Ottawa

OCDSB upholds sanctions against trustee Blackburn

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) upheld its decision on Thursday to sanction trustee Donna Blackburn for her statements about a Black teenager.

Trustees said Donna Blackburn's behaviour had severely damaged trust with the community

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) has stated that Donna Blackburn's comments toward a Black teen in March were "an act of anti-Black racism". (Facebook)

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) upheld its decision on Thursday to sanction trustee Donna Blackburn for her statements about a Black teenager.

Blackburn submitted an appeal on July 8, 2020 in response to a code of conduct decision made by the board in June.

It had voted to ban the Barrhaven/Knoxdale-Merivale trustee from sitting on multiple OCDSB committees for six months and from attending the board's 2020-21 budget approval meeting after an incident involving 17-year-old Styles Lepage, which the board deemed "an act of anti-Black racism."

Blackburn had admonished Lepage in March for playing basketball at Neill Nesbitt Park in Barrhaven and not abiding by physical distancing rules. She also posted a photo of the encounter on Facebook and admitted to telling the Black teen that "people who do not care about the rules end up in Innes Road" meaning the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

Earlier in the pandemic, when using park facilities like basketball courts was not allowed, the penalty for not abiding by social distancing rules was at worst a ticket issued by bylaw officers

Although Blackburn had previously apologized for her comments, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce described Blackburn's actions as "shameful" and "racist" and echoed the OCDSB's call for her resignation in Queen's Park.

The father of Styles Lepage, 17, says the teenager sought out an empty basketball court to get some exercise by himself. (Matthew Kedroe)

Blackburn could not participate in the board debate concerning her actions in June because of board rules. 

In her appeal document, her lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth argues Blackburn had an inherent right to tell her story to the board and to the public directly.

She also asserts the sanctions against Blackburn were disproportionate to her conduct and that the current social and political climate unfairly influenced the board's decision to take disciplinary action.

"When combined with current events such as the story of Amy Cooper [the woman who called police about a Black bird watcher] and the tragic death of George Floyd, as well as troubling accounts of public education in Ontario disadvantaging Black students, the OCDSB undoubtedly feels pulled to take a strong public stance against racism," said the document.

It also states that "the Board's sanction of trustee Blackburn cannot become the OCDSB's symbolic atonement for all the wrongs suffered by racialized people at the hands of the OCDSB and Ontario public school system at large."

Hollingsworth also contends that the third-party investigation into Blackburn's actions, conducted by lawyer Zaheer Lakhani, was not even-handed and that Lakhani failed to provide the full context of her comment about Innes Road.

"Trustee Blackburn explained to the investigator both during her interview and in writing that her comment about Innes Road was made as a result of her past career experience as a practising social worker and her work with the John Howard Society and other organizations involving individuals of all races who were in conflict with the law.

Her life experience supports a view that people of all races who do not care about breaking rules or interacting with law enforcement may ultimately end up in conflict with the law," said the appeal document.

Dahabo Ahmed-Omer said the OCDSB made the right decision in upholding trustee Donna Blackburn's sanctions. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

On Thursday evening, the board passed a motion that said it was satisfied with the process and that the third-party investigator provided Blackburn the opportunity to respond to evidence. 

"The decision of the board was free from bias or a reasonable apprehension of bias … sanctions imposed on trustee Blackburn were proportional to the findings of fact," the motion said. 

'Blackburn resigning would be true justice'

Dahabo Ahmed-Omer, with the Justice for Abdirahman coalition, said she's pleased the board upheld Blackburn's sanctions.

"I think that the board has made the right decision," she said.

"The process was followed and they made a decision in a fair, transparent and objective manner."

Ahmed-Omer said the board's actions have demonstrated they've listened to the community and she hopes Blackburn will do the same.

"Trustee Blackburn resigning would be true justice in this instance," said Ahmed-Omer.

"I think she really needs to take a hard look inside, internally, and think about the harm that her actions have caused."

Blackburn did not respond to CBC's request for comment

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated Trustee Donna Blackburn would be barred from the board's next budget meeting following her censure. In fact, Blackburn is barred from attending the meeting at which the board will consider the approval of the 2020-2021 annual budget.
    Aug 25, 2020 6:43 PM ET

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