Education minister demands 'detailed' response from York board to racism, Islamophobia allegations

Ontario’s education minister is demanding an action plan from the York Region District School Board on how it plans to address allegations of Islamophobia, systemic racism and other issues - and she wants that plan within two months.

Mitzie Hunter says York Region District School Board has until Jan. 13 to respond to letter

York Region District School Board Trustee Nancy Elgie has apologized after allegedly using a racial slur to refer to a black parent at a November meeting of the board. (York Region District School Board)

Ontario's education minister is demanding an action plan from the York Region District School Board on how it plans to address allegations of Islamophobia and systemic racism — and she wants that plan within two months.

In her letter, addressed to all YRDSB trustees and dated Tuesday, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said she continues to "have concerns" about how the board is addressing the problems "and, therefore, am making a specific request for information about the current issues and plans for how the board will move forward to address and resolve them."

At the end of the letter, she asked for "a thorough and detailed" response to her request with an action plan "no later" than Jan. 13.

"I am committed to supporting the YRDSB as you work to resolve the issues and reclaim the board's standing as a model school board in Ontario," Hunter wrote. "I look forward to receiving the board's response and plan for addressing these serious concerns."

In response, chair Anna DeBartolo said the board was expecting the letter from Hunter "outlining her requests for information" following the board's meeting with the minister earlier this month.

"As with the previous discussion, we welcome the opportunity to articulate, in writing, all the work we have done to date to address the issues raised and the action plan going forward. Our Region is one of the most diverse in the country, and we remain committed to equity and creating learning environments that are accepting, safe and welcoming for all students and staff members."

The minister's letter is aimed at reassuring parents and students who have been demanding answers about how the board, for example, investigated Facebook posts by an elementary school principal that they said were offensive to Muslims.

A Facebook post on the page of Ghada Sadaka deemed offensive by some Muslim parents and students at her school in Markham. (Facebook)

Complaints surfaced in September about a series of posts on a Facebook page belonging to Ghada Sadaka, principal of Sir Wilfrid Laurier Public School in Markham.

In one, Sadaka shared a CNN video about Islam in Britain, adding her own comment: "This has to go viral. Share and post! Oh Lord." 

In another, Sadaka shared a photo showing two sets of women with the caption: "If bikinis are banned in Muslim countries, then burqas should be banned in Europe ..." Sadaka wrote, "Share if you agree."

The posts have been removed from her page, and Sadaka apologized for them in a statement she issued earlier this month.

"In the last two months, I have … learned a number of lessons about how sharing inappropriate posts on social media has affected those around me," she wrote in the statement.

"Upon reflection, I accept sharing the posts was discriminatory, and should not have occurred."

Mother launches complaint

Sadaka issued her apology on the same day that Hunter met with YRDSB leadership after she received an open letter signed by community leaders and members, as well as the Ontario Federation of Labour, criticizing the board's handling of the issue.

Parents have been especially concerned about a lack of transparency about the investigation the board said it conducted into Sadaka's posts.

The YRDSB confirmed to CBC News in October that an investigation had taken place, but declined to disclose the results. In an email, Trustee Billy Pang said because the probe was of "a personnel nature," he was not in a position to share any details.

Earlier this month, Licinio Miguelo, the school board's spokesperson, reiterated that position and declined to share if Sadaka had faced any consequences or undergone any sensitivity training as the result of the posts. 

In her letter, Hunter said she is seeking answers on this issue, as well as the allegations from parents of systemic racism within the board.

Parent Charline Grant told CBC Toronto earlier this month that she launched a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario back in February, alleging that her eldest son had been subject to more than a dozen alleged incidents of racial discrimination, harassment, bullying and intimidation at his high school.

"My son's experiences are from the teachers. Kids came to him and said they're being racist," said Grant. 

"I'm a mother and I'm fighting for basic human rights for my child," she said. "No kid should have to go to school constantly looking over his shoulder."

'A first step'

Hunter said her meeting with board brass and her letter demanding action are only "a first step" in her attempts to restore public confidence in the board.

She said that she respects the need for confidentiality about specifics of the investigation into Sadaka's Facebook posts. But she asked the board to provide details about its process for such investigations and how it ensures that process is followed, as well as the standards to which board employees are held accountable and what disciplinary measures are possible when those standards aren't met.

"The community has voiced particular concerns over the transparency of this process and seeks clarity of what are the acceptable standards of behaviour in these circumstances," Hunter wrote. "What will you do to appropriately respond to this community and to the public?"

She also said that allegations of systemic racism in the board "cannot be downplayed or ignored. The board has a responsibility to acknowledge and address them with demonstrated commitment and action. The relationship with the community is yours to maintain."

On Wednesday, the National Council of Canadian Muslims said it is "heartening" that Hunter appears to have listened to concerns from the community.

"The Minister is now requiring clear answers from this board about the handling of the specific case of the principal's anti-Muslim postings, as well as questions at the broader level relating to equity, transparency and accountability," Amira Elghawaby, communications director for the council, said in a statement to CBC Toronto.

"There has been a clear loss of faith in the current board chair and director of education.  We hope that the Minister's intervention will lead to an outcome that assures families of the safety, well-being, and inclusion of all students in the York board."

With files from Kate McGillivray