Members frustrated with white union leaders blind to anti-Black racism
Photos from The Pointer files/OSSTF/Gord Gallimore/Judy McKeown

Members frustrated with white union leaders blind to anti-Black racism

The word systemic is hard to visualize. 

Sometimes, the most insidious causes of deeply ingrained societal problems are completely invisible. The absence of action by the institutions meant to protect can do far more damage than the explicit efforts of oppressors who cause the direct harm.

Human beings have an ingrained need to assign blame to something tangible and often struggle to see the broader causes of long standing damage. A single individual is the easiest thing to target.

The words of Titus Livius (59 BC–17 AD), a Roman historian, remain true to this day: “Men are only clever at shifting blame from their own shoulders to those of others.”

The instinct to grasp for easy solutions to complicated problems is one that is particularly common in cases of institutional or systemic racism. It is all too simple to believe the removal of a figurehead or group of individuals has solved an issue, even if a culture of discrimination continues to permeate. 

In the case of Peel District School Board, well-documented problems of systemic anti-Black racism and Islamophobic discrimination have abounded for years. Changes over the summer have been celebrated by local community members, but no one working or learning in Peel thinks the problem has been solved.


Following years of complaints from community members, the PDSB faced a damning review from the province this past summer that exposed systemic anti-Black racism within the organization.


Far too many silences remain. Whether it’s the media turning a blind eye or, even worse, the organizations that exist specifically to protect members who pay to be represented and heard, apathy can be the worst form of damage.

Where have the teachers’ unions been while Black educators and families have fought the PDSB over its admitted damage to Black students? 

When the board was forced to apologize for the “harm” it had done, systemically, to Black children for generations, the required acknowledgement, a condition under a series of provincial directives, came in the absence of any meaningful work by the unions. For decades, these institutions, dominated by white members and executives, stood by, while issues of racism and other forms of discrimination boiled over.

In a board whose student body is almost 84 percent non-white, the unions that hold so much sway over the way education is carried out, have been largely indifferent to students, educators and families fighting for their basic rights.

While they move mountains to advocate for safe schools during the pandemic, Black students and others facing systemic discrimination have not been safe for decades, but their struggles just haven’t connected with the almost exclusively white union leadership. 


While unions have advocated loudly for a safe return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, similar proactive efforts have not been made to address issues of anti-Black racism. Why?


In June, the Province removed the PDSB’s board of trustees from its governance role, handing the responsibility to a Ministry appointed supervisor and dismissed embattled Director of Education Peter Joshua. It was a landmark moment in a decades-old fight for equality in Brampton and Mississauga, but advocates immediately pointed out their fight was not won. 

Joshua’s lax policy on anti-Black racism perhaps emboldened acts of discrimination that went unpunished, but his removal did not end the problematic views and unconscious biases rampant within the organization he once ran. 

As PDSB starts its very tentative steps towards considering change, other forces in Peel education are pushing back. At the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), a status-quo leadership is dragging its heels on important equity-inspired changes.

“Every time we call in and we have needs that are specific to our lived experiences, there is no one on the other end of that phone call who understands what we’re going through,” Judy McKeown, a Black union member and teacher, told The Pointer. “Oftentimes our concerns are minimized or they’re completely erased.”

McKeown is one of three racialized members who have been nominated by the Disrupting Anti-Black Racism Advisory Committee to time-release (full time, paid) positions within the Peel OSSTF executive. 


Judy McKeown, union member and teacher.


The positions were created more than three months ago, but the union has been slow to offer material support. In June, during an Emergency General Meeting, members voted to add a Dismantling Anti-Black Racism Training Officer, a Racism Reporting Officer and an Anti-Racism Intersectional Officer to their executive, increasing the number of time-release positions from five to eight. 

The move was overwhelmingly supported by union dues-paying members, with 94.8 percent voting in favour. It represented a cornerstone victory for Black, Indigenous and racialized members in their fight for representation and equity within the union. 

But, even within the victory, there were signs the establishment was not on board. Sources who attended the virtual meeting told The Pointer four branch presidents voted against the positions along with Chief Negotiator, Michelle Large. 

Since then, members have told The Pointer roadblocks have been put up around funding and the appointment process that are delaying the introduction of a key equity plan.

The reluctance to move forward on equity-boosting changes is in line with a union which has been quiet for decades in one of Canada’s most diverse regions. From the shameful stance in the ‘80s and early ‘90s around Sikh students’ right to wear the Kirpan through the failure to advocate for the removal of white supremacist leader Paul Fromm, who taught in the PDSB for 23 years, the union has been guilty of silence. 

Even on the issue of anti-Black racism and the province’s double probe of PDSB, OSSTF Peel was reluctant to comment. It took a petition from members and the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer for the union to finally condemn PDSB and agree to push for change, something it did not say until July, a year after the board began to face a widespread public campaign demanding wholescale change.

Critics say as long as the leadership fails to represent the realities of Peel’s populations, the culture of anti-Black racism at PDSB will be given an opportunity to flourish. 

Gord Gallimore, nominated for the position of Racism Reporting Officer, said even the Province has done more to deal with anti-Black racism in Peel than the union. 

He described the union as “grassroots”, key to changing PDSB’s culture over time through the support and promotion of racialized staff. “Part of the work that we're doing is to stop the anti-Black racism at the grassroots, so it doesn't move up into those higher up positions that are actually making decisions,” he said.


Gord Gallimore, nominated for the position of Racism Reporting Officer.


Yet the union so far does not appear to be nurturing that equity, as members have seen their attempts to implement the three new anti-discrimination positions dodged and ignored. They say they have faced a stream of roadblocks in their attempts to turn the democratic will of union membership into an administrative and bureaucratic reality. 

“To be honest, I don’t feel they ever supported it,” McKeown conceded. “They’re hoping that these three roles are never going to manifest.”


Members complain about OSSTF Peel's lack of diverse leadership.


The first roadblock related to funding the union’s Peel executive. The creation of three new roles, alongside five that already existed and union fees that hadn’t been raised in years, meant funds were required to pay the salaries of all eight representatives. To the frustration of many union members, the three new positions were tied to technicalities for imposing any rate increase, claiming a series of bureaucratic justifications for stalling.

In an email to members, president Andrew Sobolewski said “we have eight time-release executive positions, but currently only have funding for five,” suggesting the three positions established to disrupt discrimination in Peel would cost members more. 

“Our concern with that is if you’re asking people for more money and you’re directly linking it to the positions, there is going to be pushback in terms of people who do not believe in the positions,” McKeown said. “We had executive members as well as branch presidents vote against the role, so we know we do not necessarily have the full support [of the union leadership].”

Incredibly, Sobolewski highlighted the funding concern knowing almost 95 percent of the membership voted in favour of the move.

His words suggest the union’s leadership does not represent its membership. For an institution held up as a pillar of democratic protection, the so-called progresive defender of the rights and safety of its membership, the union’s position on equity and diversity is hypocritical at best, and a patent violation of its mandate at worst.   

In mid-September, the branch president of Turner Fenton Secondary School, a Brampton institution whose student body is about 95 percent non-white, wrote to members in an email entitled “Funding ABR exec. Positions”. The email stated the belief that anti-Black racism exists in Peel and within the union, alongside its commitment to fighting it.

However, it also called into question the new positions. 

“Last June, in a hastily-called General Meeting three time-released positions were approved by our  bargaining unit,” the union branch president wrote, adding they were approved “without any indication of how they would be funded.” Later in the email, the branch president asked: “So the question is, do we really have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve equity and fight ABR (anti-Black racism) in TBU (Teachers Bargaining Unit)? And if so, is funding these three positions the best way to invest that kind of money? These are fair questions…” 

For staff who already feel marginlized in Peel by rampant discrimination within the board, they say the attitude of union leadership is disheartening. Rather than a victory in June marking the beginning of real, tangible support for their struggle, it appears only to have been a platitude, as a union executive barely representative of staff and utterly unrepresentative of an 84 percent non-white student body, debates if equity is worth their while.

The leadership is skeptical of supporting what 95 percent of its membership voted for.

It calls into question who Ontario’s powerful teachers’ unions actually speak for.

Eventually, after much pushback and a summer of frustration, the funding question was temporarily resolved. The executive agreed to pay for the three new positions for one year using funds from its reserve. The solution does not solve further issues down the road when the short-term funding runs out. Instead of leadership committing to what its members overwhelmingly voted for, its priorities seem to lie elsewhere, perhaps fighting for the interests of older white members who have been the focus of the unions for decades, often at the expense of younger members and those who are visible minorities.  

Almost as soon as one problem was solved, another reared its head. 

On September 24, the Disrupting Anti-Black Racism Advisory Committee nominated three members to the finally-funded time-release roles only to find the union unwilling to recognize their interim appointments. 

Traditionally, OSSTF Peel’s leadership appoints time-release roles itself. 

The president, vice president, chief of negotiation and three randomly selected branch presidents make a selection. Committee members say they do not want to follow the union’s standard appointment process as it will build upon the very systems they are trying to change. They question why a white executive should appoint the people charged with dismantling a culture of anti-Black racism.

“At this point, we do not have a mechanism to appoint these roles that is equitable because the current one just involves reinforcing the current power structure,” McKeown explained. 

As the dispute over three positions agreed upon more than three months ago rumbles on, patience is wearing thin. Under the hashtag #MYOSSTF, members are sharing their concerns and experiences of marginalization with the union. 



“They take their money, but don’t render services,” community advocate Kola Iluyomade told The Pointer. “The essence of the union is workers rights and equity … you’re supposed to support your racialized/Black members as well as your white members.”

Essentially, when the leadership does not represent the lived experience of all members, it fails to fight for them too. 

OSSTF Peel, which Iluyomade also called “a bastion of white supremacy” disagrees with that interpretation. In an email to The Pointer, Sobolewski listed several crucial goals he believes his union has achieved. 

The list includes “secured external training for all members” at executive and branch president level, “continued to participate in PDSB’s Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee” and “determined funding” for the first year of the three new positions. 

The union did not respond to a follow-up question asking to respond to Iluyomade’s comment or why there was an unwillingness to recognize the interim appointments to the three new positions created in June. 

There is palpable frustration among members, increasingly in support of holding a protest, as they see the union they fund to represent them, standing in opposition. 

“They have been leveraging and weaponizing the constitution against us rather than using it to implement these positions,” McKeown said. “Every solution we put forward is shot down.”



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