Students at a Toronto elementary school received a painful lesson on the reality of racism after posters they created to voice their feelings about police violence and anti-Black racism were vandalized and splattered over with paint.
The posters, made by a group of Grade 6 students at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Lab School, featured the words, "Black Lives Matter," "No Justice, No Peace" and images of raised fists and were proudly displayed in front of the school by its staff.
The artwork was created as part of a larger discussion on race as students grapple to make sense of recent news stories, including the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer in May, said principal Richard Messina..
"This is children's work. They wanted to respond to something that was happening around them in their world and in their community. Some are becoming aware of systemic racism, some have already known it their whole lives. They wanted to express themselves," said Messina.
But this past Saturday, the posters were found vandalized with black paint.
Since they were double sided, staff with the University of Toronto-affiliated school turned the signs around, only to find them defaced again Sunday with white paint splattered all over them.
"I didn't think this would happen here, especially," said 11-year-old Ella Irons-McDonald. "It was like a shock, sort of, and it's sad how people don't recognize that Black lives matter."
She was happy to come together with her fellow students to create the posters to "do something nice for the community and make people think," the Grade 6 student said
"People are taking it the wrong way by saying Black lives matter. They're like, 'What about white lives matter? What about all lives matter?" her classmate Evelyn Radford said.
She says the phrase doesn't negate anyone else's suffering but with the increasing examples of anti-Black racism coming to light, it's especially important to zero in on the value of Black lives now more than ever.
"Because all this is happening... it's better just to focus more on this."
Maria Bumbury has been a teacher at the school for the past year and said she was moved to see students taking part in the project. But, she says, she wasn't at all surprised to see the posters defaced.
"I've lived here all my life and I've dealt with racism each and every day," said Bumbury. "It's a fight that's ongoing and there are people out there who are not ready to make the change."
And for those questioning whether messages like "Black lives matter" have a place in schools, Bumbury said: "It needs to be at a school. These children are our future and they're living it. They're experiencing it and they need to be a part of it."
In an email to CBC News, Ryan Dow, a staff sergeant with University of Toronto Campus Police, said the incident was reported to Toronto police on June 27th immediately after campus police were made aware.
"The University of Toronto condemns all forms of racism, harassment and discrimination and has taken the necessary steps in accordance with our institutional policies," he added.
Francois Tanguay-Renaud, a parent with the school and also a professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School, hopes police will look into treating the act as a hate crime.
"Now is the time that they can show us that they care — seize that discretion and investigate."
Meanwhile, the school says the incident won't stop it from displaying students' expressions on racism, saying it intends to reprint and redisplay the posters.
"This is a reminder to all of us that Toronto is far from exempt from racism," said Messina.