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If not now, when? 

Implementing a shelved blueprint for anti-racist education

July 25, 2016

By Charles Pascal


Implementing a shelved blueprint for anti-racist education

Demonstrators assemble in front of the Toronto District School Board building in December 2015 to protest a 13-year-old Black student being sent home for 'poofy and unprofessional' hair. (Photo by COLE BURSTON/Toronto Star/Getty Images).


It’s good to hear those with position power in Ontario respond in earnest to the Black community’s call for genuine and sustainable action when it comes to just treatment from our public institutions, particularly, the Toronto Police Services.  I have no doubts about the sincerity of these political leaders. But as Yogi Berra, that irascible American philosopher (and baseball player!), once said “it’s déjà vu all over again.” There was a time when Ontario was poised to get on with implementing significant levers for change, including a massive plan to ensure that Ontario’s education system becomes an anti-racism engine. Then, this open door was shut. 

Listen: Dr. Charles Pascal talks to Matt Galloway on CBC Metro Morning about the need to make anti-racist education a reality

The 1992 Yonge Street Riot and the Lewis Report

Swing back to May 4, 1992 and the Yonge Street Riot when members of the Black community had enough of the endemic racism that marked their experience with Toronto policing. It’s important to note that the riots did not come from an absence of warning signs, at least for those who were paying attention.  Community activists and scholars alike had described the great justice divide affecting the Black community.

Swing back to a month later — June 9, 1992 — when Stephen Lewis, as Advisor to Premier Bob Rae on Race Relations, tabled his report. Two things will stun anyone who reads the report. One, it set a speed record. Lewis crammed an incredible amount of consultation into a month and produced 37-pages of advice to the Premier. Second, the force and quality of Lewis’s recommendations were remarkable. Sadly, many of them remain timely today. Premier Rae wasted zero time in directing his ministers and deputy ministers to implement recommendations related to several key ministries.

As deputy minister of education, my marching orders were clear — develop and implement an anti-racism strategy for Ontario’s education system.  The good news is that under former Minister Dave Cooke, we made remarkable progress in a short time with an effective process and a framework for action. The bad news?   With implementation well underway, Mr. Rae’s successor government scrapped the entire plan and process. Unfortunately, successive governments have never come close to re-instating this short-lived  comprehensive plan. Has the time come to go back to the future to ensure that education becomes a pre-eminent and sustainable driver for change? The time was then and then and then but as that sage Jewish scholar, Rabbi Hillel, noted “if not now, when?”

1993 Antiracism and Ethnocultural Equity in School Boards report

With the clarity of the rear view mirror, what were the key aspects of the Antiracism and Ethnocultural Equity in School Boards report, tabled in the late Spring of 1993?  First, the process was the product. The wide and deep involvement of countless educators, academics, community leaders and others, was key to the receptiveness of the report’s implementation plans.  

The initial and strong focus was on how to ensure students from the Black community were treated with respect and support.  As Lewis concluded in his report, "While it is obviously true that every visible minority community experiences the indignities and wounds of systemic discrimination….it is the Black community which is the focus.  It is Blacks who are being shot, it is Black youth who are unemployed in excessive numbers…it is Black kids who disproportionately dropping out…" 

That said, while the report focused on removing educational barriers for Black students, it also noted back then, the critical importance to produce a plan that would be sensitive to racism impacting on others, in particular, off reserve Indigenous students and students for whom their first language was other than French or English.

Initiatives included the need to overhaul the curriculum with an anti-racism lens to ensure it reflected respect for, and understanding of, a culturally and racially diverse society. When it comes to assessing student achievement and progress, measurement approaches were to be adjusted to remove biases that are insensitive to the student experience of many ethnoculturally diverse students.

Key to the plan was to ensure that hiring practices became effective in ensuring that vacancies were sensitive to the kind of diversity that increased the probability that all students would see themselves reflected in the teacher cohort within each school. As well, racial and ethnocultural harassment procedures were to be put in place.

Absolutely central to implementing any complex change is the importance of intentional leadership. The 1993 report called on school boards in Ontario to ensure policies and practices that would lever the changes necessary. And a monitoring process was to be implemented to track progress in a transparent manner. The most important leadership leverage for all of this is at the school level and the report called for intensive anti-racism training for all educational leaders, including of course, principals and teachers.

Before the Ministry of Education was to expect this kind of training for those working in school boards, we initiated anti-racism training within the Ministry. We led from “within” before asking others to follow suit.

I was in the first group of participants. The experience was, indeed, intense and spread over six weeks in three-hour workshops, once a week. It was NOT a single one-off seminar with a few anti-racist gurus on a panel. It was designed to alter the way we think and act. It was designed to alter an obvious power imbalance between haves and have-nots.  This 1993 plan built in the twin notions of accountability and transparency — regular public progress reporting — bringing to bear a “no place to hide” approach regarding a deliberate attack on the status quo.

Implementation stopped in its tracks

Ontario was on its way to a major generational change to education equity. And then? The election of 1995 gave rise to a U-turn in many areas of public policy but none more devastating to our collective future than the complete elimination of the education equity plan. The notion of education equity was expunged from the landscape…on a dime.

Since then, nothing significant, nothing with depth of purpose has come close to this 1993 framework for change. When the TDSB launched the Africentric school idea in 2009, it created quite a buzz. Many progressives opined that it was a retrograde notion when it comes to a respectful and integrated civil society. On the other hand, how many more decades would pass before we learned how to support kids from the Black community. Regardless of views about its success, there would have been no need to experiment with alternative schools based on the need for education equity if all schools became the “new alternative,” if “mainstream” schools became places of equity and respect. 

If not now, when?

As I reflect on our work of 23 years ago, I am struck by the congruence of that report with the recent report dealing with the devastating colonizing consequences of residential schools for Indigenous students. The remarkably important final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with its 94 Calls to Action, depicts a distinct overlap with the 1993 report regarding what education equity must entail. A coincidence? Hardly.  Just a measure of how little has changed for those who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own. Déjà vu all over again.

With Oscar Wilde’s comedy in mind, the importance of being earnest on the part of political leadership, expressing intent about what to do with the ongoing dashing of aspirations of too many, is important. But there’s nothing comedic about staying stuck with just words when there is a clear blueprint of action that can affect a generational change to how people think and act through our education system. It’s time to dust off an old report to provide genuinely new possibilities. If not now, when?

Charles Pascal is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies In Education of the University of Toronto and former Ontario deputy minister of education.