Marchers take to the streets of downtown Toronto last spring following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer demanding an end to anti-Black racism. Photo by Michael Swan

One year after George Floyd, schools taking anti-racism efforts seriously

  • June 4, 2021

Anti-Black racism activist Adora Nwofor gets emotional when she talks about the love she has for Calgary.

Her heart is filled with affection for the Rocky Mountains, walking paths and the community she’s built in the city where she was born and raised.

But Nwofor also carries the pain of the racial trauma she’s experienced growing up there. Discrimination within the school system, which included incessant bullying for her complexion, lack of representation in learning or support and advocacy from educators, left its scars and ignited within her a passion for racial justice.

“The mental trauma that happens trying to figure out racism while you’re developing as a child is horrific,” said the 45-year-old Nwofor, mother of 13-year-old twins and head of the Black Lives Matter Calgary chapter. “Some of the difficulties that Black children are having in schools is that there are so many different ways to be Black and whiteness is telling us that all of them are wrong and we should strive to be more white.”

A year ago, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — since convicted of murder — sparked a global protest movement highlighting a larger struggle for social equality in institutions throughout society, including education. The protests rang out around the world bringing unprecedented recognition to anti-Black racism in the school system, an issue Black parents and students say has been ignored in Canada for far too long.

For so many racism has been an imposing barrier to equal access to educational achievement. Nwofor has been outspoken about her own experiences and advocates for Alberta students experiencing racism, pushing for accountability and change within the system. Children, she says, intuitively understand when they are being treated unfairly but often don’t yet have the language or ability to effectively advocate for themselves.

“I knew racism was a thing as a child, but I couldn’t voice it. I didn’t have a vocabulary for it then,” said Nwofor. “I have been speaking out on it a very long time.”

Activists have been pushing for greater diversity among educators and administration, curriculum that reflects and represents Black students, combating the over surveillance and punishment of Black students and accountability in cases of professional misconduct.

Cases of racial abuse and systemic inequity within public, private and Catholic schools across the country have been documented regularly, including the apparent racially-motivated assault of a 14-year-old in Edmonton in April and several high-profile incidences of the N-word being used by educators with apparent impunity (a Calgary student’s recording of a school administrator using the N-word in the fall of 2020 ignited a student-led walkout). And in late May, a principal at a French Catholic school in London, Ont., was removed from his position after video surfaced of him wearing the hair of a Black student as a wig.

The Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation, a non-profit organization working to improve race relations in Canada, released a study last year that illustrated Alberta teachers are aware of racism in schools but feel they lack tools to address it and are ill-equipped to create an inclusive curriculum. In a statement, the Calgary Catholic School District said it’s committed to building culturally-responsive communities.

“Through the work of our Racial Justice Team and an assortment of learning opportunities, we continue to educate our employees to address and dismantle systemic racism, bias and discrimination,” read the statement.

Youth advocate Abisola Asha, co-founder of Students Speak Up YCDSB, which she launched with peers Esi Eshun and Malik Scott to combat anti-Black racism within the York Catholic District School Board north of Toronto, says people of faith should consider racism within Catholic schools to be especially egregious because of the moral responsibility inherent in Church teachings.

“Catholic anti-Black racism is totally different from even regular anti-Black racism because even when we have board meetings, (education leaders) are always talking about Jesus’ love,” said Asha, who expresses frustration at not having a single Black teacher during the eight years she attended York Catholic schools. “It’s awful because you’re a Catholic education system that still perpetuates anti-Black racism. Catholicism doesn’t omit that.”

In July 2020, the Ontario government announced changes to the education system intended to break down barriers for Black, Indigenous and racialized students. Part of this action is an end to Grade 9 streaming into applied hands-on courses and academic courses, which critics argue disproportionately impacted racialized and low-income students, limiting future opportunities. The province also proposed to eliminate discretionary suspensions for students and providing teachers with additional anti-racism training.

Asha, who completed a bachelors in social work and is currently working on her masters, is weary of what she calls “performative activism” through public statements condemning racism and looks forward to the day when there will be no need for advocacy to hold the education system to account. 

“We should not be celebrating the fact that there are advocates,” said Asha. “Why should we be constantly advocating for someone’s right to exist as a human being?”

Parents of Black Children, a Greater Toronto Area-based advocacy group, has been on the frontlines for more than a year, supporting parents and helping put systems in place to ensure students and families facing discrimination are supported. Co-founder Charline Grant has long been outspoken in calling out anti-Black racism, especially in York Region, where her children and the children of other leaders are enrolled, and in Toronto.

Made up of Black parents with various backgrounds in education and the corporate world, the group recently launched an online racism reporting tool where anyone within the school system can report racism. 

In addition to the reporting tool, the system navigator role — which Grant occupies full-time — supports Black parents in managing cases of racism. The group is averaging 15-16 reported cases a month. Grant says the majority of cases are from the GTA but there have also been calls from as far away as Thunder Bay, Alberta, the U.K and the United States.

The Ontario government has worked with the grassroots organization to recently launch the Student and Family Advocates Initiative. The program is proposed to offer community-based and culturally-relevant advocacy supports to Black students and families in the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa and Hamilton. Parents of Black Children has been brought on to be the community lead to train the advocates.

“We’re super proud,” said Grant. “As a joke I say, there’ll be 17 more Charlines coming to you to protect our children. Treat our children properly because we’re coming and we’re going to hold you accountable. These things make me happy and hopeful.”

The Toronto Catholic District School Board has recognized the role advocates play. Through  initiatives such as Anti-Black Racism Virtual Focus Groups and work with community partners, including the African Canadian Advisory Committee and the recently established Race Relations Committee, the board is working to better understand where change is needed.

Nwofor says the important conversations over the past year have been the most significant start in the journey towards meaningful change. 

“I think awareness is progress,” said Nwofor. “I think that’s because Black people are relentless and resilient and beautiful and impactful and the world cannot exist without us. The world is finally beginning to acknowledge that because we’re saying we are living in trauma and (despite that) look at what we can do.”

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