Metro Morning

Educator Charles Pascal offers blueprint for using schools to fight racism

Rising racial tensions in Canada, the United States and many other parts of the world this year have been a great source of distress for Charles Pascal. The former Ontario deputy minister of education says he is ready to see change happen at the foundation: in our schools.

Charles Pascal believes the key to overcoming racism is education

Many people who attended the first meeting of Ontario's new anti-racism directorate were critical of government officials, saying that not enough concrete action has been taken to deal with racism. (CBC)

Ontario's former deputy minister of education sees echoes of the past in the racial tensions that are publicly surfacing again today, and is frustrated at how little has changed.

The classroom is the first place to tackle racism, Charles Pascal believes. "If education is properly reformed, people will lead healthier lives."

Pascal told Metro Morning's Matt Galloway that right now "there's a disproportionate number of black students and Aboriginal students who are getting suspended from schools, [who] are trying to find meaning."

Now a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Pascal has created a blueprint for anti-racist education to make classrooms respectful and equitable for visible minority students. 

"It would look like a place of active respect," Pascal says of a revised education system. It would also require "a different demography in terms of who's in front of the class," as well as "intensive anti-racism training" for all educators and changes to the curriculum itself.

Above all, Pascal believes, disadvantaged youth must be celebrated, expected to achieve in school and given more employment opportunities.

Little change in decades

Educator Charles Pascal says it may be time to take a closer look at how trustees get to become trustees. (Charles Pascal)
It isn't the first time he's tried to develop this kind of program. Pascal collaborated with many others, including Stephen Lewis, the former Ontario NDP leader and Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, to create an anti-racist education plan for youth more than 20 years ago.

That plan was an attempt to respond to the 1992 riots that gripped Toronto after the acquittal of white police officers in Los Angeles who'd been caught on camera beating Rodney King. It was never implemented, following a change in government.

Pascal says classrooms still fail to represent unique minority experiences.

"We talk a little bit about kids getting ready for schools, but what about schools getting ready for kids?" he asks. Meanwhile, he has heard from educators across the province who say minority students "need to adapt."

Pascal believes that current approaches to teaching about diversity and character-building do not get to the heart of racial issues. Instead, he wants to see "people go deep on anti-racism training."

People often perceive those conversations to be negative, but he insists that they are important for "removing ignorance." 

One student who works with anti-racist strategies is Brendan Campbell, who identifies as Cree and Métis. He studies at Trent University in Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences.

Campbell has been in many classrooms where racism entered conversations without people realizing their own biases. 

Determined to challenge those biases, Campbell has researched approaches to anti-racist learning related to Indigenous studies. His research follows similar moves made by a number of Canadian universities. 

Pictured at a rally for Black Lives Matter in Peterborough, Brendan Campbell is a student and activist who works to create better conversations around racism both inside and outside of classrooms. (Brendan Campbell )

Like Pascal, Campbell sees that the strategies must reach beyond the surface.

It starts with "better understanding," Campbell said, "not only how we can debunk these assumptions, but also discussions that aren't palatable but necessary."

Students must challenge their own assumptions and work together to remove barriers for minority students, he said.

The Ministry of Education has said it will examine Pascal's report.

A spokesperson with Ontario's Anti-Racism Directorate said Premier Kathleen Wynne appointed Michael Coteau as Minister Responsible for Anti-Racism who is focused on helping to "eliminate any systemic racism that can be found in our institutions."