Roadblocks continue but Peel’s high school teachers’ union inches closer to more diverse leadership
Members of a Peel teachers’ union are a step closer to forcing change at the local executive level after a vote Thursday.
During a Zoom meeting of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation Division 19, the voting executive agreed to watered down demands from a group of Black and Indigenous members.
A motion, obtained by The Pointer, agrees to allow seven members of the Disrupting Anti-Black Racism Advisory Committee (DABRAC), alongside a Peel branch president of their choice, to appoint three time-release positions (paid and full-time work outside the classroom) to the local executive. The positions were created in June after almost 95 percent of voting members who participated in an earlier remote meeting agreed to support the new executive roles aimed at fighting against anti-Black racism and discrimination within Peel’s education ecosystem.
The three Peel OSSTF roles aimed at dismantling anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination in high school education
Since June, advocates have faced roadblocks. As The Pointer has previously reported, the executive was accused of conflating the important work of the three new positions with an increase to the fees members would have to pay.
In a particularly jarring example, the branch president of Turner Fenton Secondary School, a Brampton institution whose student body is about 95 percent non-white, wrote to members to ask if funding the positions was the best way to proceed. “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,” the branch president wrote.
The message appeared to codify the fears of diverse members and advocates that senior union figures were only paying lip service to anti-Black racism initiatives and would back away when real commitments or funding requests came forward.
After the executive eventually agreed to fund the positions for a year using reserve accounts (offering no long-term solution) issues arose around the appointment process. Many current union executives were determined to appoint the new positions themselves, a plan that flew in the face of those members trying to gain a voice by creating the roles in the first place. The three positions were originally pitched to question and hold to account the current leaders, who have proven ineffective, and apathetic, in the ongoing fight to dismantle ingrained, systemic discrimination within the education system.
Thursday saw a breakthrough with the acceptance of a motion allowing the committee to play a pivotal role in the appointment process, but it did not sail through. Sources who participated in the meeting told The Pointer a private vote on the motion took place, with 28 percent of the union’s executive opposed to the motion. They wanted to maintain control of who will be selected for the new executive roles.
Because the vote was not public, with non-executive members placed in a Zoom waiting room, it is unclear who opposed the move. In a traditional meeting, members would know how each leader, elected to support the interests of all dues-paying members, had cast their ballot.
Members told The Pointer the lack of transparency was frustrating.
“It doesn’t sit well [that 28 percent opposed the move], it goes to show that even after all the discussions and preambles we had, there is still this sense that we — Black, South Asian, Indigenous people — cannot be held to the same standard as they are,” Judy McKeown told The Pointer. “They don’t want us at the same table, that’s the only way I can interpret it. And I also think it’s just another way to resist the work that we’re trying to do.”
Peel educator and OSSTF member Judy McKeown wants to dismantle deeply ingrained structures of discrimination
McKeown has been nominated on an interim basis by DABRAC to fill the position of Dismantling Anti-Black Racism Training Officer. She has been at the forefront of a campaign to change perspectives and diversify the union’s overwhelmingly white leadership. At the Peel District School Board, where she works, 67 percent of staff are white compared to just 16 percent of students.
Referring to an impassioned plea she made during Thursday’s meeting, including a demand for union leadership to resign, McKeown said she was following the lead of the community. “We serve the community; we serve students and families,” she said. “Yes, we’re trying to protect employee rights and the rights of education workers, but the core of this profession is serving students. I think we need to be more transparent, we need to humble ourselves and we need to let in the community we serve.”
Gord Gallimore, nominated for the position of Racism Reporting Officer on an interim basis, said he was frustrated to see more than a quarter of the leadership oppose the motion. “That 28 percent of voters [didn’t support the motion], I want to know who they are,” he said, noting every other motion at the meeting sailed through unanimously. “It’s not fair that you’re being a covert racist or you’re being behind-the-back racist and you’re not showing your true colours. We’re talking about kids’ lives, we’re talking about people’s lives.”
Even with DABRAC now largely in control of its appointment process, there are still concerns. The committee hopes to anoint its new representatives in early November, but because they are appointed (and not elected) positions, they will not have voting power.
Voting rights is the next battle they plan to fight.
The Pointer approached OSSTF D19 for comment. The request was acknowledged Friday, but no response has been provided.
Nicole Luinenburg, nominated in an interim capacity as Anti-Racism Intersectional Officer, believes the problem with union leadership is their desperate desire to cling to old rules. She draws a distinction between equity and equality, saying the current structure is equal, but does not take into account the systemic barriers blocking visible minority educators from progressing.
“They’re trying to approach it from an equality standpoint,” she explained to The Pointer about the union’s approach to the three positions. “So they want to make sure anybody can get into these roles and that’s not what we’re aiming for. We’re looking for equity.”
“Because these structures are made to try and make everything equal, there is a lot of hesitancy to be able to change or examine these structures to see whether they’re serving a purpose,” Luinenburg added. “I think there’s still very much an old guard that sees rules as almost sacred. They need to hold onto these old structures, rather than have those rules adapt to the needs of their membership.”
The overriding feeling emanating from members of DABRAC is one of continued frustration. After winning an initial victory in June, they’ve been fighting for four months.
Gord Gallimore would like to open a dialogue with those OSSTF leaders who don't support strong action to dismantle discrimination
During Thursday’s meeting, several Black and Indigenous members shared their pain, frustration and anger at the process. Twenty-eight percent of voting members denied their demands anyway.
“I would love for them to resign, but the reality is I can’t force anybody to do what they don't want to do,” Gallimore said. “I know the union structures are the way they are. I also would like to have a conversation with them as to why they voted against the motion.”
Unfortunately, the secretive process used in a supposedly democratic organization, means Gallimore, and others, don’t even know who they need to have that conversation with.
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