The Peel District School Board (PDSB) is one of Canada’s most diverse school boards, with 83% of students self-identifying as racialized, with large South Asian, East Asian, and Black student populations. The PDSB contains 257 schools, 155,000 students and is the largest employer in the Peel region. The diversity of its student body is not mirrored in the Board’s staff, however, with 67% self-identifying as white.
In the past year, the Peel District School Board (PDSB) has been the focus of criticism for its failure to address institutional anti-Black racism in its schools. In April 2019, a Brampton school board trustee referred to a majority Black/Brown school by a racist name, sparking outrage from the community. Actions to address this outrage were seen as lacking empathy and capacity to address community concerns. This incident, along with years of parent complaints, sparked a review of the PDSB by the Province. This Provincial review displayed overwhelming evidence of anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and anti-Muslim racism in the PDSB, with staff either perpetrating or being complicit in these offences. The Board of Trustees actions to address the twenty-seven time-sensitive directives were issued by the Minister following this review was seen as inefficient, leading to a second investigation looking into these efforts. This subsequent investigation revealed a pattern of weak governance and apathy by the Board, leading to the resignation of the Director of Education and the appointment of an Interim Director, along with a Board Supervisor.
Timeline of Recent Race Relations in the PDSB:
In April 2019, Brampton Trustee Will Davies referred to McCrimmon Middle School as “McCriminal” while speaking with two trustees and PDSB staff. This comment led to outrage as community members denounced this apathetic view of racism in the school district by trustees. It took until an October 2019 meeting of the Board for Davies to apologize for these comments. At this meeting Alexis Dawson, a member of the Ontario Alliance of Black Educators, read a letter from this coalition expressing distress over the Board’s lack of inaction in addressing anti-Black racism internally and in the school district more widely. Dawson demanded action in addressing institutional and behavioural racism.
Provincial Review of the PDSB
Following the above incident and years of community complaints, the Ontario Minister of Education requested a review of the PDSB’s equity policies and outcomes in November 2019. Published February 28, 2020, this report displayed a pattern of dysfunctional governance and highlighted institutional racism in the PTSB.
Areas Highlighted by the Report
Anti-Black Student Discipline
The report displayed disproportionate disciplinary action targeted at Black students, with Black student’s receiving harsher punishment for lesser crimes. De-escalation and progressive discipline tactics were not used when confronting Black students. Police violence in students targeted Black students, with the notable example of a Grade 1 girl who is Black being handcuffed and forced to the ground by a school police officer.
Black Students were disproportionately suspended, often without legitimate reason, with 78% of Black secondary students and 40% of Black elementary students suspended for ‘Other’ reasons, beyond the exhaustive list of violations available to staff upon expulsion.
Racist Streaming Practices
Black students were seen to be systematically and disproportionately funnelled into applied and non-academic programs even among top Black students, restricting student opportunity beyond high school. A desperate need for Black guidance counselors was expressed, as White guidance counselors were consistently seen to fail to communicate the repercussions of joining applied programs to students and parents, and failing to take student interests or accolades into account when making these decisions. AP and IB programs severely lack Black students, with AP programs only showing a 1.7% Black population, compared to the 10% proportion of Black students in the overall student body.
Repeated calls for reforming the Board’s Eurocentric curriculum have gone unheard. The Black-history courses that are offered commonly do not count for university credit, and teachers do not receive professional credit for teaching these classes. Education efforts during Black history month were repeatedly questioned or seen as tokenizing.
Discriminatory Comments and Conduct
Students frequently used the N-word in class, with teachers doing little to respond to these offences. When faced with instances of racism, staff often failed to communicate about accountability measures to racialized students and parents. There is a history of White staff making demeaning comments to racialized students.
Senior staff lacked any interest in engaging the community in governance. Parents often felt disrespected and disregarded by the senior administration and Board.
The report goes on to detail the dysfunctional governance of the Board of Trustees, Director of Education, and Senior Administration, stating that a culture of fear led staff to believe that vocalizing equity concerns would be seen as criticizing the PDSB and therefore jeopardize their careers. Those who did advocate for these issues were commonly transferred out of their positions, leading any initiative they took to be paused. This high turnover led initiatives like We Walk Together to stall and fail. Racialized staff who were promoted to senior positions felt tokenized, often pushed to deal with equity issues when needed.
Repeated instances of nepotism and favouritism are serious concerns in the hiring process. Senior staff commonly lack an understanding or capacity to carry out their fundamental responsibilities. Tensions between board members and senior staff led to ballooning of this dysfunction. There is little procedural transparency and accountability in the hiring process and grievances system.
Notably, the concerns brought up by this report mirror concerns raised in a 1992 report by Stephen Lewis investigating systemic racism in Ontario’s institutions. In the 1992, Report on Race Relations in Ontario, Lewis states:
“Where are the courses in Black history? Where are the visible minority teachers? Why are there so few role models? Why do our White guidance counsellors know so little of different cultural backgrounds? Why are racist incidents and epithets tolerated? Why are there double standards of discipline? Why are minority students streamed? Why do they discourage us from University?... How long does it take to change the curriculum so that we’re a part of it?”
All of the above issues clearly have not been addressed in the 28 years since this report, showing a lack of commitment and interest in addressing anti-Black racism in the PDSB.
Subsequent Investigation of the PDSB
27 time-sensitive directives were issued by the Minister of Education upon the publication of the provincial review in the hopes that the school board would finally right this history of apathy towards racism. However, the Minister of Education saw the PDSB’s response to the 27 directives as ineffective, triggering an investigation into this response6. On May 15th, 2020, this investigation was released, revealing a check-list approach to these directives by the Board, lacking any internalization or concern for the findings of the report6. The investigation found an adversarial attitude among senior staff towards the community, with the Chair believing that the “community has been after us” and that “it is against our human rights to force us to apologize”6. Due to these attitudes, the Board failed to act in an efficient or effective way when trying to address the concerns laid out by the report. Arleen Huggins, author of this investigation, wrapped up the document by saying this:
“I have determined that the collective Board and the Director’s Office is lacking both the ability and capacity, and perhaps even more importantly, the will, to address the findings in the Report, and therefore future non-compliance with the Minister’s binding Directions is probable.”
Due to these findings the Director of Education was relieved of his position on June 23, 2020, being replaced by Colleen Russel-Rawkins, former Associate Director of Equity of the TDSB, as an Interim Director of Education. She will be the first Black Director of Education in Canadian history. Minister Lecce has also appointed Bruce Rodriguez as a Board supervisor as it attempts to confront systemic racism.
By Noah Kelly, Intern