School unions commit to ending anti-Black racism following diversity audit request

The union heads representing teaching staff in the Greater Essex County District School Board are committing to "dismantle anti-Black racism" in the public school system. 

'It's very difficult to teach in a space that you feel underrepresented,' said one racialized teacher

Janelle Abela is a secondary school teacher with the Greater Essex County District School Board. She says she has had some bad experiences and wants to see changes. Abela is glad the union stepped forward to show its support. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

The unions representing teaching staff in the Greater Essex County District School Board are committing to dismantling anti-Black racism in the public school system. 

The promise comes after the Black Council of Windsor-Essex, a local group of Black leaders and organizations, sent a letter to the Ministry of Education at the beginning of June requesting a diversity audit of the board. The four-page letter stated that the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) has shown a longstanding pattern of "anti-Black racism, bias and mistreatment."

Those who wrote the letter said they reached a point of frustration and felt it was time to seek more support. 

Some of the experiences reflected in that letter belong to GECDSB secondary school teacher Janelle Abela. 

She's currently on leave from her job, partially due to what she says she experienced in the schools. 

"My experiences have ranged from really positive to some negative experiences as a racialized educator and as a female educator, largely due to the lack of representation and constant micro-aggressions that are being faced," she said. 

'Part of the solution'

Experiences such as these, also raised during recent board meetings, are the reason the union felt it was necessary to show support, said Erin Roy, district 9 president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF). 

Erin Roy says the federation has its own work to do when it comes to diversity. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

"We want to be part of the solution," Roy said. "We've certainly heard from our members, some experiences that they've had that we obviously want to work toward better treatment of staff." 

Abela is currently working with the unions and board to improve the teaching and learning environment for staff and students. She says the people she's worked with have been receptive. 

"I've seen that there are individuals in the school board that are trying and they are doing something and I think that that's positive," she said.

"It has been a long time that these claims have been coming forward and I can echo the claims of a lot of other educators in the board as my own experiences, but I'm hoping that this was the tipping point for us to actually create that change." 

As for when she'll return to teaching, Abela says she'll do so when she sees progress has been made. 

"It's very difficult as an educator to teach in a space that you feel underrepresented and that you feel there are no avenues for progression and so as an educator I'd like to see those types of changes," she said. 

'We lack diversity as well'

Roy said she'd like to see the public board listen to people with "lived experience." 

At the board's recent meeting, Roy said many people spoke about how the board's "top-down approach" makes them feel like they aren't being heard. 

"I think a lot of [the progress] starts with listening more and consulting ... so that you can incorporate the ideas that are coming from the people that the decisions are impacting," she said. 

In an email to CBC News, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo, said he has also heard of instances of anti-Black racism from his members. 

The beginning part of the letter sent to Education Minister Stephen Lecce's office from The Black Council of Windsor-Essex. (Submitted by Leslie McCurdy)

To better address these situations, Spagnuolo said he'd like to see the board provide ongoing anti-Black racism training, include Black Canadian history into current curriculum and review their policies and practices to "identify and eliminate any systemic or participation barriers that are rooted in anti-Black racism."

But both Spagnuolo and Roy told CBC News this isn't a board-specific issue, noting that their unions are also making effort to be better. 

For example, Roy said OSSTF just opened a position for an equity advisor. 

"We lack diversity as well in our own functions," Roy said.

"We're not immune to some of the criticisms that the school board has within our own federation. We're all working on these things together and the more that we can collaborate and have a greater diversity of voices at the table, the better off we'll be."