PDSB in racially charged chaos as trustees slam report clearing colleague over ‘McCriminal’ remark
A meeting of the Peel District School Board was once again mired in controversy as trustees and community members cried foul over an integrity commissioner’s report that cleared Brampton Trustee William Davies of any wrongdoing in regard to his statement about McCrimmon Middle School, when he called it “McCriminal”, an incident that has left the board in turmoil and triggered a review by the Ministry of Education.
The integrity commissioner’s report was slammed by several trustees, Kathy McDonald in particular — a Black trustee who received particularly negative attention in the report — for furthering what they see as systemic issues of anti-Black racism in the board.
McCrimmon, located in the north end of Brampton, has a large Black student body and the rest of its students are overwhelmingly non-white. Davies, the trustee, is white.
The gallery, filled with a large contingent of Black community members, was vocal in both supporting McDonald and other trustees who spoke out against the report, while condemning the words of the integrity commissioner. Board chair Stan Cameron was forced to silence them several times.
The public gallery at Tuesday's meeting was packed nearly to capacity.
Tuesday’s meeting was a makeup for the regularly scheduled Nov. 13 board meeting that was cancelled after some trustees said they did not want to attend in the face of mounting tension.
The decision to cancel the meeting came after a stunning announcement by the provincial government that the Ministry of Education will step in to review growing concerns over “anti-Black racism and lack of adherence to governance, leadership, and human resources practices.”
Integrity Commissioner Sandhya Kohli’s report makes for confusing reading at times, and many trustees and community members raised serious issues with how the report was approached, the method of the investigation, as well as the harsh singling out of Trustee McDonald, who has advocated for community members trying to get answers from the board.
Put simply, Kohli, who was briefly in attendance Tuesday evening, leaving before the community had a chance to ask their questions, could find no evidence to suggest that Davies had racist intent behind the use of the word “McCriminal” when describing the school which his own children had attended (now graduated and in high school). The comments were made during a June lunch meeting with fellow trustees and staff.
Integrity Commissioner Sandhya Kohli
“(Davies) has consistently engaged in ethical and mindful conduct that is befitting of a school board trustee (both racialized and non-racialized senior staff and educators) confirm that although the respondent is jovial and light-hearted by nature, they have never witnessed him engaging in distasteful or demeaning actions,” the report reads.
The conclusion of the report further drove a wedge between trustees, with some stating they couldn’t accept the report’s findings.
“I wholeheartedly reject it,” said Trustee Nokha Dakroub (Mississsauga - Ward 9 & 10). “I am deeply appalled by the report in its entirety.”
According to the report, Davies admits to using the word McCriminal, and he has since apologized. In his statement to the commissioner during her investigation, he said the term he was using was actually “McCrimminol”, not referencing the word “criminal”, and simply repeated a nickname his children used to describe themselves as students of McCrimmon middle school.
Trustee Nokha Dakroub (Mississsauga - Ward 9 & 10) said she "wholeheartedly rejects" the report.
A quarter of the school’s population is Black (according to the report) and other trustees took offence to the remark as being a reference to those students specifically.
“It’s not funny, it’s not punny, it’s hurtful, it sends the wrong message to a board that is supposed to be advocating (against) for one, bullying, name-calling and making sure that our kids feel safe,” McDonald said.
The same was said by members of the community, describing the integrity commissioner’s suggestion of a spelling discrepancy between “McCriminal” and “McCrimminol”, with two different meanings as “comical” and insulting to their intelligence.
It’s unclear why Kohli would even bring up this defence, after Davies admitted using a word that could be considered racist and it has been widely established that “McCriminal” is the pejorative nickname commonly used to disparage the school.
Members of the public took a concerned stance, stating the report only served to perpetuate the anti-Black racism on the board, faced by Black students on a daily basis.
Trustee Kathy McDonald (Brampton Wards 3 & 4)
“I’m wondering if you understand the impact of that word, regardless of the intent,” said Coco Veira, the mother of 26-year-old Jordan Veira, a former PDSB student and outspoken poet in the Black community who passed away this past June after an asthma attack.
Veira went on to reference the issues young Black teens struggle with on a daily basis, both because of interactions by police (data shows that Peel police have targeted Black men in carding stops) and within their schools. She pointed to the Dafonte Miller case in Durham, where a young Black teen was beaten by an off-duty Toronto police officer. His injuries were so severe one of his eyes needed to be removed. The case is currently in the midst of a trial in Oshawa.
“They are criminalized and their lives are hanging in the balance, their eyes are ripped out of their skulls,” Veira said during her emotional delegation.
However, the integrity commissioner’s report said it could find no evidence linking the “McCriminal” name to any anti-Black sentiments.
“The term “McCrimmonal” and not “McCriminal” is a term commonly used by students to refer to themselves as students of McCrimmon middle school, and is applied as a humorous slang term,” Kohli’s report reads. “At no time did (Trustee Davies) intend to insult a racialized group at McCrimmon Middle school.”
Kohli appears to contradict herself in her suggestion that Davies uttered a different word with a different spelling with a different meaning that simply describes how students identify themselves if they go to the school.
After claiming “McCrimmonal” is akin to saying someone is a Bramptonian, Kohli singles out the practice of students who give other schools pejorative nicknames.
“Should we assume that those calling Port Credit Secondary School ‘Pot Credit’ implies all students smoke pot? Shall we assume that all those attending Agnes Taylor public school experience torture because they call the school ‘Agony Taylor’?”
It’s not clear what makes the “McCrimminal” name any different, she states. But it’s unclear why she first suggests it was “McCrimmonal” that was actually used, as a simple descriptor with no negative connotation, but then the commissioner switches her justification by suggesting the negative nickname, which is racially charged, shouldn’t be taken in such a harsh way because, just like the pejorative nicknames of other schools, it does not mean students who attend McCrimmon Middle School are criminals.
The problem Tuesday, was that Kohli did not stay long enough to answer the many questions trustees and members of the public had about her controversial report.
“To receive this report would be to normalize inappropriate comments,” Dakroub said, who also unsuccessfully attempted to have the other school nicknames taken out of the report in order to avoid perpetuating any stigmas around them.
“Our job as a board of education is to empower students, the PDSB’s mission is to inspire success, confidence and hope, and comments such as these and this particular report…inspire none of that,” Dakroub said.
Trustee William Davies (Brampton Wards 2 & 6)
Kohli’s report takes particular aim at Trustee McDonald, calling her accusations of racism in Davies' remark as a “giant and spurious leap”.
“To bring forth an interpretation of ‘McCrimmonal’ as an act of racism does much to both cheapen and diminish legitimate claims of racial bias or micro-aggressions, not only for the Black community, but for all groups subject to historical colonization and not part of the Dominant White culture,” Kohli writes. “This disingenuous and harmful claim has had unfortunate consequences whereby upset and misunderstanding have followed in the public realm and the most serious fallout is that a school board that should be concentrating on elevating the needs of all learners and focusing on the careful expenditure of its funds to meet their needs is weighed down by the unfounded accusations of racism by the ‘McCrimmonal’ reference.”
Members of the public expressed incredulity that Kohli had accepted the “McCrimmonal” spelling and alternative meaning of that so-called nickname, after all the evidence presented that the term commonly used is “McCriminal” which is clearly understood by both students and others in the community as a play on “criminal”.
McDonald pushed back against the statements made about her, starting off her remarks by simply asking Kohli whether she had interviewed any Black staff or students at McCrimmon as part of her investigation.
“I’m not going to be interrogated about my report,” Kohli responded, refusing to answer the basic question.
McDonald went on to question the report’s findings, and the statements made about her. “It reads like an attempt to publicly discredit me,” she said.
“This report is riddled with hostility toward me, which I will handle in another forum,” she added.
Additionally, McDonald condemned what she viewed as a defence of Davies in the report, which repeatedly makes mention of him as a “jovial” trustee of good character.
“If a jolly and jovial trustee comes and calls me a n - - - - - is that okay?” she asked.
In several instances, Kohli was combative in defending her report, accusing trustees of having ulterior motives to undermine its findings.
“The fact remains that when you go behind and question the line of inquiry and the investigation of an integrity commissioner, challenging those lines of inquiry, it is unfair and undermines the overall impact, the accountability framework and the ability to elevate transparency at the board level,” she said.
Her comments confused many during the meeting, after she claimed to defend transparency but wouldn’t even explain who she interviewed to reach her decision. It is common practice for integrity commissioners to not only include such information right in a decision report, but to detail what interview subjects said.
But the most objectionable aspect of Kohli’s behavior Tuesday was her refusal to answer basic questions of the trustees, to whom she is supposed to answer, and then claim they had ulterior motives, without explaining why she would make such an accusation when trustees were simply trying to understand how she had done her work and what informed her conclusions.
The eventual vote saw four trustees voting against receiving the report, while six trustees — five of them white — voted in favour of it; Trustee Susan Benjamin, an Indo-Canadian, being the sixth.
While many in the audience took to the microphone to condemn trustees for accepting the controversial report, Board Chair Cameron was quick to point out that the receipt did not mean an endorsement of the findings.
“Receiving the report does not exonerate Trustee Davies,” Cameron said. “He is still responsible for what he said and still responsible for the hurt and harm that was created in the community.”
Board Chair Stan Cameron
Moving forward, along with the review by the Ministry of Education, trustees will be undergoing further training to address issues of discrimination, equity and inclusion, and anti-Black racism.
“We know that this is a long hill for us to climb,” Cameron said.
“We are happy that the ministry is here, that the ministry is going to review the way we do business and the way we treat people,” he added. “It was sincere and it was difficult to do, because when you do that and you’re in leadership positions, you’re admitting that things are not good.”
The admission comes on the heels of several weeks where the board had been reluctant to address any of these issues.
Ahead of the province making its announcement of the review of PDSB, the board released its own statement acknowledging that they had reached out to the ministry for help.
The board’s statement makes no mention of the anti-Black racism or issues with governance referred to by the province in its stunning announcement, regarding a school system whose students are predominantly non-white, but whose teachers and administrators are predominantly white.
In the letter to the ministry sent by Cameron and forwarded by the board to The Pointer, it merely states, “Given the many circumstances taking place we ask that your office offer our board some assistance and intervention in what has become an increasingly difficult board to manage.”
However, when the province put out their own press release, education minister Stephen Lecce made no secret of his reasons for stepping in.
"Schools must be safe, inclusive, and welcoming places for students, staff, and the entire community,” Lecce stated in Thursday’s release. “Allegations related to equity in the Peel District School Board have raised concerns, specifically related to anti-Black racism and lack of adherence to governance, leadership, and human resources practices. These concerns have been raised by families, students, the Peel District School Board Director of Education, the board of trustees, and members of the broader community.”
Additionally, it took months for PDSB Director of Education Peter Joshua to admit that the PDSB could have handled the situation much better.
“We acknowledge the truly negative impact that this situation has caused to members of the McCrimmon community, including students, families and staff, and to the broader Black community. I cannot, and do not, speak for the Board of Trustees, but I know they will agree that there is no place in our schools and work sites for anti-Black racism,” he said in a released statement. “Although it remains deeply entrenched in institutions, this doesn't mean that we ignore it and walk away. We mustn't treat it as invisible. Through our policies, beliefs and values, the Peel District School Board condemns anti-Black racism.”
Joshua goes on to add that the decision not to issue any statement following a heated October board meeting was to “minimize the trauma” to students and families of the McCrimmon community. However, he admits this was a bad decision.
“What we have learned, and what we know now, is that not issuing a statement resulted in members of our community, especially members of the Black community, feeling unsupported and abandoned…For this, we apologize. I commit that we will work to develop a new process for determining the need for public statements that demonstrate care and support, through an anti-oppression lens,” he states. “It is clear that we need to review and enhance the work we are doing to address bias and anti-Black racism in Peel schools and work sites. There are gaps that we must address, and we are prepared to partner with the Black community to review our existing We Rise Together action plan and to take any necessary next steps.”
PDSB Director of Education Peter Joshua
However, it is Joshua, along with the PDSB, named in a scathing complaint filed to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario by Poleen Grewal, the board’s associate director and its head of equity and inclusion, who alleges widespread anti-Black and anti-South Asian behaviour in the board and by Joshua, in her human rights complaint.
The board and Joshua have denied the damning allegations.
But it’s clear, the PDSB, which does not accurately reflect the region it serves, is in chaos, with the province now taking the remarkable step of intervening to find a way forward as tensions continue to mount.
Poleen Grewal, the board’s associate director and its head of equity and inclusion
Further information about the ministry’s ongoing review is expected to be released today. According to Trustee McDonald, a final report by the province is not expected to be made public until February 2020.
The controversial integrity commissioner report could be used as further evidence of disturbing attitudes that persist among those connected to the board.
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