Toronto-area mother called 'N-word' launches human rights complaint against York school board

Nearly six months after Charline Grant was "humiliated" by a school board trustee who referred to her using the "N-word," the Toronto-area mother of three​ is launching a human rights complaint decrying what she calls the "deeply entrenched systemic barriers that parents face when they seek to challenge racism" at York Region District School Board.

Charline Grant says board's response to slur ineffective, failed to protect dignity

Charline Grant has launched a human rights complaint decrying what she calls the "deeply entrenched systemic barriers that parents face when they seek to challenge racism" at York Region District School Board. (CBC)

Nearly six months after Charline Grant was "humiliated" by a school board trustee who referred to her using the "N-word," the Toronto-area mother of three is launching a human rights complaint decrying what she calls the "deeply entrenched systemic barriers that parents face when they seek to challenge racism" at York Region District School Board.

The complaint — which specifically names board director J. Philip Parappally and former trustee Nancy Elgie, who stepped down in February after months of mounting pressure over the slur — was filed March 31, just as Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter was set to receive a report over ongoing concerns about systemic racism and Islamophobia within the board, along with concerns about proper governance.

"I ‎initiated an urgent review — because it's absolutely essential that all students, parents, staff and community members have confidence in our publicly funded education system," Hunter said in a statement acknowledging receipt of the report Friday.

In her complaint, Grant describes being "horrified" when now-board chair Loralea Carruthers revealed to her the slur uttered by Elgie while Grant was being interviewed on camera on Nov. 22, 2016.

Apology made to board member months prior to parent

At the time, Grant was speaking about instances of discrimination she says her son faced at his Woodbridge-area school, north of Toronto. One of those included a teacher telling Grant's son's classmates to check their bags to ensure that the teen, a black student, had not stolen anything, she alleges.

In a statement to CBC Toronto Saturday, Stewart Elgie, son of Nancy Elgie, maintained his 82-year-old mother did not in fact intend to refer to Grant, but to media reports about kids being called "a horrible racist slur."

York Region District School Board Trustee Nancy Elgie stepped down in February after months of mounting pressure by parents and board members. (York Region District School Board)

"As we have explained repeatedly, my mother mispoke," Elgie's son wrote. "She apologized and corrected herself immediately to the person she was speaking with, and then to Mrs. Grant as soon as the investigation was over and she was allowed to speak about the matter."

Grant received a letter of apology from Elgie in January.

But CBC Toronto has obtained a copy of an email sent by Carruthers one day after the incident to then-board chair Anna DeBartolo, stating that Elgie "fully apologized" to her for the slur immediately following a "very frank" conversation about it.

"I believe she completely understands her gross error," Carruthers wrote in the email dated Nov. 23, saying she accepted Elgie's apology.

Carruthers would go on to call for Elgie to do "the right thing" and step down, saying to applause and cheers at a February board meeting that "trust cannot be rebuilt."

'Diminished' dignity and self-worth

Throughout that period, Grant says neither board chair DeBartolo, Parappally, nor any other member contacted her about efforts to address the remark — and that it was only through media reports that she learned of an internal investigation into Elgie's remark.

Grant previously told CBC Toronto she felt Parappally and DeBartolo mishandled the investigation into Elgie's comments, choosing to classify them under the board's respectful workplace policy, which meant the process and results of the investigation were treated as private. At most, Elgie would have been barred from attending some meetings, a punishment Grant said at the time would have "no teeth."

So when the board stated it had no authority to force Elgie to resign, as she was an elected official, tensions reached a boiling point.

On Friday, Ontario education minister Mitzie Hunter acknowledged receipt of a report ordered into ongoing concerns about systemic racism and Islamophobia within the board, along with concerns about proper governance. (CBC)

"In a CBC news report Carruthers stated that the board had 'no power' to enforce a request for a trustee's resignation," however "board members would meet with parents to try to address their concerns in other ways," the human rights complaint states.

"The racial slur and board's ineffective response diminished the sense of dignity and self-worth that Ms. Grant was entitled to have protected at all costs," it continues, arguing that existing policies around dealing with discrimination are "ineffective."

Grant, who is seeking $20,000 in damages, says the intent behind the complaint is to let others who may be facing a similar situation to know that not only are they not alone — but they have options.

In an email to CBC Toronto, spokesperson Licinio Miguelo said that, while the board has not yet received the complaint by Grant, it would be inappropriate to comment on matters that are, or may come, before Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal.

"The board continues to take action to create learning environments that are safe, welcoming and inclusive. To this end, we look forward to the recommendations from the reviewers' report when it is released," the statement says.

This isn't the first time a human rights complaint has been filed against the board. In December, the community coalition Vaughan African Canadian Association lodged a complaint citing numerous allegations of racism, including one in which a black child was beaten severely by a group of white students, with the incident taped and shared on social media.

None of those allegedly involved was suspended.

For her part, Grant and other parents have argued the board needs new leadership, beginning with the firing of Parappally.

"My fight was not with Nancy," Grant told CBC Toronto after Elgie's resignation. "That was a distraction, to be honest. Now we can get back to fixing the problems at the York Region District School Board."