Former student trustee demands removal of 4 Hamilton trustees after racism investigation

Ahona Mehdi, former student trustee, wants the province to remove four Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees from office after a report concluded some made racist comments and others silenced her.

Province says it can't remove trustees, but called the report 'deeply disturbing'

HWDSB trustees Alex Johnstone, Becky Buck, Kathy Archer and Carole Paikin Miller are facing calls for their resignation after they were named in a third-party report. (HWDSB)

A former student trustee is calling for the removal of four Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) trustees after a report concluded some made racist comments and others silenced her.

And the province has called the report "deeply disturbing."

Ahona Mehdi says the trustees should be held accountable after a third-party report said they made comments like "all lives matter," and made "overtly anti-Muslim and racist remarks."

Mehdi identified those trustees as Kathy Archer and Carole Paikin Miller. Another trustee also referred to community activists as "Twitter trolls." Mehdi says that trustee is Becky Buck. She's calling for their removal along with former chair Alex Johnstone, who the report concluded tried to silence Mehdi. 

CBC News has requested comment from all of the named trustees.

"HWDSB must be held accountable, and being held accountable means knowing who these perpetrators of racism are," Mehdi said in a press conference Thursday.

The comments came after the board released a redacted report from an investigator hired to look into Mehdi's initial allegations.

The report, written by Arleen Huggins and Philip Graham from Koskie Minsky LLP, made 12 recommendations. Those included annual governance training, more support and mentorship for student trustees, and mandatory, ongoing equity, diversity and inclusion training. 

The current board chair, Dawn Danko, has apologized to Mehdi and said trustees "failed" her.

Mehdi says HWDSB lacks transparency

Before Mehdi, 18, began calling out trustees Thursday, she criticized HWDSB's transparency. The board didn't keep her informed during the process, she said, and only provided her with the anonymized report one hour before it was publicly released.

She also said the investigation revealed "acts of racism and misconduct that even I myself was not aware of."

The report stated the board chair at the time forced Mehdi to edit a statement she prepared in advance of the Safe Schools Panel board meeting on Oct. 28. 2019, by removing any reference to her personal experiences.

The report also revealed the same trustee worked against Mehdi's efforts to issue a motion to terminate the school police liaison program.

Johnstone was chair of the board at the time. Johnstone told CBC News that as chair, she worked hard to offer a safe space for trustees, but "I understand that a former student trustee had a negative experience while on the school board."

Ahona Mehdi, 18, is demanding the impeachment of four trustees at HWDSB after her experience as a student trustee for the 2019-2020 school year. A report found trustees made racist comments and Mehdi was silenced. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"Having seen the findings of the report, I understand now how the absence of an equity-informed understanding of board policy and governance created biases and systemic barriers. For this, I am truly sorry," she wrote in an email.

"I fully support the recommendations made by the investigator to address the training and governing practices, and to create a more supportive and equitable environment."

The report also said that during a subsequent meeting to discuss ending the police liaison program, two trustees were heard saying "comments to the effect ...  of all lives matter." 

Paikin Miller, Mehdi said, is the trustee who the report says made "overtly anti-Muslim and racist remarks" and displayed "a problematic attitude toward equity issues" during meetings.

Investigators couldn't verify Mehdi's allegation that one of the trustees used the n-word.

Province cannot remove trustees after 'deeply disturbing' report

Board trustees already voted this week to not issue any more sanctions. 

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who is also MPP for Hamilton Centre, says the ministry should take action.

"Even redacted, the report is disturbing," she tweeted. "No one should have to experience racism and discrimination of any kind. Everyone deserves a safe learning environment. Minister (Stephen) Lecce, listen to the students and step in."

Coun. Nrinder Nann (Ward 3, lower city) says the report shows what students have been saying for years.

"Acknowledging systemic racism and biases exist was a 1990s [breakthrough]. 30 [years] later, accountability means taking corrective action immediately," she tweeted.

A ministry spokesperson called the report "deeply disturbing."

"This alleged incident underscores why we have taken action — including mandating compulsory anti-discrimination training on all elected trustees and board staff," the ministry said in a statement. "We made clear that we expected a thorough investigation and serious commitment by the HWDSB to eradicate racism and discrimination in all of its forms."

Hamilton-Wentworth school board.
HWDSB trustees said they are waiting for staff to advise how they can implement the 12 recommendations from the report. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"When it comes to confronting racism and discrimination – we should not accept delay or inaction. Our students deserve better."

The ministry doesn't have the power to remove an elected trustee from office, but said it would be "closely monitoring" the board's next steps.

Some trustees voted against anonymized report

Not all 11 trustees wanted names removed from the report before it was released.

Trustees Maria Felix Miller (Ward 3) and Ray Mullholland (Ward 4) voted against the motion and lack of sanctions. Cam Galindo (Wards 9 and 10) and Paul Tut (Ward 13), who was out of the meeting, were opposed to it. Johnstone declared a conflict of interest and did not vote.

"I will admit, that after this meeting, I got the closest I have ever been to considering resignation," Felix Miller tweeted. "I feel deflated. There is so much work to do here."

While Mehdi says the recommendations are thorough, she doesn't think HWDSB will carry out its promise to improve.

"No amount of equity, diversity and inclusion training can undo the racism ... in order to set precedent, we cannot ask they go through training and maintain their position on the board, what does that say to our racialized students?"

"I absolutely do not have faith in HWDSB."

Read the full report here:

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Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.