Activists demand equity oversight in school system

·3 min read

A coalition of educators and anti-racist advocates are calling on the Stefanson government to commit to both creating a K-12 equity secretariat and supporting the development of satellite offices within local school divisions.

Equity Matters, which represents upwards of 80 Indigenous, newcomer and inner-city community organizations, is hosting a news conference today to unveil its pledge initiative.

The group has asked every provincial political party — the Progressive Conservatives, New Democratic Party and Manitoba Liberals — to formally endorse the creation of new equity infrastructure in the public school system with an official signature.

“If we’re serious about making concrete changes and we want to address the inequities within (public schools), looking at the structural inequities that currently exist, then we don’t just need the talk — we need to walk,” said Suni Matthews, co-chairwoman of Equity Matters.

Ontario recently established a so-called education equity secretariat tasked with identifying and eliminating discriminatory practices, systemic barriers and bias in its schools.

Matthews, a retired teacher, and her colleagues want Manitoba to follow suit.

The coalition has requested the province create a designated secretariat that will be responsible for undertaking equity-based research and policy development, creating inclusive curriculum guidelines and providing education workers with anti-racist training.

Accountability should be built into the office, Matthews said, adding community members want the province to measure and monitor systemic racism by collecting annual equity data from school divisions.

Signatories of the coalition’s pledge will commit to enshrining the secretariat in the Public Schools Act and establishing an assistant deputy minister of education to lead the office.

The agreement requires the secretariat be launched by Sept. 1, 2023.

Equity Matters expects the office to publish an annual report card on its progress once it is up and running.

“Concrete and authentic change comes from addressing deeply embedded systemic issues of colonialism and racism; engaging in difficult conversations; and being transparent and accountable to the community,” wrote Matthews and Crystal Laborero, co-leaders of the campaign, in individualized letters prepared for political leaders.

The duo has contacted Education Minister Wayne Ewasko, NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba’s Liberal party.

In their letters, the authors noted the Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Circle and Newcomer Education Coalition findings in their respective 2022 State of Equity in Education reports.

The findings, released in March, highlight disparities between the number of students and teachers who identify as Indigenous or racialized in the Manitoba capital.

WIEC and NEC argue that increasing the number of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit educators, as well as racialized immigrant, refugee and newcomer teachers in the public school system, will boost outcomes among students who are members of those communities.

“A teacher doesn’t go into a classroom saying, ‘I’m going to target these students,’” said Matthews, who has been involved in anti-racist education work since the 1980s.

However, one’s biases, course content and language choices have lasting impacts on students, she said.

In 2021, the four-year graduation rate in Manitoba was roughly 82 per cent overall, but only 51 per cent of Indigenous students in the province graduated “on time.”

As far as Matthews is concerned, maintaining the status-quo is not an option. “This is an era of racial reckoning,” she said.

Equity Matters wants all metro divisions to start developing local equity offices.

Late last year, the Winnipeg School Division board unanimously voted to establish the first such office before the 2022-23 school year gets underway.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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