Teachers hail 'historic' move to bring more racial diversity to OSSTF leadership in Peel

High school teachers in Peel are hailing "historic" changes aimed at fighting racism in their local union district and at the Peel District School Board. Members of OSSTF District 19 voted overwhelmingly to make the changes at a virtual meeting last week.

Teachers approve union changes at school board with history of racism

Judy McKeown, an English teacher at the Peel District School Board, is among the people who helped bring in changes to the OSSTF local district, ensuring Black, Indigenous and South Asian people are among the leadership. (Edge Imaging)

High school teachers in Peel are hailing "historic" changes aimed at fighting racism in their local union district and at the Peel District School Board.

"We're kind of pinching ourselves and checking, 'Did this actually happen?'" said Judy McKeown, who heads the English department at a high school in Brampton.

She was referring to votes by the district membership of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) to bring in three new officers, who are Black, Indigenous and South Asian, and to create two ad hoc committees.

"It's historic," McKeown told CBC Toronto.

She's one of the organizers who helped bring a motion forward last week in an emergency meeting of District 19 of the OSSTF. 

The structural changes approved at the union come as the Peel District School Board is in the midst of upheaval, after a damning review found repeated examples of anti-Black racism, resulting in the firing of the director of education months later.

McKeown said she and other Black teachers felt the union needed change as well.

"We've been feeling that our issues and our concerns are not being actively addressed by our union," she said, adding that after 15 years of teaching in Peel, she's never once seen a union leader who's Black.

The three new anti-racism roles are at the level just below president, while two new committees (shown in grey) will also address racism. (OSSTF District19)

OSSTF members in Peel voted on the changes during an online meeting last Wednesday.

McKeown said the appointment of the Black, Indigenous and South Asian executive officers, who will all focus specifically on dealing with racism, was approved by 94.8 per cent of the members.

Andrew Sobolewski, OSSTF District 19 President, said he fully supports adding Black and other racialized people to executive roles, to provide perspectives he and the rest of the leadership team don't have and possibly making it more comfortable for members to come forward with their concerns. (Submitted by Andrew Sobolewski)

"I feel very proud of the members in Peel," said Andrew Sobolewski, the president of OSSTF District 19.

He acknowledged the current leadership is "all white" and doesn't have the same experiences as teachers who are Black or who come from other racial backgrounds.

"It's going to be a long road and it's going to be a lot of work," he said, with the next discussions on the changes set for a meeting in September. 

"I do believe this will result in some positive steps forward."

University Toronto professor George Dei, who specializes in anti-racism education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), said the union, like many other organizations, needs to be pushed even further to take a leading role in stopping anti-Black racism.

George Dei, a University of Toronto professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says the union's changes are laudable but need to continue long after issues of anti-Black racism fade from the headlines. (Lisa Sakulensky Photography)

"Sometimes what happens is that, although [measures] are positive, they tend to be quite temporary and they are not sustained," he said.

Math teacher Gord Gallimore, who brought forward the motion to add two new ad hoc committees, one on anti-Black racism and the other on equity, said the changes have been a long time coming. 

"Our voices in the union have been silenced for so long, so it was almost like a relief" when the motions passed, he said. 

Gallimore said shifts at the union level are only part of the larger change that is needed.

The three new roles OSSTF District19 union members agreed to add to the leadership team. (OSSTF District19)

For example, he said, people often assume that as a Black man who teaches, his specialty must be physical education.

McKeown, head of the English department at Louise Arbour Secondary School in Brampton, said she faces similar assumptions, with many people she encounters at the school assuming she's either a parent or a supply teacher.

But she hopes the changes coming at OSSTF's District 19 may have sparked something, adding that teachers from other school boards have been closely following their progress and she's heard from them.

"There's a ripple effect," McKeown said, adding that teachers are "kind of cheering us on from the sidelines and hoping that it will trickle down to them as well."


Lorenda Reddekopp

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Lorenda Reddekopp is a news reporter for CBC Toronto.