A group of Black parents have taken the problem of anti-Black racism in Ontario schools into their own hands, launching an anonymous racism reporting tool for educators and staff, saying they can no longer wait for school boards to act.
At a virtual news conference Tuesday, mothers with the group Parents of Black Children (POBC) announced its school-racism reporting tool, with a plan to release aggregated data on a quarterly basis. The move is a response to what they say is a lack of accountability at Ontario boards and inaction on the part of province to institute random equity audits to properly gauge the scale of anti-Black racism in schools.
"Despite years of reports, committees and recommendations, school boards are saying that they are unable to properly track incidents of anti-Black racism. This is unacceptable so we are going to do it for them," said mother-of-two Kearie Daniel, a founding member of the group.
Parents who advocate for change are often told to prove racism is happening, but without proper reporting tools, sound data simply doesn't exist, Daniel said. Educators are often reluctant to report about such incidents, fearing reprisals, lack of promotion, sabotage or lack of support from their administrators, she added.
That allows school boards "to feign innocence and do nothing more to fight against anti-Black racism than to put nice-sounding statements on their websites or maybe hold a training or two," Daniel said
'I don't forget those stories'
On Tuesday alone, another of the group's cofounders, Charline Grant, said she had heard from four families with stories of anti-Black racism in schools.
"I don't forget those stories. I don't forget those names. They stay with me," said Grant. "I see myself. I see my children in those phone calls and those intakes that come in."
Policies and procedure can go out the door and things can happen very quickly when governments are motivated to do it — when other lives are in danger. - Charline Grant
Grant experienced anti-Black racism herself when a York Region school board trustee was overheard calling her the n-word. The trustee, Nancy Elgie, ultimately resigned from the board following months of public pressure.
In 2017, following a human rights complaint, Grant received an apology from the York Region District School Board. The board also agreed to establish a human rights office to collect equity-related data and conduct mandatory racism and anti-Black racism training among other commitments.
Since then, she has heard from countless families and from Black educators with children in Ontario school boards who say they're afraid to speak out. It's a problem she says the provincial government has had months to act on — noting the group has been calling for random equity audits at boards since August 2020 — but to-date, it hasn't.
"If there's one thing I personally have learned throughout this COVID-19 pandemic, it's that policies and procedure can go out the door and things can happen very quickly when governments are motivated to do it — when other lives are in danger," she said. "But our Black student lives are in danger and its been in danger for a very long time. And it's hurtful and harmful and traumatizing."
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he has "reaffirmed the mandate to all school boards to collect race-based data," though he did not respond to POBC's calls for random audits.
"The Government will ensure school boards collect and publicize this data to create accountability, transparency and action to fix long-standing systemic barriers that hold back Black and other racialized children in Ontario," said spokesperson Caitlin Clark.
The statement added "the status quo is indefensible," saying the government has moved to end discretionary suspensions for students Grade 3 and under, and end practices like "streaming" which saw Black students funnelled into applied programs below their ability.
Province launching Black advocacy in schools program
A day before the launch of the tool, the province also announced it will invest $6 million over the next three years to support Black students through a new program called the Student and Family Advocates Initiative in Ottawa, Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area.
That support will include things like working with students to develop plans for achieving their goals and connecting students and families to resources like job-placements, scholarships and leadership opportunities, it said, as well as working alongside community partners to "amplify" the voices of Black students and families to make changes in the education system.
"Since I started in the role of Advocate for Community Opportunities in December 2019, I've consistently heard from parents, youth, and grassroots community groups that we need to build community capacity to navigate the education system and hold schools accountable," said Jamil Jivani, Ontario's Advocate for Community Opportunities.
The launch of the Black parent group's reporting tool comes on the heels of a first-of-its kind report by the Toronto District School Board's human rights office that found "a serious racism problem" within the board, with reports of anti-Black racism exceeding all other hate incidents documented there in the past year.
That report followed an unanimous vote by Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustees in 2019, out of which the board developed a formal policy requiring employees report any such incidents that they encounter to managerial staff.
'This is what courage looks like'
Speaking to CBC News, TDSB spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz said the TDSB welcomes all new tools to gather more details on racist and hate incidents within the school board and their schools, and are also open to perfect the tool they already have in place.
Parents and members of the Peel District School Board, meanwhile, can direct complaints to the board's human rights office, which board spokesperson Tiffany Gooch describes as an "arm's length, independent and neutral office that will confidentially receive, resolve and where appropriate, investigate complaints of racism and discrimination in a fair, just an equitable manner."
That board says it will be implementing the first phase of a mandatory reporting system for staff this week, which will include instances of anti-Black racism. It also says it is working on transforming and strengthening its human rights office to "rebuilt trust" that complaints are taken seriously.
But speaking to reporters Tuesday, educator and POBC group member Claudette Rutherford pointed out that when it comes to boards' own human rights offices, staff may well be underreporting out of concern for backlash.
"Teachers as well as parents are far less likely to go that route because they're not trusting of, 'Is it arm's length?'" said Rutherford, who has been teaching for nearly two decades.
"Even me coming here now, I understand the risk that it puts me at but I feel like I don't have a choice anymore," she added.
"This is what courage looks like," said Grant. "Being afraid and still doing it."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.