trades pathway or university pathway, a vocational pathway [or] an arts pathway." 

"By providing those individualized supports and creating a sense of equity, we can see kids be more successful."

Heitman also says the district is working on a new policy development plan, part of which will be mandatory anti-discrimination training for staff.

New trustees split

But not everyone in a leadership position within the school district believes racism is a problem.

In January, a byelection was held to replace the two board members who resigned last year. One of the winners was Milton Mahoney, who claimed that the special report had tarnished the district's reputation by painting everyone in the community as racist.

He argued that programs aimed at reconciliation with Indigenous communities, while valuable, should only be optional and only for older students.

"I believe this is going to cause more racism than anything else," Mahoney said in an interview with CBC shortly after being elected.

The other new trustee, Rachel Weber, said there is work to be done to address discrimination within the district.

"We have a hard road ahead of us, but growth is uncomfortable," she said.

With files from Daybreak North