The decades-long anxiety among PDSB's trustees and executives over demographic change should no longer be tolerated
In 1991, a few months after the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the body that upholds Charter protections and the province’s own code of rights, had ruled against the Peel District School Board in a landmark case, some 6,000 residents across Mississauga and Brampton signed a petition in protest.
Despite legal advice and growing criticism across the country, thousands of locals wanted the school board’s trustees to appeal an OHRC decision that prevented the PDSB from banning Sikh students who wore a kirpan, one of the five articles of faith that baptized Sikhs keep on their body at all times.
Unlike the PDSB, no other school board anywhere in Canada had a policy banning the religious right of wearing a kirpan, a small hilted blade that is sheathed and worn close to the body either under or over a garment, and despite Peel’s exploding Sikh population, accommodation of the faith’s unique religious practices was not seen as a responsibility but a threat.
Comments by some of the thousands who signed the petition were documented in media reports and were included in a doctoral thesis by University of Toronto student Mary S. Martin. “What’s to stop a Satanist from bringing his religious weapons?” said one.
PDSB’s vice chair at the time, Gary Heighington, refused to accept the decision of a “quasi-judicial body” and he demanded the case be heard by an “actual court of the land.” He complained that other school boards had undermined the PDSB by “knuckling under the pressure of the Sikh community,” as chronicled in Martin’s paper.
Others suggested immigrants should start their own private schools if they wanted to bring religion into places of learning.
Government officials had tried in vain to dissuade the board’s elected officials from making the doomed move. The Ontario ministry of citizenship, which was later dissolved into the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, along with the Human Rights Commission, told the PDSB that an appeal would only do further harm, driving a deeper wedge between the board and the Sikh community.
During the human rights commission’s hearings, counsel for the tribunal were left dumbfounded when they learned that throughout the years-long process of trying to work out an agreement with the Sikh community, Zubeda Vahed, the board’s multiculturalism and race relations expert, was never consulted, she was not present during meetings with community members and was not invited to participate when its harsh kirpan policies were created.
She testified during the hearing that she was the sole “multicultural” officer in what was the largest school board in the country at the time (prior to Toronto’s amalgamation) and that she had no decision-making input when Sikh students were suspended for wearing their kirpan.
The board had been told, after the decision came down against it, that an appeal could cost as much as $350,000.
The human rights commission had ruled that students were being discriminated against by the PDSB, and that the claim kirpans could be used as weapons, while true, didn’t explain why baseball bats, scissors, knives for food, compasses in geometry sets and many other items had not been banned by the board, despite evidence that some of these had actually been used as weapons, while there was not one example anywhere in Canada of a kirpan used as a weapon.
But a group called Concerned Parents of Peel had marshalled its considerable influence and it wasn’t hard to convince sympathetic trustees who refused to tolerate the increasing diversity that demographic change was forcing on the board.
Members of the Sikh community gathered inside the chamber where the trustees met for the vote, but their words were confronted with silence. The motion to proceed with the appeal passed.
When the Ontario Court, General Division, heard the appeal, it upheld the rights commissions’ finding of discrimination and it was quickly thrown out.
“I don’t think we were discriminatory or prejudiced in any intentional way. We just didn’t understand,” Janet McDougald, the long-time former chair of the PDSB told Martin almost two decades after she and other trustees voted to appeal the human rights commission’s decision.
It’s now 2020 and the dynamics of the PDSB seem frozen in time.
The same questions critics asked almost thirty years ago are being put to a small coterie of officials who hold a virtual death grip on the fortunes of 18,000 staffers, more than 155,000 students, and 257 schools in today’s Peel District School Board – the third largest in the land, with an annual budget of $2 billion, funded by the residents of Ontario, including those in Peel, where about two thirds of rate payers are visible minorities.
Grade 3-level math suggests the board does not represent those it is charged to serve. Almost 85 percent of its students are not white, about 75 percent of staff including senior administrators, are.
If you don’t think this demographic mismatch should be raised, try attending the next public board meeting, or take a glance back through more than three decades of history.
For those keeping score of the efforts to force change, here’s a breakdown of the composition that includes the majority of students who seem to end up on the wrong side of the votes: South Asian (45.3 percent), White (16.8 per cent), Black (10.2 percent), and Middle Eastern/ East Asian (11 percent).
This is comparable to the demographic makeup of Mississauga and Brampton, which in rounded percentages sits at 70-30 – visible minorities to whites.
What’s more troubling is the board being ripe with systemic racism towards Black students. A simple statistic tells all: Black students are 2.2 times more likely to be suspended than others (for things like wearing a hoodie or hoop earings) – bringing to mind the old Peel police carding program which showed Black residents in the two cities were randomly stopped, in the absence of any suspicion, at three times the rate of their white neighbours, with no explanation ever provided.
The PDSB critics (academics, the Education Ministry, outraged community groups, the media and students) have duly recorded or commented on this discrimination.
Yet PDSB leaders seem intransigent, even reactionary, and have been slow to install much needed change.
Now the province, and its education minister Stephen Lecce, has forced their hand.
This past Wednesday, executives, trustees, and the public, met virtually at PDSB’s Mississauga headquarters. And true to form, a history that goes back decades, the top rung of the board ignored calls to ditch its intolerant culture.
Board chair Brad MacDonald kicked off the night by regurgitating the education ministry’s newly mandated orders, a follow-up to the toxic March investigation report which revealed systemic discrimination, especially against Black students.
MacDonald gave an oral report of the board’s new obligations mandated under the provincial review, and said there’s lots to do to “rebuild relationships” and “improve” outcomes for students and staff. “We have to work as a cohesive unit,” he noted. Summoning more happy talk, he said the board has “to return to effective and respectful governance that is focused on students so we can eliminate anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination.”
Noble sentiments, surely. But like everything emanating from the board’s upper ranks, it was nothing more than lip service that has been paid for more than thirty years, and was met with contempt by trustee Kathy McDonald.
There was plenty of outrage to go around. Black activists continue a frontline fight for the rights of their children, and trustee Nokha Dakroub is also firmly in McDonald’s corner. Poleen Grewal, the board’s anti-discrimination chief, has also been pushing for change internally, but she is now on leave after filing a case against the board last year for allegedly violating her human rights. She names PDSB Director Peter Joshua as the key aggressor, a man, according to the head of equity and inclusion, who seems determined to undermine her efforts. He denies her accusations.
Trustees Kathy McDonald, left, and Nokha Dakroub.
There’s widespread agreement in that all have lost faith in the board’s leadership.
McDonald said the chair’s repeated oral addresses on the provincial investigation into institutionalized discrimination simply prove the dysfunctional and clueless leadership. She asked for written reports in the future and that they be delivered “before” the meetings, as is standard practice, and required under the rules. Why, she asked, weren’t trustees and the public being given a chance to see the reports in advance, share them with stakeholders and prepare questions for debate, especially now that votes on the most important issue facing the board have to be taken?
One would expect “oral” walk-on reports in some autocratic dictatorship, but in the elected body that guides Canada’s third largest school system?
The chair’s presentation, and director Joshua’s comments were supposed to reveal what the board had done to meet the 27 binding directives handed down by Queen’s Park.
Which, to no one’s surprise, is virtually nothing.
They both repeated the directives and said work had begun to meet the province’s orders, but offered few details.
The expectations of Minister Lecce include mandatory human rights training for board members, evaluations of a range of equity measures including fair hiring, the eradication of nepotism and the first ever performance evaluation of Joshua since his hiring three years ago, including how he has addressed or failed to effectively address anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and other problems with diversity that have plagued the board under his watch.
Another twist to the Wednesday meeting is that an independent mediator appointed by the province, will not interview McDonald or Dakroub because they have dropped out of the process – after the board recently displayed its unwillingness to cooperate with them in the provincial review. Stakeholders within the Black community joined them.
PDSB Director Peter Joshua
These are the same people who spearheaded the provincial probe in the first place. Both trustees have spent months doing the heavy lifting, asking policy questions, making suggestions and advocating for students who have faced unfair suspensions, others being put in damaging educational streams and those that do not see themselves reflected in the curriculum or among those tasked with nurturing their educational development.
Now, McDonald and Dakroub, the only ones who have taken the issue seriously, are being ignored while their white colleagues sit silently, unconcerned that so many of the young people they’re supposed to lift up, are sinking.
But the mediation will go on, with them. It’s unclear what they will have to say to the mediator, they have hardly said a word about the problem in months.
Having seen enough, Lecce dropped more stunning news this week, that Arleen Huggins will now investigate the board’s compliance, or lack of compliance, with the directives, which the province said it fears will not be met, after witnessing the treatment of Kathy McDonald since its alarming review came down in March.
The ministry concluded (rightly so) that it is concerned the board can’t work together to provide good governance to the students.
This dysfunction within the board makes it doubly hard to “rebuild trust” with the Black community, said McDonald, and her call for more transparency on Wednesday was voted down despite the night beginning with a claimed commitment to better transparency by the chair.
Is McDonald being targeted – much like the black students within the PDSB system?
With charges of systemic racism hanging over the meeting, McDonald wanted to know why Black students are 2.2 times more likely to be suspended than other students and what the board is doing right now to right the wrongs against current students who have been unfairly and severely disciplined for behaviour that did not warrant it.
She asked questions of the chair and director Joshua while other trustees remained silent, including Sue Lawton. Remember her? She was the acting chair last year when the term “McCriminal” was addressed during a public meeting after it was uttered by trustee William Davies to describe McCrimmon Middle School in Brampton – located in the north-end with a large Black student body. Lawton shut parents down, as they tried to get answers to their questions, declaring that Davies didn’t make the comment, but he later confessed he did. This set off a firestorm of protest, but Davies wasn’t even admonished when his case was studied by an integrity commissioner. McDonald said Davies’ comments were hurtful, and later told The Pointer, anti-Black racism was rampant throughout the PDSB. Instead of dealing with Davies, the commissioner attacked McDonald for advocating on behalf of the McCrimmon community who were devastated by Davies’ remark.
Trustee William Davies
At Wednesday’s meeting, when McDonald tried to get answers to questions about student discipline, Lawton cut her off, claiming she was repeating earlier questions, which had never been answered.
The board meeting rambled on with questions from McDonald, non-answers from Joshua or MacDonald, and silence from the other trustees. This stirred up outrage from community advocates but had now become par for the course at most PDSB meetings.
While board meetings remain unproductive and stir up animus, Lecce and the education ministry remain steadfast in their pursuit of solving the question of racism. The minister emailed this to The Pointer: “The accounts of systemic racism and discrimination documented in the (ministry’s) report are deeply troubling and will not be tolerated. After decades of inaction, I was very clear – I want to see swift implementation of the Ministerial directions to drive this urgently needed change that students deserve...I will work to ensure that transformational change is delivered.”
That should sound a death knell for present executives, and you don’t need a post-grad degree to see the shortcomings of the PDSB leadership.
Teachers would give them a big fat F.
Trustee Sue Lawton
For those distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic, creeping racism has acted much like a virus to the school system since Mississauga and Brampton began growing exponentially in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Many of these new Canadians were from the Indian sub-continent, but another large portion were Black, and this created an instant imbalance with an administration and teacher mix that was primarily White. Why Black citizens have long been targets for racial enmity in western society is historic, and has created poverty, lower entry points for jobs, higher crime rates, and more targeting by police.
There is no “rational” explanation for the racial wealth gap that persists today, or for minority underrepresentation in spaces that were purportedly based on “colorblind” standards, says author Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality,” and who, unlike the PDSB, has spent a lifetime taking on the deep structural and systemic questions about discrimination and inequality.
Crenshaw thinks discrimination endures because of the “structures of white dominance” — in other words, the legal and socio-economic order largely built on racism.
While her work talked about the American system, it easily applies to Canada, and especially organizations like the PDSB.
In 2016, it commissioned Dr. Carl James of York University to look into the issue of Black student alienation. His conclusion: young Black men were experiencing bias and racism in the classrooms. The result of his study was ‘We Rise Together’, established as an “action plan to support the achievement of Black males.”
James interviewed plenty of Black students, and their comments were emotionally charged. Three in particular, stuck out:
“People call [us] names like monkey.”
“I feel like they [teachers] think White people are smarter than Black people.”
“A lot of people just look at you [and say], Oh, stay away from this guy, he’s black. He’s a danger. He’s going to blah blah blah… Everyone just likes to look down on us because of the stereotypes, and I think that’s unfair. I think everyone deserves an equal chance. We’re all human beings. We all get looked down on.”
A gradual darkening of the student body in Peel should have been a wake-up call to the higher ups on the board, and Dr. James’ study was a ringing clarion call to action.
But self-preservation and nepotism are hardwired into the DNA of organizations. The consequences are often unintended. School boards are notorious for nepotism - nieces, neighbours and a best friend’s son seem to have remarkable success getting hired on at schools - while those without connections wait another year.
This exclusive cycle, which starts unconsciously in staff rooms and during professional development conferences, when friendships develop between those who share much in common, isn’t an intended form of exclusion, but that’s what it begets.
The teachers who once gossiped over coffee become the principals who hire their old friends and, eventually, they all open entry-level doors for their children and others in their circle.
Who gets left out? Those who never get to join the in-group. What gets left out? The perspectives and lived experience of thousands of students who don’t see themselves reflected in the faces they’re supposed to be shaped by.
These precursors to ignorance and intolerance, or even just a lack of understanding, become the gateways to anti-Black behaviour, whether it’s intended, or not. It has been studied at the classroom level, but over this past year, it was exposed as a problem at the highest political levels – from top executives on down.
McDonald said the province can go a long way in righting the wrongs that were fully exposed at the PDSB in 2019 and the best way to start is simply calling it what it is, “anti-Black racism.” Name it and own it, she said.
As mentioned earlier, the race-baiting carding program was stopped, but not by the former Peel police chief Jennifer Evans. It took provincial legislation and urging from the Police Services Board. When Evans retired, a new and progressive chief was named, Nishan Duraiappah. Embracing equity audits, and installing new hiring practices, he is slowly changing the mix of people who serve and protect us. More importantly, the culture is starting to change, much to the dismay of all those retired Peel police officers who post on social media that visible minorities will damage the force beyond repair. As if they didn’t almost succeed.
The culture change is happening in other institutions, too – except the PDSB.
To be fair, the board is stymied by something called Regulation 274, which governs much of the hiring and promotions practices for schools and favours tenure over merit, and this has caused a problem at the entry level where more diverse teachers are itching to inject themselves into the system.
This contractual clause defended by the teacher unions is another target of the provincial government, although the school walk-outs last year shows the battle to change hiring practices right across Ontario will be fraught with controversy.
The role of the board is to make students feel safe and secure in their surroundings, and for many Black students, this is just not the case, as Dr. James pointed out in his report.
Instead of recognizing this decided imbalance, the higher ups at the board have proven themselves a reactionary bunch. This is tragic, since their mandate is to make the school experience as pleasurable and productive as possible – for all students. The anarchic prejudices still exist, however overt or subtle.
Voices like McDonald’s or Dakroub’s have been dismissed, along with other staffers, students, parents and the community as a whole. Which begs the ultimate question: Why is change so hard at the top rungs of the PDSB?
It’s a question Kola Iluyomade, a parent who sits on the We Rise Committee, has continually asked during his delegations to the board, and one he reiterated when he talked to The Pointer this week.
He said the community is engaged and demanding change. “The 2022 elections are going to look very different because the communities have now woken up,” he said. “We know that there’s subjugation of Black people... It’s not going to end during our time. What we need to do is incrementally attack the system, we’ll do what we need to in our time and let others carry on later. The 2022 trusteeship will be as important as any other election.”
He got even more explicit in his criticism, saying the board has “weaponized” its bylaws and rules of procedure to dismiss trustees, parents and anyone who does not toe the line. “All of a sudden [they] become experts on their bylaws and it weaponizes them to shut people down,” he said.
Advocates within Peel’s Black community fear the ministry’s review is being commandeered by the PDSB. Instead of acting as a spotlight, putting the board’s failure to protect its Black community under a harsh light, it has been repurposed to sweep the whole conversation under the rug.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce meets with members of the PDSB as part of the provincial review.
Instead of taking on criticism it is using this twisted system to deflect and silence people trying to speak out. McDonald says the board is trying to use the mere existence of the provincial review against concerned stakeholders – and of course, she is right.
What’s worse, this problem was recognized long ago. Former leader of the NDP party in Ontario, Stephen Lewis issued a report 30 years ago identifying issues that are even more pertinent today. And guess what? There was no accountability and no follow through then or now.
Lecce has called out “discrimination and prejudice” against students, and good for him in calling for equity.
Some, like McDonald, are exhausted by the in-fighting, but she also told The Pointer she will not give up. Others agree.
Unfortunately, some of the stalwarts at the top of the PDSB, are not among the change-agents. The charges of racism and discrimination only get their backs up. They have dug in. They mouth the right words of conciliation at the beginning of board meetings, then turn on McDonald and others moments later, seemingly unaware that the cameras are still rolling. It’s all being documented, for the province, for the community, for the students, and for the voters in 2022 who will remember.
Maybe the province and the PDSB executives will come up with solutions that don’t take such a long and tortuous route.
If not, don’t fret, just like the Sikh community three decades ago, our Black neighbours will prevail, because too many of us are in this together.
Because of reduced incomes as a result of COVID-19 and the importance of the PDSB story to the communities of Brampton and Mississauga, the editorial team at The Pointer made the decision to make this article free to view. Traditionally, The Pointer operates on a paywall model of journalism and we do not carry advertisements, meaning our journalism is supported entirely from subscriptions. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, if you are able to continue subscribing, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you.
Submit a correction about this story