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Pickering, Ont., student's yearbook tribute to grandma changed to racist message, prompts school investigation

A Pickering, Ont., high school has asked all students to return their yearbooks after a Black student's tribute to his grandmother was replaced with what the principal called a "malicious, hurtful and racist" message.

St. Mary Catholic Secondary School in Pickering issues yearbook recall, apologizes to school community

Joshua Telemaque's aunt, Mayma Raphael, initially shared this image on Facebook with his name and image blocked out. 'Folks, racism is alive in Canada,' Raphael wrote in the caption of the post. (Mayma Raphael/Facebook)

A Pickering, Ont., high school has asked all students to return their yearbooks after a Black student's tribute was replaced with what the principal called a "malicious, hurtful and racist" message.

The student, a senior at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School, submitted an entry paying tribute to his late grandmother, according to his aunt, Mayma Raphael, in a Facebook post.

The student's yearbook entry was supposed to read: "RIP Grandma. Thank you for guiding me through my four years of high school."

Instead, it was replaced by: "Rip Harambe Dooga booga.O" — referring in part to a gorilla that was killed at a Cincinnati, Ohio, zoo in 2016.

The student's yearbook entry was supposed to read: 'RIP Grandma. Thank you for guiding me through my four years of high school.' Instead, it was replaced with 'Rip Harambe Dooga booga.O.' (Paul Smith/CBC)

Raphael shared an image of the yearbook on Facebook, blocking out her nephew's identity for privacy reasons. She said he was "devastated, embarrassed, hurt and disappointed" by what happened.

"He was really looking forward to his yearbook," her post read. "Now his memory of his time at the school is forever ruined."

Students condemn 'disgusting behaviour'

Simon Persaud, a Grade 12 student at St. Mary said he can't believe something like this happened to this student.

"The guy was a really good guy," Persaud said. "He was always really kind and everything, so I don't know why someone would target him directly."

The high school senior was described by his peers as a star athlete, playing on football, basketball and track and field teams.

"It's honestly disgusting behaviour," said Alicia McClymont, who is part of this year's graduating class.

"He got lots of awards for his athletic abilities and to see this happen is just sad."

Principal, school board apologize

In a letter sent to students and staff, St. Mary principal Susan Duane said the school was "horrified to discover that inappropriate comments were unknowingly published."

"These comments were malicious, hurtful and racist in nature," the letter read.

"We sincerely apologize to the school community for the offensive, hurtful and unacceptable nature of these comments."

The Durham Catholic District School Board released a statement on Tuesday apologizing to the individuals impacted by the message and to extend a "direct apology to the Black community that we serve."

"We recognize that words cannot repair the hurt that these comments have caused, and the horrific experience this has been for families and friends within the school community and beyond," the statement read.

"We assure you that this offensive act of misconduct, disrespect and racism is taken seriously."

The school has launched an investigation with the Durham Regional Police Service "to ensure that all individuals responsible are held accountable."

Raphael said she believes a group of students and at least one teacher were responsible for handling the yearbook.

"Those who produce offensive or disrespectful content will be subject to disciplinary action," Duane said.

Students ordered to return yearbooks

For this year's graduating class, the school year had already been riddled with restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"We had no graduation, no prom," said McClymont. 

She said the yearbook "was the only thing we had and it was destroyed. It's just terrible." 

Students have been ordered to return their yearbooks to the school by Tuesday and a full inventory will be completed to make sure every copy is accounted for. 

Meanwhile, news of what happened is already sparking sharp condemnation, including from Ontario politician Laura Mae Lindo, the NDP MPP for Kitchener Centre.

She tweeted that the incident in Pickering "literally brought me to tears" and said the call for anti-racist education "gets louder each & every day."

Racism continues to be a challenge within Ontario's school system. Here's more coverage of the issue:


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.

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