The Current

Amid reckoning over systemic racism at Ontario school board, trustee seeks accountability

A March report found that systemic racism was pervasive at Ontario's Peel District School Board. Trustee Kathy McDonald told The Current that the issues highlighted in the report are long-standing — and one researcher says racism in education is prevalent in other parts of the country, too.

'They found things that all Black people knew: that our kids were being targeted,' says Kathy McDonald

Kathy McDonald, left, is a trustee for the Peel District School Board. Her son, Benjamin, right, says he faced racism throughout his time as a student in the board. (Submitted by Kathy McDonald)

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Benjamin McDonald recalls the moment an elementary school teacher told him that he didn't have to worry about university — his "kind," he says he was told, "don't go to university."

On Tuesday, the 21-year-old, who is Black, graduated with distinction with a bachelor of science from the University of Toronto.

"Starting off from day one, I just wasn't receiving the support a student should be receiving from teachers," McDonald told The Current's Matt Galloway.

He says the perception that Black students don't typically go to university is an example of systemic racism, which is documented in a recent report, at the Peel District School Board where he studied.

Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said that problems with racism in education are spread across the province, but are 'acute' in Peel Region. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The review of the board published in March found evidence of systemic racism and discrimination, including reports of principals who will "use any excuse" to suspend Black students, and a disproportionate number of Black students being streamed into applied courses rather than university-focused academic courses.

While Black students make up 10 per cent of the secondary school population in Peel, Black students account for more than 20 per cent of suspensions. Some of the reasons for suspensions included wearing hoodies or hoop earrings, according to the report.

"The report I think unveils deep-seated culture of discrimination, racism that is deeply disturbing to be quite frank. I think the report sheds light on a culture that must change," Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said at the time.

Peel District School Board trustee Kathy McDonald, Benjamin's mother, told The Current that the issues highlighted in the report are long-standing. She has been actively involved in fighting against anti-Black racism as part of the board's trustees.

"They found things that all Black people knew: that our kids were being targeted, and learning environments were hostile environments for Black students," she said.

In one example, McDonald says she lined up a slate of Black professionals — a doctor, a justice of the peace and an aeronautical engineer — to speak at a career fair, but they were cancelled by a guidance counsellor who told her that the expectations for Black students are "too high."

McDonald has been a trustee for the Peel District School Board for more than six years. (Submitted by Kathy McDonald)

McDonald says she wants to see some accountability from the school board for the racism it has perpetuated, and questioned the curriculum that's taught.

"If you're only learning about Black people in a negative deficit kind of lens, they don't realize that Black people have made wonderful contributions to this country," she said. "As Black kids, they don't really have a strong sense of self and pride."

In a statement to The Current, the Peel District School Board said the problems at the board are "undeniable," and while it has "identified many parts of the solution," it has "not moved fast enough to make the necessary changes."

"While our commitment to anti-Black racism work today and going forward is real, we also accept there is reason for mistrust sowed by years of inaction in our schools and administration."

Peter Joshua, the board's director of education, was fired on Tuesday after a follow-up report in early June found "dysfunction" among the board's leadership and a "lack of willingness" to address anti-Black racism. That report was commissioned in April after McDonald and another trustee, Nokha Dakroub, declined to mediate with other members of the board.

Black student stereotypes 'typical'

Carl James, a York University professor who studies racism in education, says stories like Benjamin McDonald's are "typical" and not limited to the Peel board.

"It's one of the stories that we keep hearing about students in the Toronto-area. But I've got to draw attention to their evidence of similar kinds of experiences," he said.

"We have known of the same thing [happening] in Montreal. We have some issues coming out of Halifax, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver."

Carl James is a York University professor and the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora. (Mario So Gao/York University)

James added that stereotypes about Black students go beyond the school board, and exist among principals, teachers and even other students.

The Peel District School Board says it is implementing changes, including ending the practice of suspending students from Kindergarten to Grade 3 and a proposed "de-streaming pilot project" for secondary students in the 2021-2022 school year that aims to "mitigate and reverse the impact of systemic racism for Black students in the Peel board." 

While James says the efforts are positive, he worries they won't do enough to change the school board's culture.

"I'm not sure how much the culture itself of schooling will have changed in order to adapt and take on some of those words," he said.

"Have teachers really changed their practices and [started] thinking differently of Black students? Have teachers started thinking that they must engage students in ways that the students will feel a sense of belonging in the school?"

That includes seeing more teachers of colour in a board where two-thirds of teachers are white, while 83 per cent of students are racialized.

A more supportive — and respectful — environment can make a significant difference for Black students, says Benjamin.

"If I was just hearing more positivity — just more, 'Oh, you can do this,' or 'Good job' — more encouragement from our teachers, I think that would make a difference."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from The Canadian Press. Produced by Julie Crysler and Rachel Levy-Mclaughlin.