New Manitoba group calls on school divisions, province to make equity in education top priority

Equity Matters is comprised of Indigenous, newcomer and racialized organizations that are pushing for greater representation in the curriculum and educational staff in Manitoba.

Equity Matters challenges government to create equity secretariat, wants education equity offices

Equity Matters, a coalition of Indigenous, newcomer, racialized and community-based groups, launched its campaign Friday. (BlurryMe/Shutterstock)

A new group committed to helping bring more diversity to Manitoba schools launched its campaign in Winnipeg Friday.

Equity Matters is comprised of Indigenous, newcomer and racialized organizations that are pushing for greater representation in the curriculum and educational staff in Manitoba.

Two of the main aims right now are to establish education equity offices in in all school divisions and an equity secretariat within the provincial government.

Suni Matthews, a recently retired Winnipeg school principal and co-chair of the coalition, said the offices would conduct outreach and advocacy, and develop anti-racism policy, curriculum and professional development opportunities. 

"It is what is good for the children. It is the outcomes for racialized and Indigenous students who are really not meeting their full potential, and so we have to make this happen," said Matthews, who has over four decades of experience in various roles with the Winnipeg School Division.

"I know that with that input from these partners we can make it happen, because in this era of racial reckoning, the status quo can just not be."

The group also wants collection of equity-based outcome data to become the norm in Manitoba school systems, along with an annual equity accountability report card.

Suni Matthews, co-chair of Equity Matters and a former educator, administrator and Winnipeg school principal, says the type of anti-racism training matters too. (CTV pool)

Organizers say 75 Indigenous, newcomer and community-based organizations have already endorsed the campaign, as have the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents and the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils. Three divisions in the city have too: Winnipeg School Division, St. James-Assiniboia School Division and Louis Riel School Division.

Coalition co-chair Crystal Laborero said the concepts of school district-based equity education offices and an education equity secretariat aren't new.

Ontario already has working models of both, she said, and Manitoba can look east for tips on the way forward.

"There is no need to reinvent the wheel,"  said Laborero, a consultant and specialist in human resources, employment equity and organizational change.

"It's going to be important for us to learn about the Ontario experience regarding the lessons learned and the promising practices."

Underrepresentation in education

Last year, the Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Circle — a coalition of groups that work to support Winnipeg's Indigenous population — released its first report, which found that Indigenous, newcomer and racialized people are underrepresented at the school trustee and teaching level, as well as in the faculties of education at post-secondary schools.

The joint report also stated another 600 Indigenous teachers need to be hired in Winnipeg alone in order for the public education system to be representative of the local community.

It also found only one of six Winnipeg divisions currently have an employment equity policy program.

The coalition is expected to release its second state of equity report this fall.

It's important that everyone understands equity is an issue that impacts everyone, says the parent representative with Equity Matters' co-ordination committee.

Jordan Bighorn has children who go to school in the Louis Riel School Division, and is the co-director of the Community Education Development Association — a community-based organization that works to foster inclusion in schools.

Jordan Bighorn says teachers need more supports to help the confidently deliver more informed anti-racist education. (CTV pool)

He relayed the story of an experience one of his kids shared to illustrate how a stronger focus on equity could help minimize microaggressions and other behaviours that have been normalized in the system.

A presentation at his child's school touched on the deaths of Indigenous teenagers Eishia Hudson, who was fatally shot by police last year, and Tina Fontaine, whose 2014 death continues to be the subject of national attention.

A school administrator stepped in and respectfully asked for the presentation to take a different tone, Bighorn said, which raised questions for his child.

"It was done respectfully, but the nuance was enough that when my child came home, he asked me about it and recognized that. [He asked], 'Was there something wrong? I know who these two sisters … of mine, I know who they are. Why? Why couldn't we hear about them?'"

Bighorn contacted school administration, who in turn said there was a staff concern the school wasn't prepared to deal with any fallout or further conversation in the classroom.

The experience highlighted a lack of training, professional development and other supports for teachers to help them better deliver a better anti-racist education, he said.

"Yes, math and English are important, but the … lives of [two] young Indigenous girls were taken," said Bighorn. "This is also a very critical issue to discuss, and I think at any age is appropriate, presented in a certain way."

Equity Matters is challenging the government to form the equity secretariat office and division-based education equity offices by the 2022-23 school year.