Hamilton students march to protest the board halting a black youth mentorship program

Hundreds of students at a high school in Hamilton's lower city walked out of classes Wednesday to protest the school board pausing a mentorship program for black youth.

HWDSB paused the program over some privacy concerns it has with an HCCI report

"I’m glad the students decided to unite with us," says Greg Dongen, co-chair of the Bernie Custis Secondary black youth council. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Hundreds of students at a high school in Hamilton's lower city walked out of classes Wednesday to protest the school board pausing a mentorship program for black youth.

Students of Bernie Custis Secondary School intermittently blocked King Street East and Cannon Street for about 45 minutes, chanting slogans such as "black lives, they matter here" and "whose streets? Our streets."

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) says the program is paused until it meets with the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI), which director Manny Figueiredo says may have violated their joint agreement when it released a recent report about racism against students.

Greg Dongen and Aztecca Clarke, who co-chair the school's black youth council, say the cancellation angers students, especially during black history month.

"There has to be a change and we're here to make it happen," says Aztecca Clarke, far left, who co-chairs the council. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"It's the first mentorship program where educators are teaching black youth to survive in a system that works against us," said Clarke, 17. They also want their council to be considered as a proper council, not just a club.

"This is the first (council) but it's not the end," she said. "There has to be a change and we're here to make it happen."

Tension with the HWDSB and HCCI started on Feb. 4, when the HCCI held a press conference at Hamilton city hall. HCCI released a report called Deconstructing Racism and Islamophobia, which it compiled with information gathered by the group HWDSB Kids Need Help. 

The report called for an end to a program that has police in schools. Gachi Issa, a 20-year-old member of HWDSB Kids Need Help who attended Westdale Secondary School, said the board refuses to take racism and discrimination seriously on a systemic level, and instead relies on "Band-Aid solutions."

Yohana Otite, HWDSB human rights and equity officer and former HCCI executive director, and director Manny Figueiredo take questions from students at a press conference Wednesday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Figueiredo said he had no issue hearing this criticism. But a memorandum of understanding signed in 2018 requires HCCI to clear board-related research with the HWDSB research ethics committee. There are strict privacy rules around such research, he said, including ensuring that students involved know how their information is being used.

"You want to make sure you have consent, and that students are aware of what they're participating in," Figueiredo said at a press conference later that day. The board isn't clear that's the case. It didn't see the report until the morning of the HCCI press conference, he said, so it couldn't point that out.

Bernie Custis Secondary School students protest on King Street East on Wednesday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

HCCI executive director Kojo Damptey said he can't comment on the privacy concerns until he meets with the board next week. HWDSB should have communicated better with the students around why the program was paused though, he said.

"I think it could have been dealt with differently," he said. "But we are where we are, and the most important thing is the voice of the students."

An email to the group from the board says the meeting is required to try to "repair the harm" and to see "how or if" the partnership can continue. 

The mentorship program happens in eight monthly sessions throughout the school year at Bernie Custis Secondary School, although it's due to expand to Sir Allan MacNab. The next event was Feb. 27 with Desmond Cole, a journalist and activist whose recent book is The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. Figueiredo said he hopes to resolve the issue in time for it to happen.

HCCI funds the program through a government grant. 



Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca