Current and former students of the Langley Fine Arts School in Metro Vancouver say they're disappointed by the principal's apology for appearing in blackface in a yearbook photo more than a decade ago.
In his apology letter, principal Jon Bonnar says the photo was taken for Halloween in 2007. Bonnar, who was then vice-principal, says he and the principal at the time, a person of colour, dressed up as each other that year.
"This happened and it never should have. It was wrong," Bonnar wrote. "I understand how offensive it is to appear in blackface, and how it diminishes and demeans members of our Black community."
Soleil Mousseau, a Grade 10 student at the school, says she's glad Bonnar has apologized but she would prefer to see him and the school district vow to take specific actions to learn about racism.
Mousseau, who identifies as Afro-Brazilian, just finished her first year at the school. She says while her overall experience there has been positive, she has experienced subtle but powerful discriminatory comments sometimes referred to as micro-aggressions.
Her first encounter with Bonnar, Mousseau says, was him greeting her with, "That's quite the head of hair you have there." She says it's one of many comments she's heard about her hair throughout her life that have reminded her that she's different.
"The first thing that went through my mind was, 'Wow, I don't even think he realizes what he's saying and how that can come across negatively,'" Mousseau said.
Photo circulating for a long time
The photo of Bonnar in blackface had been making the rounds among students and on public social media groups for months, Mousseau said. She thinks Bonnar must have known it had been circulating.
She wonders why the apology didn't come sooner.
Izzy Cenedese, a former student who graduated last year and uses the pronouns they/them, says they first came across the photo about two years ago.
Cenedese is one of several students who say they began recirculating the image of Bonnar in light of recent protests in support of Black Lives Matter. They said discussion among friends on the topic of blackface reminded them of the photo.
"I think it's sad that it's taken this and all of us being upset and talking about it and being public about it for it to be properly addressed," they said. "I hope that real change does come and real growth does come from this."
'Deafening silence' from teachers
Jon Brin graduated from Langley Fine Arts School in 2009 and was a student there when the blackface incident happened.
"What I noticed immediately was an electricity in the air. I looked to faculty members at the school to gauge their response," he said. "I didn't hear anyone talk about it. I heard silence — deafening silence — from some faculty. And I thought that was strange."
Brin says he has mixed feelings thinking back to the incident. On the one hand he says his experience at the school was positive, but he remembers several incidents of racial insensitivity under the guise of creative licence.
"There were things that happened at the school that always pushed the envelope or raised an eyebrow," he said.
The school district issued an apology Saturday from the superintendent.
"I unreservedly apologize to our entire school community," said Langley Schools Superintendent Gord Stewart. "Particularly those that are marginalized and face challenges that those raised in privileged environments do not."
The district says it formed a committee two weeks ago that will work on "developing plans with specific actions to address racism in our schools and community."