Free legal aid now available to all Black students in Ontario schools

Haweya Farah's brother has been in a specialized-language program since Grade 1, something the family says it was unaware of.  (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)
Haweya Farah's brother has been in a specialized-language program since Grade 1, something the family says it was unaware of. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)

Haweya Farah's family is in a dispute with her 10-year-old brother's Ottawa-area school and its school board, Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario (CEPEO).

The fifth grader has been in a specialized-language program without the consent of his parents, Farah said.

Often families like Farah's don't know where to turn, but with the help of legal services from the non-profit Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC), they feel they can level the playing field.

"We had an introduction with their team with BLAC and they informed us of what are the rights of the parents and also what's inside student records," Farah said.

Starting this school year, that service will be available to all Black students in Ontario regardless of the financial situation of their family.

Family 'didn't even know' 

Farah and her family's concern is that Actualisation linguistique en français (ALF) — meant to help a student's proficiency in French — wasn't benefiting her brother.

It's also raised questions about streaming, the process of separating children based on ability, which has been shown to disproportionately affect Black and low-income students.

Submitted by Haweya Farah
Submitted by Haweya Farah

Farah's brother has been in the program since Grade 1.

"[My parents] didn't even know he was in his program," she said.

In an email, CEPEO said it doesn't comment on specific cases but is "always open to collaborating and keeping an open dialogue with parents who have concerns about their child's well-being, learning or success."

Farah said her family's priority is to ensure her brother has the best education, one that helps with his social well-being.

While family members mentioned to the board their desire to have him change programs in the past, the family felt they lacked the power to effect that change.

"Already in the system, there's this loss of trust," Farah said. "So having BLAC being present, they also validate our emotion, our trauma and everything."

Before now free representation was only available to families below a certain income threshold.

Moya Teklu, the legal clinic's executive director and general counsel, calls the expanded eligibility of the program a game changer.

Money is available because of a partnership between BLAC and the advocacy group Parents of Black Children, which leads the province's Student and Family Advocate Community of Practice.

"The issues are that Black students continue to be streamed into non-academic courses, either without the involvement or the informed consent of their families, [and] that they are expelled and suspended and disciplined at rates that are way out of proportion to their representation in the general population," she told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Wednesday.

According to Parents of Black Children, at least 30 Black Ottawa families had children placed in CEPEO's ALF and newcomer support programs without their consent.

Teklu said her legal clinic will always try to resolve conflicts with schools and school boards through meetings and letters first, but will take legal action on behalf of families if needed.

"The folks that work at the Black Legal Action Centre would love to work themselves out of a job, and many of the staff or parents have school-aged children," she said.

"I would be really pleased to be able to send my nieces and nephews off to school and not have to worry about whether they're going to have the same rights as their classmates."

Nothing had been formally filed at the Ottawa courthouse against the French public school board in regards to Farah's brother as of Thursday afternoon.