As It Happens

An 'empty gesture' and 'ludicrous': Backlash grows after school board removes 'chief' from job titles

As It Happens listeners who tuned into our interview with Toronto District School Board spokesperson Ryan Bird say they thought they were listening to a parody program.
The Toronto District School Board will remove the the word 'chief' from all job titles. (CBC)

Story transcript

The Toronto District School Board's decision to remove the word "chief" from job titles has drawn a lot of backlash — much of it directed towards the inbox of As It Happens.

This week, the TDSB announced it will stop using the word "chief" in job titles, citing respect for Indigenous communities.

As a result, 12 TDSB staff formerly designated as chiefs will now be called managers. For example, the board's chief of social work will now be the manager of social work.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told As It Happens host Carol Off on Wednesday the decision stems from a desire to respect the Truth and Reconciliation report and Indigenous communities — neither of which actually requested the title changes. 

According to Merriam-Webster, "chief" was first used in Middle English sometime in the 15th century. Its etymological origins traced back to the Latin word "caput," meaning head.

Indigenous writer and educator Robert Jago tweeted his criticism of the move, saying the school board was using Indigenous people "as an excuse to act stupid."

"We think it was a proactive measure," Bird said.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said the school board made a 'proactive' decision about the word 'chief' before any official complaints were lodged. (CBC News)

Duke Redbird, the TDSB's curator of Indigenous arts and culture, welcomed the move in an interview with CBC Toronto, noting the term "chief" is often wielded as a slur against Indigenous people. 

As It Happens listeners sent dozens of emails, voicemails and tweets sharing their — mostly negative — opinion about the TDSB's decision.

Here's a sampling:

Who asked for this?

Some As It Happens listeners echoed Jago's sentiment, taking issue with the fact that the decision was not based on requests or complaints from within Indigenous communities.

"The first principle of reconciliation is to listen to Indigenous voices. We have a painful history of well-intentioned officials who have 'acted first, listened second (or not at all),'" wrote listener Norman. 

Others said there are more pertinent issues to address when it comes to reconciliation.

"Perhaps if they're so concerned about Indigenous issues they should make a campaign to raise funds to fix houses, water supplies or perhaps even schools on reserves!" wrote Eve Schnizer. 

"But this is really too funny — the epitome of the empty gesture."

This is not This Is That 

Schnizer was not the only one who found the conversation amusing. A recurring theme amid our listener feedback were comparisons to the CBC parody show This Is That.

"I'm sorry but this interview sounded like an episode from This is That," wrote Bert Campbell of Teulon, Man.

"I was convinced As It Happens had slipped in an episode of This is That," wrote Montreal's Elizabeth Fish. 

"Too bad This is That didn't think of this one!" writes listener Maureen O'Hara Jolly.

"Please assure your listeners that we heard, this evening, an unscheduled broadcast of 'This is That,'" wrote Wendy Edgett. "Surely, the members of the TDSB could not possibly have spent valuable time thinking up such ludicrous gafflegab."

Proactive, proactive, proactive!

Calgary's David Thacker was more concerned about the TDSB's use of the word "proactive," which points out Bird used 11 times in the span of the seven-minute and 35-second interview.

"I wish to complain.  If you are going to entertain us with with a segment on cleaning up the English language, perhaps we could start with the word 'proactive'. Your guest, Ryan Bird, used this eleven(!!!!) times. I counted. Your host, Carol Off, then lost control and repeated it back once again," Thacker wrote.

"Please ban this word from your program. Retroactively if possible."

Back off, Off!

However, some listeners were on board with the board, and thought As It Happens host Carol Off was too hard on Bird.

"I was surprised by the cynicism of the interviewer on this matter. There is a very good precedent for the school board's decision. In the late 70's or early 80's the Government of the Northwest Territories decided to stop using 'chief' in their staff rankings as a response to objections by NWT First Nations who objected to the use of a term that is used by First Nations," wrote Karen Bergman of Baynes Lake, B.C. 

"I think that As It Happens is not aware of this important precedent because if you were you would not have treated the current decision by the school board with such derision. In my opinion, the school board was not overstepping the boundary of reason/stupidity (as implied by tonight's interview) but made a decision out of respect."

With files from CBC News