Nova Scotia

How a Nova Scotia teacher's dream job became a lesson in racism

On the first day of Kathy-Ann Johnson's teaching career, only one student showed up. The students' parents kept their kids at home as a form of protest against the hiring of the Black teacher.

'This is how things were dealt with 20 years ago, and it wasn't OK then. It's not OK now'

Kathy-Ann Johnson, right, is shown with her daughter, Katie, centre, at a recent Black Lives Matter rally in New Minas, N.S. Her teaching career got off to a rocky start in 2001 because of acts of racism. (Lily Nottage/Bloom Media)

Kathy-Ann Johnson looked expectantly down a crowded hallway.

It was her first teaching job and she had been waiting for this day for a very long time, but something was wrong.

As a child growing up in the small Black community of Gibson Woods, N.S., Johnson administered tests to her Barbie dolls and graded them afterwards.

After studying education at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., Johnson was hired in 2001 as a full-time teacher through an affirmative action program at Annapolis East Elementary School in Middleton, N.S.

On her first day, Johnson's colleagues were welcoming children to their classrooms.

Johnson was initially relucant to speak at the June 20 Black Lives Matter rally in New Minas, N.S. (Lily Nottage/Bloom Media)

"None were coming into mine," she said. "I waited. And waited."

Finally, a student and his parents arrived with news Johnson never saw coming.

"I was told at that time, by that mother, 'I'm sorry, but I had to bring my son to school today. We didn't have an option, but it was decided that nobody was going to be coming today.'"

The parents of Johnson's Grade 1 class had kept their children home to protest her employment.

Even though one child showed up, Johnson didn't get to teach — the boy was sent to join his brother's Grade 2 class.

The parents were upset that Johnson, who was hired a few weeks into the school year, had replaced a beloved substitute who was filling in for a teacher on leave.

'Unconscious racism'

When the teacher on leave announced they would not return, the school used the opportunity to make its staff more diverse. The substitute was not a member of a visible minority group and was ineligible for the full-time position.

The parents insisted they weren't racist; they just preferred the substitute teacher.

Johnson disagrees.

"I think people say 'I'm not racist' if they're not calling names or, in their minds, treating people differently. I call it unconscious racism," she said.

The children were sent to school the following day, but the protest was just beginning.

'I felt I had something to prove,' says Johnson

Parents read letters at every home and school meeting — meetings during which parents are invited to speak with teachers and administrators — requesting that Johnson be replaced with the substitute. This led to concerns about Johnson's qualifications.

"I felt I had something to prove, especially having to do three performance appraisals," she said. "I was literally having to prove myself over and over and over again."

The substitute was then brought in to teach alongside Johnson, but Johnson chose not to involve the school board.

"I was excited, and I didn't want to rock a boat," she said. "I just wanted to do what I was there to do."

Johnson taught at the school for three years. When the upcoming school year begins, she'll be working as a literary and numeracy teacher at Aldershot Elementary in Kentville, N.S.

A lost opportunity

Isaac Saney is an expert on race issues who teaches at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"I think they missed a great opportunity to actually educate parents about why [affirmative action is] necessary, and to challenge what may be some misconceptions people have," he said. "One of the misconceptions is that Black teachers aren't as qualified."

Saney said Johnson's situation isn't uncommon, and that racialized people are rarely supported the way this parent group was.

"There are so many bureaucratic and structural barriers, that making the claim and having to put up with that can actually sometimes be more stressful than the racist act," he said.

Dalhousie University professor Isaac Saney, an expert on race issues, says racialized people are rarely supported the way the parent group was in Johnson's situation. (Sherri Borden Colley/CBC)

Saney said for people of African or Indigenous descent, the rules don't get bent.

"But, quite often, as we see frequently when it comes to groups that have significant power … the rules are always bent."

In a statement, the Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education (AVRCE) said it couldn't comment on personnel matters, but said racism in the education system is unacceptable.

"We expect that each and every member of the school community will be safe, comfortable and accepted," said the statement. "We expect school community members to actively value diversity and demonstrate respect for others and a commitment to creating a just, caring school system."

AVRCE said it actively hires people from under-represented groups, particularly Black and people of Indigenous ancestry, and is working to have equal representation within all employee groups.

Lawrence Parker, a friend and former colleague of Johnson’s, said many people didn't know the story of what she experienced at the beginning of her teaching career. (Lily Nottage/Bloom Media)

On June 20, a Black Lives Matter Rally was held in New Minas, N.S. The rally was organized by Lawrence Parker, a friend and former colleague of Johnson's. He asked a reluctant Johnson to speak at the event.

"A lot of people knew Kathy Ann," Parker said, "but they didn't know that story."

Johnson said her two daughters inspired her to share her story.

"I'm so glad that I did. It helps me to process what I went through and to get strength from that," she said.

"It wasn't to call people out, but it was to create awareness. I needed to highlight that this is how unconscious racism occurs. This is how things were dealt with 20 years ago, and it wasn't OK then. It's not OK now."

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.