On Thursday, students attending Peel District School Board classes sat expectantly in front of their monitors.
They were waiting for a special guest, Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal NDP and former Brampton MPP.
Singh, who volunteered time earlier this year to join an online Brampton class, had agreed to speak to all Peel students and staff to mark the beginning of Sikh Heritage Month. As the first visible minority leader of a federal party and a practicing Sikh, Singh has regularly talked in public about his heritage and beliefs.
Instead of being an uninterrupted moment to celebrate and learn, the event was hijacked.
Several online trolls entered the Google Meet Singh was using to speak to students. They had offensive usernames that included anti-South Asian, homophobic and anti-Black terms. Caught between a rock and a hard place, PDSB administrators tried to block the accounts, but they couldn’t stop the hurtful comments streaming into classrooms and homes in one of the most diverse regions in the world.
“The virtual presentation was disrupted by unknown individuals who attempted to enter the online event utilizing racist and discriminatory slurs in their usernames,” PDSB director of education, Colleen Russell-Rawlins, and provincial supervisor, Bruce Rodrigues, wrote in an open letter Thursday night. “We would like to take the time to apologize to Mr. Singh, the event attendees, and especially Sikh community members who were impacted by this hateful act in a moment which should have been celebratory.”
The board did not respond to a request for comment Friday. Its media line had an automatic reply in place saying staff were on holiday for the long weekend.
Throughout his political career, Singh has been notable for the patience and poise he has displayed when confronted by racism. During an event he held in Brampton in 2017, Singh was approached by a woman who accused him of planning to impose Sharia law in Canada. Singh’s calm response to the incident was praised at the time. In 2019, a man in Quebec told the NDP leader to remove his turban, his smooth reaction was again commended.
In his remarks to students during the broadcast, Singh did not acknowledge the usernames that appeared in the Google Meet (it’s unclear if he was aware) and instead forged ahead with his message to celebrate Sikh Heritage Month. He could not be reached for comment, but his brother, Brampton NDP MPP Gurratan Singh, posted on Twitter.
“This is why #SikhHeritageMonth is so important,” Singh tweeted. “It helps challenge this kind of anti-Sikh racism, and supports Sikhs who are victims to this hate. Let’s chose (sic) to celebrate each other when people try to tear us down like this.”
For teachers, excited to see one of Canada’s most recognizable public figures share his views with their students, the interruption was upsetting.
“I think they put a lot of effort into it and it is just really saddening for employees, especially teachers that were at the event,” Heba Mousa, a secondary school teacher in Peel, told The Pointer. Mousa, a practicing Muslim, has been involved in campaigns at PDSB to recognize various religious heritage months, an initiative eventually adopted by the board in 2019. “Many teachers from Grade 1 and 2 are saying that they had to turn it off because the kids could see the slurs that were coming in.”
Last year, when virtual learning was introduced for teachers and students, Mousa says her classroom was subject to a similar attack. Also using the Google Meet platform, she says someone tried to enter her online space using offensive slurs in their username, an incident she referred to her principal.
PDSB itself was subject to a lengthy cyber attack beginning in January, with hackers encrypting reams of board data. For weeks, information on the attack was scarce and teachers expressed their frustrations on social media at the lack of communication.
A recent board report said no information was compromised or shared as a result of the incident. The report resolved to improve cyber-security practices at the board.
“PDSB has already created and developed a comprehensive web-based training framework that includes information on phishing, viruses, malware, ransomware, social engineering, physical security, and protection of personal information,” a March 23 report explained. “PDSB will continue to review, update and revise the cyber-security training artifacts as new information and promising practices are made available.”
Nine days later, the board’s keynote Sikh Heritage Month presentation was compromised.
“The Peel District School Board recognizes the harm this act of racism and hate caused to students, staff and special guests,” Russell-Rawlins and Rodrigues wrote. “This hate was directed towards Sikh, South-Asian, Black, and 2SLGBTQ+ communities. The language used was unacceptable and will not be tolerated at the Peel District School Board.”
Peel Regional Police confirmed to The Pointer that no complaints had been filed.
Some prominent anti-Black racism campaigners who have worked with the board on equity and inclusion issues are concerned the event will distract from progress that is finally being made behind the scenes at PDSB. Over the past three months, various tangible actions have been advanced by the board in its attempts to undo decades of harm to Black students, and other visible minority groups. Recent moves have included hiring based on demographics and not exclusively seniority, expunging suspension records for students below Grade 3 and working on a strategy for African-Canadian, Black-Canadian and Caribbean-Canadian student success.
The Ontario Secondary Teachers Federation (OSSTF) issued a statement blaming the board. “The senior administration team at the Peel District School Board was in attendance at this meeting and should have immediately addressed the racist disruption that occurred during the meeting,” OSSTF D19 (Peel) wrote in a statement that also expressed solidarity and support for Peel’s Sikh community. “Once again the senior administrators in the Peel District School Board have failed to live up to the expectations that they purport to have for their employees and everyone in our schools communities.”
Ashoak Grewal, a PDSB educator, is concerned that pointing fingers at the board will distract from the vital equity work that is finally being undertaken. “I think they used Jagmeet Singh as a target to try and cause a divide,” he said, suggesting online trolls are looking to destabilize progress at the board. “This is divide and conquer. This is a typical white supremacy mentality: divide the communities, divide the communities.”
The current administration, headed by Rodrigues and Russell-Rawlins, was brought in after two damning Ministry of Education reports found systemic anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination rampant within PDSB. The pair are rolling out directives from Queen’s Park designed to improve student fortunes at a board where about 85 percent are racialized, compared to a teaching staff that is overwhelmingly white.
“I think it’s very important that the board recognizes exactly what has happened because it could be a distraction if you’re looking at each incident being independent,” Kola Iluyomade, founder of anti-racism group Advocacy Peel, said.
For students in Peel’s classrooms, subjected to homophobic, anti-Sikh and anti-Black bigotry, the effects can be alienating. A visit from one of Canada’s leaders and potential role-model was overshadowed by cyber-security issues and hateful words.
Mousa said the community, collectively, will overcome the latest racist act.
“It’s not going to deter anybody, if anything it will make us more likely to create more opportunities for these events,” she said. “The more that resistance becomes evident, the more we see that it’s really important for this work to be done, regardless of the attack that you get from the community because it is really important that we create an environment for our children to learn and be in their future.”
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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer