After 14 years of teaching in Ontario high schools, it was in 2020 that Wonuola Yomi-Odedeyi got more involved in her teachers’ union.
She doesn’t recall any sort of union orientation when she first started teaching in Halton in 2007. But in November 2020, she was elected as a co-branch-president for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF). Her job is to assist the branch president.
“I’m a small fry,” Yomi-Odedeyi laughed. But the role means she is one of about 500 members who can attend the OSSTF’s annual meeting and vote on policies.
And being more involved, Yomi-Odedeyi has started to question the lack of Black, Indigenous and racialized people involved in the union, and the impact it can have on teachers from those identities.
“Who are the people who are writing the policy? How many racialized people are writing the policies?”
Now she and a group of Ontario educators are calling on their union, the OSSTF, to start dismantling anti-Black racism within the union, in a public petition.
The saga has played out as a back and forth between these educators who want to see tangible change, while the OSSTF has put forth an equity plan that teacher Deborah Buchanan-Walford worries is “all lip service.”
“They say these things publicly — that they’re all about equity and addressing anti-racism, when it’s the complete opposite,” she said.
In a press release from members calling themselves “OSSTF Disruptors,” the educators accuse the union of failing to act, and resisting efforts to address anti-Black racism and oppression within the union.
“We had to resort to a public petition since no real change was being advocated by our leaders. They left us with no choice,” Gord Gallimore, a secondary school teacher in Peel said in the release.
The big picture is, these “disrupters” have seen how indifference to racism in the OSSTF has affected contract negotiations, led to a lack of diversity in union leadership and worry it could affect change in the education system as a whole.
“We want to make change — firstly, we have to start within ourselves,” Buchanan-Walford said. “If we’re not even willing, as a union body to bring equity to our own membership, how are we going to do that in our schools and in our classrooms, and in our communities?”
So, they want to see the OSSTF, which represents over 60,000 people working in the secondary school system, make dismantling racism a priority.
The group has circulated a petition calling for OSSTF leaders to meet with them and address their demands, some of which include creating a committee and budget line dedicated to dismantling racism within the union, and people dedicated to work with members of the Black and racialized school community, like parent groups.
So far, over 650 people have signed on in support.
Speaking to the Star, the current president of the OSSTF Harvey Bischof, outlined the union’s current plan for equity which was voted on at this year’s annual meeting in March, and added that more can certainly be done.
“I don’t think there’s going to be ever something that can be defined as enough,” said Bischof. “(There are) always going to be improvements that need to be made.”
Part of this year’s equity plan is creating separate advisory groups for the provincial executive with focus on marginalized groups including Black, Indigenous and racialized people, and equity overall.
He also added that over a decade ago they started collecting self-identification data to better understand their membership. Even with these moves, he said, “we’re far from done.”
Still, teachers like Yomi-Odedeyi and Buchanan-Walford worry that an advisory panel won’t matter much if they don’t have the power an executive member does.
Something Toronto and Peel delegates asked for specifically at the annual meeting in March, was to create a requirement that at least one elected vice-president and executive officer be Black or Indigenous.
The Peel motion asked that two new executive officer positions be created for people who are Black or Indigenous. These motions were “ruled out of order” by the steering committee because “they have already been dealt with.”
Mississauga teacher Ashoak Grewal tells the Star, it’s time equity issues were a given, and not voted on.
“We don’t vote on safety issues. It’s a worker’s right,” said Grewal. “We need to stop voting on equity motions. Equity is a right, human rights is a right.
“We should just have policies in place that protect Black, Indigenous and racialized members,” he added.
Teachers who spoke with the Star mentioned that “equity” and “racism” and measures to deal with these sorts of disputes, aren’t explicitly written into their teacher contracts — which they say again speaks to equity being ignored.
What experts say
Toronto-based lawyer Samantha Peters, agrees, it should be written into contracts.
“I think that there should be language explicitly on anti-Black racism, because you have to name it in order to meaningfully address it,” said Peters, who focuses on labour, employment and human rights.
But, she said, it would take a lot of pushing “beyond identifying statements, (unions) need to take action.”
And of course, Peters added, the onus is on the employers to agree to these changes, but “unions, I believe, can indeed play a significant role in effecting change across the system.”
And if anti-Black racism isn’t something that’s high on the to-do list, Peters worries about the ripple effects: we could lose more Black teachers to stress leave, the call for more Black teachers won’t be answered and in the end, students will suffer.
To achieve equitable change, more outside-the-box thinking may be needed, according to Carl James, a York University professor who focuses on racism in education and is currently a senior adviser on equity and representation. This includes adjusting what is considered democracy.
Usually, issues are put to a vote, and majority rules. But if the OSSTF is looking to make a change on race, and racialized educators are outnumbered in the organization as a whole, and as voting members, the traditional model becomes a barrier for equitable change.
“We have to start rethinking many of these things,” James said, as unions and organizations work to be more inclusive.
Peters agrees that a few speaking up will make change tough if the structure stays the same.
For instance, hiring and appointing one-off racialized people at unions won’t have the impact needed “if they’re still made to uphold the current system or are punished if they don’t,” she said.
“There needs to be a whole culture shift in union organizing.”
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star