Blistering provincial investigation report on PDSB reveals an organization incapable of fixing anti-Black racism it perpetuates: Minister issues ultimatum
On Wednesday June 17, residents in Brampton and Mississauga will gather for an anti-Black racism march. At 4:30 p.m. they will meet and make their way to the headquarters of Peel District School Board.
The protest is part of a broader, continent-wide movement to end systemic racism, with one of the most deeply institutionalized examples far too close to home.
In the Peel District School Board’s case, its legacy of racist behaviour has done particular harm to the youngest and most vulnerable in our society.
Around the world, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police has sparked protests and demonstrations. Rallies have focused on defunding the police, tackling the ingrained and institutionalized inequalities that continue to harm Black people.
While many countries can offer examples of abuse at the hands of police, the graphic video of Mr. Floyd’s demise is proving to be the spark lighting a much wider movement for change.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce is giving the PDSB leadership one last chance to fix its systemic anti-Black racism problem
Sadly, in Peel, home to one of the country’s largest and most racially diverse school boards, with approximately 155,000 students, the deeply disturbing reality inside the organization was laid bare well before the recent events sweeping across the globe. After decades of systemic anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination, inaction in the face of complaints by parents, students and some educators finally led to action.
In November, the Ministry of Education launched an investigation after the behaviour of board leaders could no longer be ignored. The original report, published in March, found systemic anti-Black racism and Islamophobia were rampant inside PDSB, infecting all areas of the board, including its senior leaders, educators, principals and even members of school councils.
In response to the review’s findings, Education Minister Stephen Lecce outlined 27 binding directives for PDSB to follow in order to fix its fractured relationship with Black communities in Peel and start delivering education that will no longer harm visible minority students.
After a slow and uninterested response from the dysfunctional administration, an independent investigator, Arleen Huggins, was appointed to look closer at the reasons for chaos within the organization and whether or not it is capable of effectively acting on the provincial directives to eradicate systemic racism.
This morning, June 8, her investigation report was made public.
The findings of the latest probe are shocking. They provide eye-opening proof that the board’s director, Peter Joshua, and most of its elected trustees have little interest in fighting anti-Black racism in any meaningful way.
PDSB Director Peter Joshua has been the focus of criticism
Even as the issue of anti-Black racism mounted, PDSB continued to make a mockery of the effort to rehabilitate its deeply flawed leadership.
While PDSB Chair Brad MacDonald publicly issued an apology on behalf of the board and an admission of “harm” done to Black students was offered, under one of the mandated directives issued by the province in March, here is how he really felt, as told to the investigator: “[The] community has been after us,” he said during an interview by Huggins. “[I]t is against our human rights to force us to apologize.”
Effectively, the chair of the organization issued a false claim, publicly, when he apologized, instead believing Black communities were “after us” and that he was being forced to say sorry.
Huggins, a lawyer with experience in human rights cases, states in her findings that, “One Associate Director described the situation (among trustees) as ‘like a school yard-push and punch and now a fight going on’.”
MacDonald told Huggins that the board needed to “comply [with the provincial directives] or we will be taken over”, making no reference to the need to comply in order to help Black students. The care of students, who have suffered generations of damage as a consequence of discrimination in PDSB schools, seems like a marginal concern next to the chair’s fear of having the administration “taken over” by the provincial education ministry.
PDSB Chair Brad MacDonald
Regarding the view expressed by the chair, who speaks on behalf of all trustees and feels Black communities are coming after them, Huggins wrote, “This adversarial approach to Black communities prevents the Board from seeking and seizing opportunities to rebuild trust and repair damaged relationships.”
One of the most glaring examples of the board’s lack of interest in pursuing actual change, revolves around its claims of having engaged in anti-Black racism training.
Recently, at the board’s May 12 meeting, on the agenda that detailed its responses to the provincial directives Chair MacDonald referenced previous training the Board had received in anti-Black racism in February 2019.
But that claim was challenged by Trustee Kathy McDonald, one of two members, including Nokha Dakroub, who has fought for change, when she pointed out that the event referred to was actually a brief overview of an anti-racism initiative and involved no training whatsoever.
Trustee Robert Crocker claimed he had written in a notebook that the event was anti-racism training, and even though he offered no other recollection other than the two or three words he scrolled down, he insisted it must have been what the chair had claimed.
PDSB Trustee Robert Crocker
The reference was, however, removed from the agenda as it was clear that no such training had occurred, despite the claims of MacDonald and Crocker.
Stunningly, Huggins revealed in her report that it was not the first time the board had tried to make the false claim of providing anti-Black racism training.
“In fact, this was not the first time that the Board had attempted to characterize the Board's Overview of the We Rise Together Action Plan as anti-Black racism training. In July 2019 a similar statement about the Board purporting to have engaged in anti-Black racism training was put out in a local newspaper. After the same Trustees raised this statement as a concern at that time, an email from the [Associate Director of Equity] was sent in July 2019 to the Director, the then Chair of the Board Stan Cameron ("Cameron"), who remains a Board Trustee, and the Trustee who raised her concern, indicating that no anti-Racism training took place as had been stated. The Board then had to retract its statement. This suggests that certain members of the Board, and certainly the Board as a collective, still do not fully understand anti-Black racism.”
It also means that twice the board tried to pass off a brief overview of an initiative as anti-Black racism training, including once last month – after it had already been caught last year – in response to the province’s orders, effectively trying to purposely mislead the public and the ministry.
The board’s response to Directive 6 (to develop a Trustee Learning Plan) raised even more issues. Huggins’ investigation picks apart the decision by the board to ask legal counsel to develop the Trustee Learning Plan, an area lawyers used by the board likely have little to no experience in.
“When asked about what expertise the legal counsel has to inform the human rights and equity content of the Learning Plan, the Chair was not able to provide any specifics with respect to the legal counsel’s experience or expertise in this area,” Huggins wrote.
Another alarming finding focuses on the province’s directive for the board to develop a broad anti-racism policy with the direct participation of community members and organizations and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).
“On April 17th, a community consultation plan was due to the Minister. On that date, the Director of Education [Peter Joshua] submitted a document to the Minister, the Peel District School Board’s Anti-Racism Policy Projected Consultation Timeline and Steps. While the Board technically complied with the April 17th timeline, I am concerned about the content of the submission, particularly with respect to the lack of detail regarding the process for determining which communities will be engaged in the consultation and how that engagement will take place,” Huggins wrote.
She questioned why, despite specific direction from the ministry, Joshua and the board failed to consult with the OHRC, nor did it do any work to engage the community as part of its submitted work to the province. “Indeed, the document submitted is not a community consultation plan, as was required by the Direction, but rather a plan to develop a consultation plan,” Huggins wrote.
“Given the damaged relationships the PDSB has with a number of its communities - Black communities in particular - one would reasonably expect that the Board would prioritize efforts to repair those relationships and take all necessary measures to rebuild trust and confidence. It is significant, therefore, that in the course of drafting a community consultation plan to engage partners in the development of an anti-racism policy, the Board in fact did not engage with any community partners.”
She then points out what appears to be an attempt by Joshua to mislead her.
“The Director stated that the document submitted to the Minister was created by a staff-level steering committee - the Equity & Inclusion Steering Committee (the "Equity Committee").” She continued, “I note that the two meetings scheduled for this Committee since the release of [the province’s report and its directives] – March 13th and April 17th – were both cancelled.”
Huggins then points out that the May 8th [board] meeting minutes indicate a “need to come up with an ‘Anti-Racism Steering Committee’, ideally to be led by an external consultant who ‘knows the in-depth process’ and has ‘community engagement experience’.” But funding would be needed for this committee. “Furthermore, the Minutes from the May 8th meeting indicates that the Equity Committee was unaware that a community consultation plan had been submitted to the Ministry. This of course begs the question: who actually drafted the community consultation plan?”
Joshua is the focus of many of the investigation’s damning findings.
A particularly jarring example of the disconnect between PDSB and the diverse communities it serves came upon the revelation in Huggins’ report that Joshua used a facilitation tool referred to as “cheers, fears and unclears” when he was describing the province’s directives and the category of work he would be discussing at a “leadership” meeting.
“To suggest that any findings in a Report that documents systemic anti-Black racism and the pain and harm done to Black and racialized students and communities could possibly be categorized as a cheer is simply inexplicable,” Huggins wrote. “It is not surprising that staff attending that meeting objected to the appropriateness of that too … [and] subsequently developed an entirely different facilitation model for subsequent discussions with their respective teams that focused on the Report findings as well as the Directives.”
Joshua’s behaviour is hard to fathom, especially as the head of a board in which almost 84 percent of students are visible minorities.
“I have seen little evidence of the Director’s stated appreciation for the urgent need for bold, decisive leadership to bring about the transformational change that the [provincial] Directions require, Huggins states. “It is disconcerting that the Director’s brief first discussions with his leadership team on March 13th and April 3, 2020, during which the Chair gave thanks to staff for their work on COVID-19 and noted the Directions. During those meetings, the Director focused not on the very troubling findings of the [ministerial] Review, but rather on compliance with the binding Directions.”
On May 29, Joshua, whose questionable behaviour is repeatedly highlighted in the latest investigation report, and who faces allegations of inaction and apathy toward anti-Black racism in an ongoing human rights case filed against him and the board by its own head of equity and inclusion, issued a statement on racism in light of George Floyd’s death. Meanwhile, evidence of his lack of concern about discrimination within the organization he heads has been mounting since last year.
But since the announcement by the Ministry that it was hiring Huggins to investigate concerns of continued inaction, Joshua has been more vocal about anti-racism efforts.
”We absolutely cannot [trust the board’s public comments],” Kola Iluyomade, a parent advocate, who has demanded action to stop anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination within the board, told The Pointer, after reading the Huggins report Monday. “We know that what they’re saying is not true, we believe what the report says and we are putting in a complaint [to the Ministry] because of it.”
Another concern raised by Huggins is the process used by the board, under one of the province’s directives, to hire the individual who will conduct an independent review of Joshua’s performance on equity, inclusion, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and other issues around discrimination. It remains unclear how exactly the individual was hired. The province’s original review released in March revealed that Joshua has never had a performance review since being hired as the director in 2017.
With the publication of Huggins’ stinging independent investigation into PDSB’s compliance with the ministerial directives, Lecce and the education ministry face the very real possibility that one of its largest educational partners has no desire to follow the province’s strict orders to eradicate discrimination.
Lecce said in a statement Monday that he finds the report “troubling”. He suggested the board has run out of chances to comply. “Her report finds that certain directions have not been complied with, and moreover, that the PDSB lacks the capacity to provide good governance in the interests of all students of the board and to effectively carry out its responsibilities to oversee and ensure proper compliance with my directions.”
Lecce then issued an ultimatum, but it’s possible, given his harsh words, that the minister has already given up on the current leadership.
“I am required [under the Education Act] to provide a final opportunity for compliance from the board. My expectation is clear: the Board must change or I will take further action. We cannot and will not sit idle, while families and students continue to feel isolated, victimized, and targeted.”
Following the investigation’s publication, an additional directive was issued with a deadline of June 22.
“The Board is required to demonstrate to the Minister’s satisfaction that the members of the Board can sustainably work together, and with the senior management team, to provide good governance in the interests of all students of the PDSB,” a media release from the Ministry of Education explained.
The tone of Huggins’ findings suggests this expectation for the board is next to impossible. Across 26 pages, the investigation lays bare evidence of behaviour that community members have complained about at the board since the review was published, accusations the board has consistently denied.
“I am waiting for some kind of obvious change in behaviour or genuine action that will suggest the majority of trustees will change their behaviour… in the interests of the communities they serve,” Trustee Kathy McDonald, a vocal critic of the board’s conduct on discrimination issues, told The Pointer. “It’s almost like a battle of egos.”
The level of dysfunction at PDSB has been well documented. The first directive issued by the Ministry of Education was for the board to hire a mediator to work with trustees and directors to resolve their various disputes and communication issues to allow for governance of schools instead of political infighting.
The process quickly fell apart roughly a month after the task was set. Trustees McDonald and Nokha Dakroub, the two board members who have been most vocal in support of Black communities and others seeking change, withdrew from mediation. Both said the lack of desire for real change around the board table meant they saw no point in the process.
Huggins questioned how the board can claim mediation is proceeding when the requirement for participation by all trustees can no longer be met.
Associate Director Equity Poleen Grewal, who filed a human rights complaint against Joshua and the board last year for allegedly preventing her from effectively handling cases of anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination, and said she suffered reprisals by Joshua for challenging him, also withdrew from the mediation process (Joshua and the board deny her allegations).
Her human rights complaint lays out numerous examples of systemic behaviour that is similar to much of the evidence revealed in the Huggins report.
Huggins questioned how the board was able to meet many of the province’s directives, as Grewal, PDSB’s most senior authority on equity and inclusion, was on leave while it did its work that was submitted to the ministry.
And after Kathy McDonald and Dakroub withdrew from mediation, Huggins noted little action was taken by board leadership.
“I note that neither the Chair nor Vice Chair attempted to engage in discussion with either of the two Trustees to ascertain their reasons for withdrawing, or to encourage them to reconsider,” Huggins said in her report. “The Chair had in fact told the Ministry and the Mediator he had not expected either Trustee to participate and advised me that he was not surprised when they withdrew from the process.”
The chair’s broken relationship with Dakroub and McDonald also came under the microscope.
PDSB Trustees Kathy McDonald and Nokha Dakroub have fought to protect racialized students, who make up 84 percent of the board's student body
“The Chair and Vice Chair’s determinations as to the appropriateness of questions [at board meetings] coming from [the two] Trustees can reasonably be seen as silencing mechanisms; relevant issues are mischaracterized as ‘personal issues’ and left unaddressed,” Huggins wrote. “The practice of the Chair requiring Trustees' questions to be in writing and then reading the questions himself, editing out the preambles, amounts to a literal silencing of Trustees’ voices.”
This issue was highlighted particularly in relation to the provincial directive for a destreaming pilot in Grades 9 and 10, to ensure Black students are no longer placed in special educational pathways that greatly harm their chances for success. The issue has already been the subject of controversy, with several white trustees objecting to the pilot process even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it disproportionately hurts Black students.
“At the April 29th Board meeting, the Director did not engage in any meaningful dialogue relating to the Trustee’s question and did not reference the existence of a destreaming pilot proposal that was created by the [Associate Director of Equity] in 2018,” Huggins wrote. In effect, her investigation found the administration ignored the constructive question and the idea of bringing the pilot in earlier (much of the groundwork has already been done) largely on the basis that the directive did not require it until 2021/22.
In a short response to the investigation, Chair Brad MacDonald and Director Joshua offered few details. Despite the Huggins report repeatedly criticizing the Chair for speaking on behalf of trustees without their consultation, trustees did not contribute to the crafting of the statement.
MacDonald, Vice Chair David Green and Joshua said they would meet the new directive’s deadline and that leadership at PDSB was committed to ending systemic racism “that exists in our schools, policies and workplaces.”
“While our commitment to undertake anti-Black racism work today is real, we acknowledge there is reason for scepticism and mistrust sowed by years of inaction. As educators, we know you expect and deserve better from us,” the trio wrote.
Huggins, meanwhile, summarized her findings: “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.”
Email: [email protected]
Tel: 647 561-4879
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