Two weeks ago, before the official municipal election results, I wrote about how the history of racist attitudes within Ontario’s education system have followed us up until present day.
The basic thesis was, and still is, that institutional racism within the school board has been enabled by the school board itself, and the only way to change that from within the system, was to change the face of the people, from educators to school board trustees.
So first, the good news. The elections manifested much of the change we needed in the form of a more diverse pool of school board trustees. Once again, ByBlacks has been at the forefront of documenting this change specifically as it pertains to Black candidates. From a mayor, to a few city councillors, to yes, school board trustees, the concerns of people of Colour in Ontario should hopefully be at least better represented.
Now the bad news. There is however, at least one area of the city where change appears to be a little slower to come. I’m looking at you York region.
York region had a joint human rights complaint filed against its school board over a slew of discriminatory situations ranging from violent bullying to teachers using racist language with their students. It was so bad in fact, the province had to step in and issue 22 directives to address the concerns after determining the board was operating under a “culture of fear” and “systemic discrimination.”
So how is it that Elizabeth Terrell-Tracey, a school board trustee in York Region, who used racist undertones to attack her opponent Lena Singh on social media, is now re-elected to her school board trustee position?
Oh that’s not even the worst of it. When confronted in a Facebook message by a supporter of Ms. Singh ( Arnold Neufeldt-Fast), she went on to respond…
“Crime is prevalent across Guyana. Assaults, break-ins, armed robberies, pickpocketing, purse snatching, theft from cars and carjacking are common.”
At first she attempted to walk away from these posts by claiming she had been hacked, but then eventually owned up to actually posting these statements. Then she claimed she was backing out of the race.
"With a heavy heart and after much reflection, I have decided to withdraw my name as trustee-elect for East Gwillimbury and Whitchurch-Stouffville," her resignation letter said. "I think this decision is in the best interest of York Region District School Board students. I understand that some of my comments were hurtful and offensive and I am sorry. These comments are not reflective of me, my values and beliefs. They are also not reflective of the board’s values and priorities and I do not wish to be a distraction as the new board of trustees begins its work."
The resignation letter also mentioned concerns about a “personal health issue.”
YRDSB chair Corrie McBain issued a supportive statement to Tracy thanking her for “prioritizing the needs and interests of our students” while also wishing Tracy “all the best as she focuses on her health.” Talk about avoiding the elephant in the room.
But the plot thickens. While Tracy did submit an official resignation letter, she did not fill out another piece of paperwork (called a 'disclaimer to the right of office') which would have finalized her removal. Thus, her name still ended up on the ballot. And lo and behold, she was re-elected. Suddenly there was no mention of a health issue, the resignation letter was removed from the board's webiste, and replaced with one saying that Tracy wouldn't be resigning after all. I guess re-election has healed her. Praise Jesus.
Tracy attacked her opponent Lena Singh, based on the fact she was born in Guyana. Isn't it frightening to think, that a school board trustee would hold these opinions, while very likely having to act on behalf of children who share the same heritage as Singh?
What does it say about the school board chair that they can issue supportive statements of any kind towards this trustee after she has been exposed as having such racist opinions?
What does it say about a region that would vote in a school board trustee who espoused these sorts of views to begin with?
And how is it that making these sorts of statements doesn’t automatically breach some code of ethics that disqualifies someone harbouring these beliefs from the potential role of school board trustee anyway?
Look, all I’m saying is, you can have all the investigations, and issue all the directives you want, but if you can’t even address racism espoused by a candidate leading up to them potentially becoming a school board trustee, how do you intend on handling institutional racism in your ranks? I’ll make it real easy for you YRDSB. If you want to change the culture of systemic racism and discrimination, start by acknowledging racist attacks by one of your own, penalizing people committing those acts, and maybe figure out how to keep them from walking through the door to begin with.
As educators, you should be able to think back to the lessons of your childhood. Remember the story of the 3 little pigs? The easiest way to avoid getting eaten is to not let the wolf through the door. You don’t need another million dollar study or 22 directives in order to do that.
You just need a strong set of ethics and a backbone.
Byron Armstrong is the assistant editor at ByBlacks, where he contributes writing focused on the intersections between art, society, and politics. Byron's reviews, think pieces, and in-depth profiles of creatives, have been published in Cuisine Noir, The Globe and Mail, The National Gallery of Canada Magazine, ELLE Canada, NOW magazine and NUVO. You can find a portfolio of all his work to date at www.byron-armstrong.com.
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