Hamilton

Human rights advocate leading investigation into racism allegations at HWDSB

A review of allegations of racism raised by former student trustees with Hamilton's public school board is being led Arlene Huggins, a lawyer and human rights advocate who specializes in investigating workplace harassment and anti-Black racism.

A student trustee alleged a trustee used racist language when referring to tennis star Serena Williams

Ahona Mehdi, 17, has raised allegations of racism and oppression based on her experience as a student trustee with the HWDSB for the 2019-2020 school year. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

A review of allegations of racism raised by former student trustees with Hamilton's public school board is being led Arlene Huggins, a lawyer and human rights advocate who specializes in investigating workplace harassment and anti-Black racism.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has announced Arleen Huggins as the independent, third-party investigator who will take on the probe that began Monday.

It comes after former trustees Ahona Mehdi and Ruby Hye shared concerns about their experiences with the board.

Mehdi, 17, described her time as a trustee as the "most patronizing experience of my life" and said she's "beyond grateful to no longer serve as the board's token for student voice & diversity."

She also detailed several incidents of racism allegedly involving trustees, including alleging a trustee referred to tennis star Serena Williams using the "N-word."

They, along with a group called HWDSB Kids Need Help, have released a series of demands, including that the investigation announced by the board be transparent and that there be student and public consultation on all anti-racism training provided to trustees.

Their third demand was that all trustees involved in "blatantly anti-Black and racist incidents" be "impeached" immediately.

The review is "completely independent" from the board, which has pledged a transparent process, according to a statement from Director of Education Manny Figueiredo.

"We will keep the community updated throughout this process. The final report will be made public, and the findings will be openly reviewed at a board meeting," he wrote.

"The HWDSB is committed to confronting racism with action."

Huggins, a partner at Koskie Minsky LLP, was selected following consultations with the Ministry of Education and the provinces Anti-Racism Directorate.

She was recently tapped by the province to lead an investigation into how the Peel District School Board was complying with directions from Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce aimed at dismantling structures that perpetuate racism.

The board says she'll be working with Philip Graham, a senior associate with the firm who has similar expertise.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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