Omar Mahamoud was in Grade 4 in Mississauga, Ont., playing outside with another student, when he scored a goal and the student called him a cheater. When he said he wasn’t, the student responded, “Thank God, God didn’t make me Black like you.”
Mahamoud, now 19, says the student faced no repercussions for what he said.
“Before I even understood the concept of race, I was experiencing racism,” he told HuffPost Canada.
Years later, he said he had his hood pulled over his head when he responded “here” during attendance in one of the first classes of his Grade 10 fall semester. His teacher “made a big scene out of it.”
Mahamoud recalls the teacher saying, “This is not the basketball court. I know you want to be there right now; maybe you’d understand if I say ‘Yo yo yo.’”
It was one of many microaggressions — an “everyday slight” that marginalized people experience — that Mahamoud recounts from his time in high school.
There was the time he explained to a teacher why white people can’t say the “N word”; the time he and the only other two Black students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program argued with another teacher who asked why the Black community can’t “bring themselves up” like the Asian community. He also experienced Islamophobia, and had students and teachers act insensitively toward his religious beliefs.
He attended Weston Collegiate Institute, a diverse, predominantly Black Toronto school, even though there were only three Black students in the IB program. The teachers were not as diverse as the students — he estimates around half were white — and the vice-principals and principals were all white, he said.
“Racist remarks — whether from students or staff — will not be tolerated at the Toronto District School Board and can result in disciplinary action up to and including expulsion for students or termination for staff,” Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the board, said in an email to HuffPost.
He added the board acknowledges the importance of addressing anti-Black racism and has made changes including collecting race-based data and transitioning students from applied to academic courses.
Mahamoud is now taking a gap year to intern at a bank. He says as he has reflected on those four years, he sees how it affected him: always working extra hard at the beginning of each semester to gain teachers’ approval.
WATCH: Ontario Premier Doug Ford backtracks on his systemic racism remarks. Story continues below.
Parents, students and advocates have long spoken out about systemic racism in Ontario’s schools. For Black students, Indigenous students and other racialized students, it’s not a new revelation that the education system and some of the people in it are racist and working against their success. Decades-old reports outline some of the same recommendations that students are asking to see today.
In recent weeks, thousands have joined global protests against systemic racism following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck. Canadians have also been protesting and calling for police reform to combat systemic racism following multiple incidents of recent brutality against Indigenous people, and the Toronto balcony death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman who died with police at the scene.
Amid this context of a wider conversation about systemic racism, Ontario students told HuffPost they are hopeful, but not confident, they’ll see lasting change in their schools.
Students calling for change
Mahamoud’s experiences are far from isolated. That’s why members of the Toronto Youth Cabinet are calling for further action to address systemic, anti-Black, brown and Indigenous racism within Ontario’s education system. A petition started in late February has seen a recent spike in support and has now gathered over 40,000 signatures.
The group is calling for action on four recommendations:
- For the Ontario Ministry of Education to reform the K-12 curriculum to include the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations on education and the history and contributions of Black Canadians,
- For all Ontario school boards to collect disaggregated race-based data by 2021,
- To end the process of streaming, the practice of grouping students by ability that leads to Black students being placed in non-academic courses, by 2023,
- And to immediately remove police or “resource” officers from daily posts in Ontario schools.
“I remain confident that until we start teaching young kids and the next generation coming up to become anti-racist, history will repeat itself,” Stephen Mensah, the youth cabinet’s education lead and a second-year criminology and politics student at Ryerson University, told HuffPost.
“I’m so confident it starts with education, and starts with us.”
The recommendations have been made in past reports, too, with varying levels of commitment and implementation from the province and across school boards.
In July 2018, shortly after Doug Ford’s government came into office, the province’s Ministry of Education cancelled a curriculum-writing project that would have included sessions on Indigenous education in response to the TRC recommendations. Ingrid Anderson, a spokesperson for the ministry, did not respond to a question about whether these sessions would be revived.
Black and Indigenous students go through school rarely or never seeing the contributions of their ancestors reflected in a positive and affirming way due to the current Euro-centric curriculum, said Ann Lopez, an associate professor, teaching, at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. Some equity-focused courses may also be electives. While Black History Month provides a learning opportunity, it is not used by all teachers, or not used effectively, a 2017 report on race equity in education from York University says.
Anderson did not answer HuffPost’s question about whether the ministry would reform the province’s curriculum in response to the TRC recommendations and to reflect more accurately the history and contributions of Black and Indigenous people in Canada.
“If you don’t believe racism exists, how are you going to challenge it?”
Students are also calling for sooner timelines for the requirement to collect race-based data. In 2017, the province passed the Anti-Racism Act, which enabled the government to collect race-based data. As of May 2018, school boards were authorized to collect race-based data; by 2023, they will be required to collect it. But Mensah said students want to see school boards be required to collect the data by 2021. This data would show educational outcomes for Black students, as well as information about suspensions or expulsions.
Several school boards, which comprise 35 per cent of students in publicly funded schools, have collected student demographic data and are currently analyzing it, Anderson said. The ministry will support boards to ensure they are in compliance with Ontario’s Anti-Racism Data Standards by January 1, 2023, she said.
Participants in the 2017 York University report said this data is “critical to understanding the experiences of, and outcomes for, Black students.”
Black students are twice as likely to be enrolled in applied classes instead of academic ones than peers from other racial backgrounds, according to the report. This practice — called streaming — officially ended in 1999, but the report, along with students and experts, suggests it has continued in schools.
The same report found Black students are also twice as likely to be suspended during high school. A 2017 report from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) found almost half of its expelled students over a five-year period were Black. Ontario officially ended its “zero tolerance” policy in 2007, after it was found by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) to disproportionately impact racialized students and students who have disabilities.
Participants in an OHRC report on Ontario’s zero tolerance policies said increased suspension of students causes a negative psychological impact, loss of educational opportunities, higher dropout rates, increased criminalization and anti-social behaviour.
Anderson said 14 Ontario schools have a pilot project to address the disproportionate suspension of Black and racialized students. She did not respond to a question about what the province is doing to ensure Black students are not streamed into courses below their ability level.
Mensah, from the Toronto Youth Cabinet, said he has heard from Black students who were profiled by school resource officers. They’ve described rampant microaggressions and biases, he said, adding teachers should use restorative justice — which focuses on rehabilitation — instead of harsh penalties, like suspension and expulsion. The York report calls for more funding for trained social workers in schools to address root causes of inappropriate behaviour. Police presence in schools entrenches the “school to prison pipeline,” the report said. Black students ultimately feel more unsafe than safe in the presence of police officers.
The TDSB voted in 2017 to end the program that put uniformed police officers in schools. The ministry spokesperson did not respond to a question about whether the province plans to mandate an end to these programs. The province’s 2015 model protocol between local police and school boards states the need to respect students on the basis of race, but makes no mention of the history of police violence against Black or marginalized people or how police presence may affect Black students. The spokesperson also didn’t say whether this protocol would be updated to reflect the reality for Black and racialized students.
Decades-old reports still relevant today
The last segregated school in Ontario closed in 1965. Since the 1990s, there have been numerous reports and recommendations made to address racism within the province’s education system.
The 1992 report from Stephen Lewis, advisor to then-premier Bob Rae, which followed the 1992 Yonge Street Riot, called for the elimination of streaming in the school system — something that still exists today.
Lewis wrote about some of the other concerns students brought to him: “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?”
All of the same questions can still be asked today.
“Oftentimes, over time, those who are in power, who hold power, who influence policy, do not believe the system is racist.”
The 1993 Antiracism and Ethnocultural Equity in School Boards report gave guidelines for school boards to implement anti-racism policies. The report also noted similar concerns exist for other students, such as those who don’t speak English as a first language, non-Black racialized students and Indigenous students. Boards were to submit their policies and implementation plans to the ministry by 1995. But that year, the Mike Harris government’s cuts to education meant shelving that work.
In a 2016 article, OISE professor Charles Pascal wrote that the TRC recommendations were similar to the 1993 report’s call for education equity. This isn’t a coincidence, he wrote — simply a measure of how little has changed for Black, Indigenous and other racialized students.
“The reason why nothing has changed is because those who hold power, their philosophies are not grounded in any way, shape or form in advancing an anti-oppressive [agenda],” said Lopez.
“If you don’t believe racism exists, how are you going to challenge it?”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford declined to answer when recently asked if he believed in systemic racism. Asked about U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of protests against police brutality, Ford said, “Thank God, thank God that we’re different than the United States. We don’t have the systemic, deep roots that they have had for years.” The next day he reversed course to say that there is “of course” systemic racism in the province.
His government, which recently introduced an anti-racism panel to help young people, previously cut funding from the province’s anti-racism directorate and Black Youth Action Plan. It also failed to host a mandatory anti-racism conference last year.
“Oftentimes, over time, those who are in power, who hold power, who influence policy, do not believe the system is racist,” Lopez said. “They don’t believe [there are] structural inequalities, because the norms benefitted them.”
Anderson told HuffPost the ministry is committed to eradicating and addressing “all forms of systemic discrimination” and making the changes that Black students and families expect and deserve.
The ministry has provided support to select boards to hire human rights and equity advisors, with the goal of proactively addressing systemic barriers and reducing the need for formal human rights complaints, she said. It has also funded a “culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy” to change teachers’ approaches and help them identify biases.
All Ontario school boards are required to develop and implement an equity and inclusion education policy, per a 2014 policy memorandum.
Racism is systemic across schools and boards in Ontario, but the Peel District School Board in particular has been in the headlines in recent years. A six-year-old girl was handcuffed by police called to her school in 2016. The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal later ruled that race was a factor in the incident.
A report released in April found Peel District School Board dysfunctional and unable to address anti-Black racism. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce previously released a set of directives to the board, including for it to develop an anti-racism policy in consultation with its community and the OHRC.
Other recommendations included establishing a new equity office, as well as a student advisory body that represents the board’s diversity, developing a learning plan for senior staff on equity, anti-bias and anti-Black racism, and reviewing its job application service to evaluate whether it is screening out qualified racialized candidates.
In a letter to Lecce, Raj Dhir, executive director of the OHRC, asked if there are plans to implement these directives beyond the Peel region. Many of the concerns about systemic, anti-Black racism in the review are shared by Black students across the province, he wrote.
Anderson, from the ministry, did not respond to HuffPost’s question about whether this is being considered.
MPP Laura Mae Lindo, the NDP’s anti-racism critic and chair of the party’s Black caucus, told the Toronto Star that despite all of the reports underscoring serious and systemic anti-Black racism in Peel board schools, Lecce “is again taking no actual action to address it.”
Anderson said Lecce has been “pretty outspoken about the systemic anti-Black racism that is happening at the [Peel board] and beyond.”
Karen Campbell, first vice-president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (EFTO), points out the ministry didn’t have an independent Black reviewer appointed to the Peel investigation until there was a public uproar.
“We need to continue to hold the Ministry of Education accountable to making some concrete changes to go through, and it cannot be board by board,” she told HuffPost.
‘Teachers don’t really know how to deal with racism’
The ministry spokesperson did not respond to a question about whether the province collects data on the race or diversity of its teachers. Available 2018-19 data from the Ontario government does not break down the race of Ontario’s teachers.
A 2018 breakdown of teacher demographics from Statistics Canada also does not include information on their race. However, only 1.8 per cent of elementary and high school teachers in Canada were Black, according to the 2016 census.
Lopez, from the OISE, notes that most teachers are predominantly white, despite an increasingly diverse student population. Many white teachers haven’t thought about or been socialized to deconstruct race, so when they hear complaints, they may think they’re being called racist, which can make them resistant or defensive, she said. We need more diverse teacher candidates at faculties of education and in classrooms who embed anti-oppressive and anti-racist pedagogies within their curriculum, she said.
Morgan Reevie, a Grade 10 student at I. E. Weldon Secondary School in Lindsay, Ont., says when she, her sisters and friends experience anti-Black racism, they often don’t tell teachers because they don’t believe anything will happen.
She wants to see school boards implement direct plans to address racism, or a team dedicated to dealing with it. “I think a lot of teachers don’t really know how to deal with racism in our school because it’s a lot different than just a fistfight or something,” she told HuffPost.
Some students stay home because of the racism at the school. It has ultimately created a “toxic learning environment for a lot of students, even if they’re not involved,” Reevie said.
She says she hopes the current conversations about racism will lead to changes in her school board and school, but unless those changes come as part of a concerted, collective effort, she’s not confident things will get better.
Members of the Trillium Lakelands District School Board did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment in time for publication.
Although the EFTO does not have a policy mandating it, Campbell said anti-Black racism training should be part of school boards’ new or existing equity training.
Education lawyer Alex Battick regularly hears from parents looking for support for students who are bullied because of their race, or disciplined disproportionately. But recently, he’s had students themselves contacting him. That suggests to him that in those schools, the teachers and administrators aren’t addressing students’ concerns.
Battick acknowledges it may be controversial, but he believes if a teacher hears a student use a racial slur and doesn’t do anything, it should be considered malpractice. “You can’t expect these people who are supposed to be ensuring success for students all across the board, and then allowing for the systemic biases and oppressive practices, to influence negatively the success of some students and not others,” he told HuffPost.
Battick said he is proud of the students speaking out and pushing for change. But he is disappointed that they even have to do it.
“The fact that students still don’t feel safe can only speak to the failings of the system so far,” he said.
“When students are able to let the public know that this system is not working, that’s a cry for help that people across Ontario should be paying attention to.”