Toronto police investigating after Black TDSB teachers receive racist hate mail

Toronto police are investigating a possible hate crime after four Toronto District School Board (TDSB) teachers received a racist letter in response to an anti-Black racism course they teach.

Warning: This story contains offensive language and subject matter

Toronto police were called to Newtonbrook Secondary School in North York on Feb. 17 for reports of racist hate mail that was sent to four Black high school teachers. (TDSB)

Toronto police are investigating a possible hate crime after four Toronto District School Board (TDSB) teachers received a racist letter in response to an anti-Black racism course they teach.

The TDSB confirmed that on Feb. 17, hate mail was sent to Newtonbrook Secondary School in a nondescript envelope with no return address.

Inside was a torn Toronto Star article on which things like "The n-----s have taken over the school system" and "If you disagree you're racist! If a Black student fails the teacher is racist" were written.

The message was scrawled on top of an article that was published about an anti-Black racism course for Grade 12 students that is being taught at the high school.

The letter goes on to make other hateful comments about young Black boys and the education system.

"All of us were appalled, disgusted and extremely upset when we found out about this situation," said TDSB spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz.

This was the hate mail sent to teachers of an anti-Black racism course at Newtonbrook Secondary School on Feb.17. (Submitted by D.Tyler Robinson)

The school board says they immediately spoke with staff, contacted police and sent a letter home to the Newtonbrook community.

Detectives told CBC News that the incident is being investigated by the central north district criminal investigations branch and the hate crimes unit. 

D. Tyler Robinson is one of the four Black teachers who received hate mail. He told CBC News that while he's disheartened by the incident, he isn't surprised.

"A lot of people act like this kind of racist stuff doesn't happen in Canada and that it's an American issue. I don't think it's someone in the states getting a copy of The Star who sent this to us," he said. "It's been clear we have this problem in our country too."

Robinson says he almost prefers dealing with overt acts of racism like this because the alternative is tougher to identify.

"Sometimes racism is obvious and it's sad but it's the covert racism, the hidden and elusive stuff that you can't put your finger on that's harder to deal with."

Anti-Black racism course

That ability to understand both types of racism is part of what Robinson teaches. 

In September, the TDSB rolled out the course — called Deconstructing anti-Black Racism in the Canadian and North American Context — which Robinson helped develop.

The pilot program is currently running in seven secondary schools. The school board says 13 more schools will run the program next year, and 30 more schools are also interested in offering it.

Robinson says he was inspired to work on the course by the street protests that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last May. 

He says students told him and other educators they felt their Blackness was a burden and they didn't want to be Black anymore after seeing video of Floyd's death.

That's what he says sparked him to help create the course, which explores subjects like language and discourse, Black history, deconstructing and defining Blackness in the media, and oppression.

But Robinson says it's the specific lack of education about anti-Black racism and other forms of racism for many adults that needs to be addressed.

TDSB high school teacher D. Tyler Robinson says provincial support for anti-Black racism courses like the one he's developed could go a long way in deconstructing racism and significantly reducing incidents like this. (CBC)

"Kids are not the issue, they want to learn and talk about racism. The problem is adults who have very fixed and narrow opinions on racism with their own set of prejudices," he said.

Robinson says incidents like these are exactly why the course is needed.

Schwartz-Maltz agrees.

"What this incident shows more than anything is that teaching this course is so important because racism is out there. They've created this beautiful course and there are people who simply don't want to see it taught."

'Serious racism problem' within TDSB

This incident comes on the heels of a recent report from the TDSB that found "a serious racism problem" within the school board. 

The annual report by the board's human rights office examined reports of hate activity among its more than 245,000 students and 40,000 staff over a two-year period from 2018 to 2020.

Reports of anti-Black racism exceeded all other hate incidents documented in the past school year, and so in September the TDSB started tracking all hate-related incidents within schools.

The school board says principals are mandated to report any hate incidents that happen in an online portal. The TDSB says the data and numbers will help them learn what their problems are and how they can help solve them.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Stephen Lecce spoke out against the incident in a statement to CBC News.

"We condemn this vile form of anti-black racism — it has no place in our province or country." he said.

"Especially during Black History Month, our province celebrates Black excellence, courage, and sacrifice and categorically rejects this hateful speech."

Expanding anti-Black racism course

Robinson says provincial support for courses like the one he's developed could go a long way in deconstructing racism and significantly reducing incidents like this.

While Lecce listed several actions the Ontario government has taken to help combat racism, he did not say that the ministry is looking to expand Robinson's course to other schools across the province.

Robinson says some schools have said no to implementing an anti-Black racism course because there's a lack of interest and diversity at specific schools, or the issues are addressed in other courses. He says those are all easy excuses that speak to systemic issues.

"You don't not teach biology just because you teach chemistry. This course isn't for Black kids. It's for all kids. This course is vital in communities and spaces where there aren't Black faces," he said.

Robinson says that although some of the initiatives the ministry is taking are needed, he's concerned that Lecce's response isn't fully addressing the issue.

"The province is too busy working on the symptoms of anti-Black racism when our course is working on the root cause," he said. "We need him to stand with us for this course and not centre whiteness when speaking about deconstructing racism."

Despite the work ahead of him, Robinson says the Black teachers he works with on the course are not deterred by the racist messages they received.

"There's a responsibility to take a stance on the academic outcomes and achievements of Black kids and Indigenous kids. They are not dumb. They are Ontario's kids and we need to support them," he said.

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.

With files from Jessica Wong and Ali Chiasson