Manitoba

Language used by principal in school newsletter 'inappropriate and racist,' Winnipeg dad says

A Winnipeg father says the language his daughter's Christian school principal used in a newsletter to describe Indigenous peoples is offensive in a time of reconciliation.

Principal apologizes for language used in email to parents to describe Indigenous people

Jamie Sitar says the language his daughter's school principal used in a weekly newsletter to describe Indigenous peoples was offensive. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Jamie Sitar said he was "disgusted" when he opened up the latest weekly newsletter from Calvin Christian Elementary School's principal.

In the weekly email, which is also posted online, principal John Sawatzky provides regular school information and also writes a brief religious message.

In the newsletter sent Tuesday, he referenced Operation Auca — a 1956 missionary trip involving five Americans who went to Ecuador to convert Indigenous peoples. The missionaries were killed after they went onto Indigenous land.

In the message, titled "Suffering," the school's principal made reference to Operation Auca and referred to "the savage Auca Indians of Ecuador," whose proper name is Waorani or Huaorani.

The language "is inappropriate and racist and ethnocentric," said Sitar.

"You can't say this."

On Wednesday morning, he emailed Sawatzky with his concerns.

Language used by principal 'inappropriate and racist,' Winnipeg dad says:

Jamie Sitar says the language used by his daughter's Christian school principal in a weekly newsletter doesn't fit with reconciliation efforts. 1:20

The principal initially responded by saying he used the word to describe the Indigenous peoples after reading about the story of the missionaries online.

On Wednesday night, Sawatzky sent a statement to CBC News in which he issued an apology, and said he didn't mean to further stereotypes.

"I could have found a more helpful way to describe the event I shared, and again apologize to those who may have been unintentionally hurt by such descriptions," he wrote.

Word has 'no place in society'

The word he used to describe the Indigenous group has a dark history in Canada, says Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.

It was used by settlers to describe Indigenous people during the residential school era, and its use is part of "a very problematic and longstanding narrative that frankly has no place in society anymore," Moran said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 recommendations include calls to action for faith communities to proactively recognize Indigenous spirituality as being legitimate in its own right, he added.

"Those calls to action all reflect the fact that a lot of what has gotten us into trouble in this country are these notions of superiority — cultural superiority, religious superiority, ethnic superiority," said Moran.

"We really have to make sure that collectively we're pausing and actively ensuring that respect is afforded equally and equitably to to all facets of Canadian society."

Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. (CBC)

Moran said he hopes this can be a learning moment for all Canadians.

"I just really encourage people to just continue to become better informed about Indigenous peoples. Our society generally has done an absolutely terrible job in providing education up to this point.

"Thankfully, there's a bit of a shift that's happening now, but we've got a long ways to go."

Sitar said he's not looking for revenge by speaking out about the email. Instead, he said he hopes to spark a conversation in the community — as the incident did with his 11-year-old daughter.

"Casey and I read the paragraph, and I said, 'Is there anything wrong with this?' And she gravitated right to the word," he said.

"She said, 'That's not right.'"

Jamie Sitar said he was "disgusted" when he opened up the latest weekly newsletter from Calvin Christian Elementary School's principal. 2:12

About the Author

Sam Samson

Journalist

Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email samantha.samson@cbc.ca.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson