Racism in Canada’s Schools

The time has come for systemic change

The killing of George Floyd proved to be the tipping point in the crusade to demonstrate that systemic racism is real and that it permeates society in an all-encompassing manner. No longer disregarded as some intellectual phantom dreamed up by the disenfranchised, systemic racism is now being acknowledged for the insidious scourge that pits the power of privilege against the hint that that power might be threatened or taken away. 

George Floyd. Accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill to a clerk in a Minneapolis deli. Confronted by police, detained and then forced to the ground, a senior officer’s knee jammed into his neck, as he lay prone on the ground. His pleas ignored. Appeals from bystanders ignored. Fellow officers on the scene, paralyzed in the face of their colleague’s aggressive act of submission as Floyd repeated, “I can’t breathe.” All caught on film. And, in under ten minutes, Floyd went into medical distress and died. Killed, for all intents and purposes, because of the colour of his skin. 

Will the system change? 

No doubt educators returning to schools across Canada in the fall of 2020 – besides dealing with the safety questions surrounding COVID-19 – will be forced to deal with the Black Lives Matter protests that went international after Floyd’s death. Or will they? If history repeats itself, the protests will be ignored; by many, (mostly White) educators, who believe that systemic racism and implicit personal bias against Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) does not exist. “I am not a racist,” educators will pronounce defensively. But now the implicit has become explicit. The days surrounding the killing of George Floyd were followed by reports of other deaths at the hands of police across the U.S. Meanwhile in Canada, within a week of Floyd’s death, Chantel Moore, an Indigenous woman living in New Brunswick, was gunned down when police were conducting a wellness check on her. They say she was wielding a knife. 

Has anything changed?

To say that many educators will do nothing in light of the protests in the summer of 2020 is not an expression of pessimism. Instead it speaks to Canada’s long-standing denial that institutional racism exists. Back in 1992, human rights champion and former leader of the Ontario NDP Stephen Lewis was commissioned by the province to write the “Report on Race Relations in Ontario.” In it, he describes meeting with racialized communities and observing “there was a weary and bitter sense that I was engaged and they were engaged in yet another reporting charade. It was truly depressing.” In his report, he echoes the questions of racialized students about the structure of the school system: “Where are the courses in Black history? Where are the visible minority teachers? Why are there so few role models? Why do our White guidance counsellors know so little of different cultural backgrounds? Why are racist incidents and epithets tolerated? Why are there double standards of discipline? Why are minority students streamed? Why do they discourage us from University?… How long does it take to change the curriculum so that we’re a part of it?” 

Almost 30 years later and, despite some efforts to improve equity and cultural sensitivity in education across Canada, the questions posed by the students Lewis interviewed still ring true. Thirty years of intellectualizing racism has led to one stark reality: most educators do not believe that systemic racism exists and wince at the inkling that they may hold implicit or unconscious racist opinions.

This is not an effort to shame educators. It is simply to say that systems are in place that makes it easier for one group (White students) to thrive while others (BIPOC students) feel like they are swimming upstream. The evidence of this is startling. 

The “Dysfunctional” Peel Board

Case in point: Ontario’s Peel District School Board (PDSB). Lauded as a leader in equity policy in the 2013 document Anti-Racism Education in Canada: Best Practices, the Peel board rapidly fell from grace when parents of Black students began providing evidence of racism to officials at the school and board level. They were dismissed. The parents didn’t give up, pushing school leaders to accept the fact that racism was an issue in program delivery and in the way Black students were treated. They were continually rebuffed even though evidence of anti-Black racism continued to be revealed. Parent advocates put themselves on the agenda of nearly every board meeting and, in late 2019, the Minister of Education ordered an investigation into the allegations. Almost immediately, the three-person panel encountered stories of overt racism and systemic bias against BIPOC students. They concluded that the PDSB was highly dysfunctional when it came to working to address (or even recognize) the problem of systemic racism throughout the board. Here are a few of the examples they eventually revealed in their final report: 

Parents of a biracial student attended a curriculum night at their child’s school. When the parents arrived, they were each given pamphlets about the school’s academic programs: the Black parent was given a pamphlet on applied programs that lead to a college or workplace destination pathway; the White parent was given a pamphlet on academic programs that lead to a university destination pathway. The report writers concluded, “This situation is cogently illustrative of the institutionalized racism that manifests in the PDSB guidance system.”

Indigenous, Black and gay students were over-represented in non-university courses and under-represented in academic courses and special enriched programs.

Black students, while making up 10.2% of the secondary school population, accounted for 22.5% of the students receiving suspensions.

Staff were much more likely to call the police over incidents involving Black students versus similar incidents involving White students. 

Many students and staff believed that Black History Month activities lacked even general acceptance by the school community and were more for White people to “feel good about celebrating Black people”.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that police discriminated against a grade one PDSB student and “race was a factor in treatment by police when she was placed on her stomach and her wrists handcuffed behind her.” The police believed the student posed a serious threat to other students and deemed the handcuffs necessary to ensure student safety. 

Despite repeated proclamations that they would do their utmost to address the problem of anti-Black racism in schools, board officials, when pressed, could not define or explain what is meant by anti-Black
racism – making it impossible to describe cogent plans to eradicate the problem. 

Shortly after the release of the panel’s report, the Minister of Education appointed a supervisor to oversee the implementation of anti-racist policy and practices in the Peel District School Board. In turn, the board dismissed the director of education. 

The Peel story serves as an example of how racism can exist at all levels of a school system. It also demonstrates the level of advocacy BIPOC parents need to employ simply to be heard. No doubt similar (or worse) examples
of system racism can be found across Canada. In the case of
the PDSB, tenacious parents exposed the problem. It is too soon to tell if public awareness raised by movements like Black Lives Matter, Idle No More and Wet’suwet’en Strong will make advocacy less burdensome for those most affected by racism. Hopefully, those who hold the power have become more likely to respond to racism in
their own communities. 

Becoming an anti-racist educator

Educators pride themselves on compassion and empathy when dealing with their students. This is why administrators, guidance counsellors and teachers are often quick to point out – even in the absence of any accusation – that they are not racist. They see racism as a moral failure that their self-image cannot reconcile with the good people they believe themselves to be. Many go further to proclaim that racism is not a problem in their school or in their community. Too often, educators naively cling to the notion that racism is something that exists somewhere else (with statement like, “Well, at least we’re not like the U.S.”). 

“White Fragility”

According to Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White people to talk about racism,” it’s time for members of the dominant group to adopt a new approach to the reality of racism so that they can more fully engage in dialogue and change, and acknowledge the prevalence of systemic racism. DiAngelo, a White educator who openly acknowledges the privilege that comes with her race, explains, “Foundationally [we] have to change our idea of what it means to be racist. As long as you define a racist as an individual who intentionally is mean, based on race, you’re going to feel defensive.” She explains that, by virtue of their birth, White people are shaped by the implicit bias that comes from being born into the dominant group. With privilege automatically bestowed on them, White people do not possess an innate understanding of racism because they never experience the systemic pitfalls that make it so much more challenging to be a person of colour. Thus, DiAngelo encourages White people to assume their racism – that resides in their implicit bias shaped by a lifetime of ideas and events – is always in play when dealing with racialized communities and be conscious enough to try to inform and change that bias through action. In a school context, DiAngelo adds, “There’s a history of harm between the institution of schooling and families of colour: Our schools have not done right by children of colour. And parents of colour are delivering their precious, precious children into an institution where there’s a deep history of harm. So, their suspicion, their fear and worry are rational. It’s rational that they don’t automatically trust the teacher.” This perspective also applies to racialized students. Instead of reacting defensively, educators should acknowledge the historic wrongs done by the system and empathize with racialized families.  

Know your implicit bias

This perspective is particularly important for guidance counsellors. No one wants to take the position, “Assume you are a racist.” However, it is fanciful to assume that people are not shaped by their accumulated implicit bias. People hold opinions and some of those opinions are racially charged. These opinions, when left unaddressed, lead to attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate racism. In many instances, ignoring implicit bias and, in turn, living off the benefits of systemic racism, allows educational institutions to move from generation to generation without really changing. Certainly, strides are being made in the realm of policy and programing, but the George Floyd’s of the world are still being killed, Black History month continues to be greeted with rolling eyes and snide remarks, and BIPOC students keep getting shuffled into classes that suggest that they are not good enough. All that people like Robin DiAngelo are asking is that you get to know your implicit bias and, when a student is sitting across from you in the guidance office, see how that bias is informing your actions and words. 

Time for change

Exposing systemic racism is not about feeling paralyzing shame for historic wrongs (the kind where you just surrender and proclaim, “Well, what else can I do?!”) but moving inward and exposing and changing our implicit bias. For guidance counsellors, it means sitting across from racialized students and recognizing the obstacles they deal with on a daily basis, both inside school and outside of school. To fail to take into account how our thoughts and deeds perpetuate systemic racism in our schools amounts to a weary and bitter sense that we are engaged in yet another charade (to paraphrase Stephen Lewis from 30 years ago!) where action is promised and none is delivered. 

In an article called How to Be an Anti-Racist Educator for ASCD, Dena Simmons encourages educators to openly communicate about racism in the classroom and in their offices. She essentially provides a recipe for change. Simmons recommends the following: 

  • Engage in vigilant self-awareness
  • Acknowledge racism and the ideology of white supremacy
  • Study and teach representative history
  • Talk about race with students
  • When you see racism, do something

By Sean Dolan

For a complete look at Simmons’s ideas, go to: