Waterloo region public school board's diversity job fair garners racially charged backlash

The Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) is hosting a job fair later this month to hire more Indigenous, Black and racialized people. Some people responding to a tweet about the event accused the WRDSB of discriminating against white candidates, but the Ontario board told CBC it has "no discriminatory practices."

Ontario school board's census found the student body is several times more diverse than staff

Waterloo Region District School Board sign outside their main office.
The Waterloo Region District School Board is holding a job fair on March 29 that's been criticized by some people commenting on the board's tweet. (Waterloo Region District School Board/Twitter)

The Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) is hosting a job fair to hire more Indigenous, Black and racialized staff, and it's getting lots of attention — a majority of it not positive.

Many people responding to the WRDSB's tweet about the March 29 job fair accused the school board of discriminating against white candidates.

A majority of the accounts that commented under the WRDSB tweet did not have obvious ties to Ontario's Waterloo region.

On Tuesday, the WRDSB turned off the comments on the tweet, which went up Friday, before 297 of them were posted.

Some of the commenters accused the board of racism.

Contacted by CBC, the WRDSB said in a written statement: "The Ministry of Education has identified a significant gap that exists not only in the Waterloo region, but across Ontario. In response, the ministry has directed boards to encourage diversity in the teaching workforce, as it should be reflective of the diversity in the province."

Board says it encourages supporting all students

CBC received an email from a member of the public expressing concerns about the WRDSB job fair. The person asked the school board to answer his questions about the event "which Caucasians are apparently not allowed to attend." 

A number of local media outlets, including CBC, were copied on that email.

"I am thinking of my five-year-old great niece, since my wife and I lost our children, and her future opportunities as a Caucasian woman in our society," the initial inquiry read in part. "Everyone, I repeat, everyone deserves an equal opportunity."

After WRDSB sent CBC the statement above, trustee Joanne Weston replied to the concerned citizen with a statement she jointly wrote with the public school board's director, jeewan chanicka. Their statement clarified the WRDSB is not limited to only hiring people based on their racial identity.

"We are seeking qualified expertise that shares these backgrounds and lived experiences because it will support us in better supporting all the students we serve. In this way, we are ensuring that public education supports all students."

When asked whether white people would be allowed to attend, WRDSB sent CBC a followup statement.

"The job information fair, like many programs to support the inclusion of marginalized groups, was developed for those who are racialized but open to everyone. There are no discriminatory practices in the WRDSB."

WRDSB said the job fair for Indigenous, Black and racialized Individuals has been held for three years.

It said the term "racialized" in this context "includes all people that are non-Caucasian in race or non-white, including those who are white-passing, so Black, Asian, biracial, mixed race. [Indigenous] Peoples in Canada are sometimes excluded from this definition, but should not be."

Efforts to diversify educators not unique to WRDSB

In a statement to CBC, a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Education said the government "firmly believes that hiring and promoting teachers should be based on their competence, skill and qualification.

"We expect the best educators to be at the front of class," it read in part.

"We believe that highly qualified educators that better reflect their communities can positively impact student performance and success in the classroom."

Trevor Charles was not surprised to see the reaction to the job fair.

headshot of man
Trevor Charles is a board member with the Caribbean-Canadian Association of Waterloo Region and a University of Waterloo biology professor. He says more work needs to be done earlier to encourage Indigenous, Black and racialized people who want a career in education. (Submitted by Trevor Charles)

He works to diversify university faculty at the University of Waterloo as a part of its Black Faculty Collective. Charles is also executive director of LiftOff Waterloo Wellington, an accelerator program focused on helping new Black entrepreneurs.

He said he has seen a need for more work to be done earlier to encourage Indigenous, Black and racialized people who want to begin a career in education.

This became apparent to Charles when the Black Faculty Collective hosted a Black excellence hiring exercise last year. The university's goal was to double or triple the number of Black faculty members, who at the time made up only about one per cent of all staff.

"Most of the applicants did not do their schooling in Canada," Charles said. "Very few of them went to elementary or high school in Canada. That, to me, demonstrates how poorly we do educating Black students within our own system."

He said the solution is to start earlier.

If we want to do right by all the children we serve, we need to ensure that we get better at supporting the needs of all children.- WRDSB director jeewan chanicka and trustee Joanne Weston

"Most of the students you would expect would want to go into a teachers' college in Ontario — you would expect that they would have gone through the school system. But if we have so few of them who are actually interested in doing that, then we have a major problem," Charles said. "We're just not doing a very good job of of reinforcing that pipeline."

He said it is important for students to see themselves reflected in school staff.

"There's a tremendous response by the children when they see diversity at the front of their classroom. Having diversity at the head of the classroom really has a major impact on students. And it's not only the students who are racialized themselves. All students benefit from seeing that and experiencing that diversity."

Student diversity not reflected in WRDSB staff

According to a 2019 workforce census and 2021 student census at WRDSB, the student body is several times more diverse than the learning and leadership positions within the school system.

For the 2021 census, approximately three per cent of all public school student respondents were Indigenous and six per cent of students identified as Black. Thirty per cent of the student body identified as racialized, coming from more than 200 ethno-cultural backgrounds, and spoke more than 200 languages.

a person looks at camera
The WRDSB's director of education, jeewan chanicka, is shown in this photo. Chanicka and trustee Joanne Weston say the WRDSB developed the job fair 'because currently our staff does not reflect this reality.' (WRDSB/YouTube)

"WRDSB developed this [job fair] event because currently our staff does not reflect this reality," said chanicka and Weston in their joint statement. "If we want to do right by all the children we serve, we need to ensure that we get better at supporting the needs of all children."

According to the 2019 census, over 90 per cent of WRDSB staff identified as white.

"Like any organization or institution, we must work to close gaps," the joint statement said. "Targeted hiring such as this allows us to hire people who have nuanced cultural understandings and lived experiences that better allows us as an organization to meet the needs of students."

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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Aastha Shetty

CBC journalist

Aastha Shetty can be reached via email or by tweeting her at @aastha_shetty