Associate director of Peel District School Board files damning discrimination-based human rights complaint against director and the board
Poleen Grewal, hired by the Peel District School Board, the third largest school board in Canada – and one of its most diverse – to lead its equity mandate, has filed a damning complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, alleging the board’s director and the board itself discriminated against her and then retaliated against her for raising concerns over systemic anti-Black and anti-South Asian conduct within the organization.
The allegations in the complaint paint a disturbing picture of a board whose 154,000 students are overwhelmingly non-white, while its teachers and administrators are overwhelmingly white.
“I am a Sikh woman of South Asian ancestry and believe my right to equal treatment with respect to freedom from discrimination and harassment in employment…has been infringed by Peter Joshua…Director of Education and the Peel District School Board,” Grewal wrote in her complaint, filed March 8.
PDSB Associate Director Poleen Grewal, right
In their joint response filed to the human rights tribunal, the PDSB and Joshua deny all the allegations in Grewal’s complaint and call for it to be dismissed “as it has no reasonable prospect of success and no merit.”
The Pointer obtained all available filings in the case from the HRTO under a freedom of information request.
Grewal alleges that in the fall of 2017 she was asked by Joshua to withdraw from her role on a promotional panel because she had supervised one of the South Asian-Canadian candidates that had applied for the job. She said rumours began to circulate within the organization that Grewal was related to the South Asian-Canadian candidates just because of their shared ethnicity. Since she was friendly with the candidate she had supervised, Grewal agreed to recuse herself from that candidate's interview process. But Joshua directed her to declare a conflict of interest in the entire process and she was removed from the decision-making panel altogether.
“I immediately voiced the inequity of this discriminatory application of the COI to me as a South Asian woman based on the untrue rumour/stereotype that the South Asian population is not diverse, rather homogeneous and all related to each other,” Grewal wrote in her complaint.
In their response, the board and Joshua state that Grewal was directed to withdraw from the entire process not because of any concern that she might be related to a candidate, but because of her friendship with one of those seeking the promotion.
“Ms. Grewal agreed to recuse herself from the interview of that candidate, but believed that it would still be appropriate to participate in all other interviews," the response states. “There were a total of eight candidates. Mr. Joshua was of the view, quite correctly, that the integrity of the process required the same interview panel for all candidates.”
Grewal returned to work in May, after an extended leave. “Effective November 7, 2018, I have been on medical leave, as a result of feeling unsafe due to Joshua’s targeted behaviour towards me in response to the expression of my truth regarding my representation and voice as a racialized woman,” she wrote at the time her application was filed with the HRTO.
Joshua and the board deny any retaliation against Grewal and in their response include numerous examples of how Joshua has supported her in her work.
PDSB Director Peter Joshua
Grewal also details in her complaint allegations that the board and Joshua refused to confront Islamophobia properly and sidelined her in her role handling the crucial equity and inclusion mandate for one of the most diverse school board’s in the country.
“In October 2018, the National Canadian Council of Muslims (“NCCM”) report came out regarding concerns of Islamophobia in our Peel schools,” Grewal states in her complaint. “I emailed Joshua my concerns from an equity/anti-discrimination perspective about not having a media spokesperson for this report and the importance of having a ‘face’ of the Board to speak to the authenticity of our concerns and actions given the narratives of Islamophobia being shared by our Muslim students.”
She alleges that Joshua kept the report from being made public and sidelined her, preventing Grewal from carrying out her mandate, instead, directing unqualified communications staff to handle any messaging over the mounting controversy.
“Again, the equity/anti-discrimination part of my job is thwarted when Joshua silences me by indicating he and Communications will speak to this matter.”
Grewal expressed concern in her complaint over the problematic way the board chose to deal with matters that she should have overseen.
“After the Board was publicly raked over the coals in the handling of the Muslim Friday prayer situation a few years ago, we had the opportunity to re-build trust with a community that has been marginalized in our schools and in society in general.” But she alleges that the board has repeatedly instead placed a priority on damage control, rather than addressing the central issue of equity within a board whose students are predominantly non-white.
In its response to allegations regarding Peel’s Muslim community the board stated: “Mr. Joshua did not ‘take over’ Ms. Grewal’s portfolio. Ms. Grewal was not ‘silenced and sidelined’, nor was she ‘thwarted’ as alleged. It was entirely appropriate for Mr. Joshua to take the lead in dealing with communication issues of a public nature.”
But while this section of the response states Joshua worked with parents and groups representing Peel’s Islamic community, it does not address the critical report by the NCCM and does not explain why Joshua prevented it from ever being made public, as Grewal alleges.
Another issue she details in the complaint, involves allegations of anti-Black conduct by a principal at David Suzuki Secondary School in Brampton.
“In the Spring of 2018, there were serious allegations of anti-Black racism against the Principal at David Suzuki SS which were documented in a workplace assessment report by an external investigator,” Grewal’s complaint states. “Even though Human Resources and workplace investigations are under my equity portfolio I was silenced from any dialogue regarding next steps and sidelined from managing this aspect of my portfolio when the matter was given to my academic colleague, Wendy Dowling, to deal with.”
She reports in her complaint that despite the evidence of the external investigator and her recommendations, once again, Joshua allegedly sidelined Grewal and dealt with the principal without acknowledging the “core issue of anti-Black racism”.
The board responded that there was no finding that the principal at David Suzuki was a “racist” and that after the negative external review “she was placed on leave temporarily to complete training and was assessed again for her ability to lead a school as Principal before re-assignment to a different school as a fresh start with conditions.”
Grewal alleges that such practices, handling matters of equity and inclusion outside of her own stated role as the person responsible for all such issues, hurts her credibility with parents and members of the community who know she is the senior staffer who is supposed to oversee these matters which have significant consequences on student learning.
The complaint also alleges that when Grewal was informed of the promotion of a white female employee in the human rights department who, according to her complaint, was not qualified for the job, the board did not support Grewal’s assessment of the matter during a meeting.
“I was challenged by the Director of Human Resources during this meeting and Joshua did nothing to support me and to date, nothing has been done to address the underlying issue of preferential hiring and promotion of certain white women within Human Resources.”
The board, in its response, denies Grewal’s characterization of the meeting and the dynamics regarding promotional practices within the HR department.
A key element of Grewal’s complaint hinges on her handling of the controversy over the teaching of the book To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1960 fictional novel by Harper Lee that deals with a Black man in Alabama defended by a white lawyer after a young white woman is raped.
Grewal details how, as the head of the board’s equity and inclusion portfolio, she had provided literature to schools in the board regarding sensitive issues around the teaching of TKAM, which touches on sensitive themes of race. The book, which uses the N word, has been widely criticized from a modern perspective for devaluing the voice and lived experiences of its Black characters and for portraying a white hero as the saviour of Black people.
Grewal worked on an approach in close consultation with parents and other stakeholders in the Black community to help educators grappling over the teaching of a dated text in a modern context, especially within Canada’s entrenched multicultural values.
But she alleges that, once again, Joshua, was more concerned about damage control and appeasing institutional attitudes than what was best for students and educators.
The outline Grewal and other stakeholders created was distributed to schools and stated educators could either choose to not teach the book or, if they wanted to include it, advised them about how it should be framed for students through a lens that focused on the lived experiences and value of the Black characters.
Grewal alleges that after the media began reporting on the TKAM memo that she oversaw, the Toronto Star, in multiple opinion columns attacked Grewal for even suggesting that the book could be removed, if teachers chose.
She states in the complaint that the Star columns were “personally targeting me and what (the opinion writer) described as the ‘censorship’ of TKAM.”
Grewal alleges that Joshua and the board immediately refused to accept her concern that the Toronto Star columns had attacked her because of her identity as a racialized woman, as Joshua felt the reason Grewal was targeted was because of her position with the board.
“I countered that, (the columnist) targeted me because I am a racialized woman talking about the equity work of anti-Black racism and that (the columnist) had also targeted other persons/educators who are racialized (Black) who have stood up for equity work of antiBlack racism.”
Poleen Grewal, right
In its response the board states that, “Knowing that Ms. Grewal would be upset with the (Star) opinion piece, Mr. Joshua made several unsuccessful attempts to speak with her by telephone on the evening of the publication. Mr. Joshua spoke personally with Ms. Grewal on the morning of October 22, 2018, in advance of the Director’s Office meeting. Mr. Joshua agreed with Ms. Grewal’s assertion that she had been unfairly targeted by (the column). Mr. Joshua also respected Ms. Grewal’s view that she had been targeted as “a racialized woman talking about equity work of anti-black racism”, although he was of the view that Ms. Grewal had more likely been targeted because of her position as an Associate Director and as the sender of the TKAM memorandum.”
But Grewal alleges that throughout the mounting attacks over the memorandum she had created with stakeholders in the Black community, the board, and Joshua specifically, failed to adequately support her.
The board stated in its response that, “Throughout the (Toronto Star) ordeal, Mr. Joshua and the Board made every effort to fully support Ms. Grewal. She was neither isolated nor devalued.”
Another problematic issue surrounding the board’s position on the book was its decision to remove a key comment from a revered Black educator who was hired to advise the board and produce a report on matters regarding education and the need for awareness of anti-Black bias.
“Dr. Carl James from York University was hired to engage in research around the We Rise Together initiative. In November 2018, Dr. James sent the Chief Research Officer… and I an email with a copy of the draft report entitled, ‘We Rise Together - Peel District School Board’. As part of this report Dr. James had included a postscript around… the novel, TKAM.”
Grewal says the following words, regarding the concern over teaching TKAM outside a modern lens, were removed by the board from the public report by Dr. James: “…for what good are these activities if they do not ultimately change the inequitable and racism contexts in which students are required to learn and where their educational materials re-inscribe that racism?”
In its response, the board and Joshua address why the comment by Dr. James was removed before his report was made public. “Dr. James added some recommendations regarding the TKAM matter. Because TKAM was never included in Dr. James’ research mandate and the TKAM recommendation expressed Dr. James’ personal opinion without it having been part of his study [a senior board staff member] suggested it might be misplaced from a research perspective. Mr. Joshua did not disagree.”
Grewal saw the decision in a different light.
“The removal of this section from the report speaks to Joshua’s continued behaviour in silencing conversations about aspects of the Board’s anti-Black racism initiatives like assessing TKAM through a critical anti-oppression lens because of its impact on Black students, staff, and community,” Grewal writes in her complaint. “Joshua is not interested in any spotlight on this part of my portfolio because of having to address the White backlash and fragility with regard to the Board’s stance on anti-Black racism initiatives.”
In January of this year an internal email was sent out by the board to all educators, while Grewal remained on leave, stating that its ongoing equity and inclusion focus was shifting the emphasis away from “blame and shame” approaches. In her complaint, Grewal points out that there was never any mention of “blame and shame” in any of the work she had done.
Among her list of remedies in the human rights application, Grewal is seeking a written apology from Joshua, a board-wide email retracting the suggestion of a “blame and shame” approach, a formal mechanism to share all equity and anti-discrimination initiatives/reports with trustees and anti-oppression training for all senior board staff and trustees to ensure their attitudes align with those shared by the diverse community the board serves.
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