HWDSB trustees named in racism probe shouldn't have voted on it too, former chairs say

HWDSB trustees Carole Paikin Miller, Kathy Archer and Becky Buck voted to spare themselves punishment, and to leave their names out of the report released by the board.

One trustee says it wasn't a conflict, but others aren't so sure

HWDSB trustees Carole Paikin Miller, Kathy Archer and Becky Buck voted to spare themselves punishment and publicly conceal their connection to the report without stating it was a conflict of interest to do so. (Christopher Langenzarde/CBC)

Two former Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chairs say it's concerning that three current trustees voted to deny themselves sanctions after a report concluded they lacked an understanding of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Trustees Carole Paikin Miller, Kathy Archer and Becky Buck all voted during a special board meeting on Tuesday to not issue sanctions or reprimands against themselves. They also voted to keep their names out of the public copy of a third-party report that says they contributed to a dynamic that marginalized and silenced a former student trustee.

Alex Johnstone, the other trustee connected to the report, declared a conflict of interest and didn't vote. Some former board leaders say that was the right course of action.

It's "beyond concerning" that the other trustees didn't declare a conflict, said Todd White, a former board chair.

Conflict of interest rules laid out in the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, which trustees follow via the Education Act, only deal with financial conflicts. But White says one could argue that being sanctioned could affect re-election, which could impact a person's finances.

Trustees have to declare a conflict of interest if there's a complaint against a trustee through the board's code of conduct, White said. In this case, it was through a third-party investigation, which means there could be an argument that the trustees didn't need to declare it per the rules. Still, White thinks it's a "no brainer."

"If the legislation requires you to declare a conflict and not vote when the sanction is against you through a code of conduct complaint, you should do the same when it's a third-party investigation," he said.

'Beyond disappointing'

"Legally, you could make the argument you do not have to declare a conflict of interest. Common sense says of course you should declare a conflict of interest ... it's beyond disappointing."

Archer, through paralegal Joseph Kazubek, said in a statement that she didn't think she had a conflict.

"The third-party investigator has made suggestions on additional training to be mandatory among all board members in regards to racism. I co-operated throughout the entire process to ensure transparency to the public," she said in a statement emailed through Kazubek.

"To maintain public trust, and to ensure full transparency of the events occurred, I supported the releasing of documents as they were to avoid delay of access to justice. I had no input on the report so I do not feel there is any conflict."

CBC News is pursuing comment from Buck. Paikin Miller did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday or Friday. The board didn't comment on Friday either.

The report, published Wednesday, came six months after former student trustee Ahona Mehdi said some trustees silenced her and made racist statements.

Mehdi described it as the "most patronizing experience of my life." 

On Thursday, she called for the trustees to be removed for comments contained in the report. Those comments, which didn't apply to all of the named trustees, included "overtly anti-Muslim and racist remarks" and phrases such as "all lives matter."

Mehdi also wanted Johnstone, the former chair, removed after the investigation found Johnstone urged Mehdi to remove her personal experiences from a statement to a safe schools panel. The report says Johnstone also sidelined Mehdi's effort to introduce a motion to scrap the police liaison program.

Johnstone apologized on Thursday.

'Grey area'

As for whether the others should have declared a conflict, former HWDSB chair Judith Bishop says it is a legal "grey area."

But it is "concerning," she said, to hear that the trustees voted anyway.

"Voting on whether to have sanctions on yourself, I don't think you should be voting for that, no," she said.

The Ministry of Education and numerous political leaders called the report's findings "disturbing" on Thursday.

On Friday, Steven Del Duca, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, told CBC News that HWDSB owes a sincere apology to the entire province. The findings in the report were "disgusting," he said.

Liberal leader says trustees should resign

"I personally think the four trustees should resign," he said. "It's just unconscionable to me that they wouldn't have already offered their resignation given what we see in the report."

"I believe the community should make it clear they should resign. I believe their colleagues should make it clear they resign."

Del Duca said the trustees voting on motion to prevent sanctions shows "how deep the rot is in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board ... that is completely beyond the pale."

He also said there should be consideration to making legislative changes to ensure something like this never repeats itself.

"This case with Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is not the first time we've seen issues relating to very inappropriate, unacceptable, things taking place on issues relating to xenophobia and racism ... a provincial government should take whatever steps are possible to make sure this does not happen again."

Current chair Dawn Danko acknowledged trustees "failed" Mehdi, but said there will not be any further sanctions.

Board will improve, chair says

The board is determined to become more progressive, she said, and pointed to its decision to adopt the 12 recommendations.

"One of the challenges with systemic racism … they can be invisible and when they're brought to light, we have to act. And one of the things trustees are committed to doing, (that) we voted to do, is to adopt and act on the recommendations provided by our independent investigator," Danko said on Wednesday.

"There is a decision not to proceed with further sanctions or actions against trustees. However, one of the things we are doing and continue to do is having trustees engage in anti-racism and anti-oppression training.

"We're already doing a governance review, and I think this report and the recommendations help us refine that review and what those changes need to be."

The recommendations include annual governance training, more support and mentorship for student trustees and mandatory ongoing EDI training for all trustees.

Read the full report here:

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Bobby Hristova


Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca