By: Hargun Grewal
The Peel District School Board (the "PDSB") is the second largest school board in Canada and oversees both primary and secondary education for Peel, a region made up of three municipalities; Brampton, Mississauga, and Caledon. The PDSB has one of the most diverse student bodies with 45.3% of students identifying as South Asian, 16.8% identifying as white, and 10.2% identifying as Black. Although the PDSB is one of the largest and diverse school boards in Canada its policies and leadership are not reflective of how a board should educate a racialized student population.
A review of the PDSB was announced on November 7, 2019 by Education Minister Stephen Lecce in order to investigate the board’s hiring practices and management along with allegations of discrimination and racism, more specifically, systemic anti-black racism. Although this is not the first time a school board has been under review by the Ministry of Education (the "Ministry"), as the Toronto District School Board (the "TDSB") and York Region District School Board (the "YDSB") have also undergone reviews, the findings and recommendations set forth were unprecedented considering the circumstances.
The Education Act contains extensive powers under which the Minister of Education (the "Minister") may supervise the financial affairs of school boards. In fact this power has been used historically. What is precedent setting about the PDSB, is that supervisions was the result of how the board managed its substantive duties, rather than the financial affairs of the Board.
Typically, the Minister may order an investigation into the financial affairs of a board if the board has icnurred a deficit, has failed to pay debenture or other instruments, has failed to pay any of its other debts or liabilities when due (as a result of its finial difficulties) or if t”the Minister has concerns about the boards ability to meet its financial difficulties (see S. 257.30 of the Education Act).
Findings of the Review
Two reports, a review and investigation, were drafted in order to understand what was occuring in the PDSB. The first review was submitted on February 28, 2020 by reviewers Ena Chadha, Suzanne Herbert, and Shawn Richard. This review was focused on the major themes of equity, human rights and anti-black racism, governance and leadership, and human resources and organizational alignment. The findings demonstrated that the PDSB was complicit in allowing discriminatory and racist behaviours to take place throughout the board and actively furthered anti-black practices. The reviewers interviewed numerous students, parents, and educators who shared stories showcasing the disproportionate disciplinary measures and academic streaming towards non-academic courses Black students faced.
The investigative report submitted on March 15, 2020 by Arleen Huggins followed the review report and was conducted to ensure the PDSB would comply with the binding directions set out. This investigative report found that the board is dysfunctional and would be incapable of providing good governance to successfully implement directions from the Ministry to address it’s shortcomings.
Both of these reports along with their findings are what resulted in some of the most important and unprecedented decisions to be made by both the Ministry and PDSB. As a result, the Ministry appointed a supervisor, Bruce Rodrigues, to oversee the activities of the PDSB who quickly removed the Director of Education, replaying him with Colleen Russell-Rawlins to be the PDSB’s permanent interim director. This was a landmark decision that made Russell-Rawlins the first Black woman to hold the position of Director within the Board. This appointment is pivotal in changing the racist and dysfunctional trajectory of the PDSB and putting it back on course with its core mission and values.
The change in directorial leadership signifies that there should be a shift in focus toward questioning who are the people leading institutions complicit in harmful and racist practices rather than the policies these institutions have adopted. The PDSB has numerous equity policies focusing on addressing harassment and racism within the board and if only reviewed from the surface would showcase the Board in a very non-problematic and progressive light. However, these policies are inadequate because they focus on ensuring the school board remains free from liability and beneath the surface existed years, if not decades, of systemic racism with hundreds of racialized students subject to harm. The policies and statements implemented by the PDSB are reactive approaches made to appear as solutions for systemic issues requiring proactive interventions if they are to ever be successfully eradicated. This decision to appoint Russell-Rawlins as Director is a strong a first step on the road to rectifying the harmful past of the PDSB and showcases how experienced individuals with knowledge on anti-racism and oppression should be appointed to hold leadership positions because it will result in action and not empty statements or policies.
The PDSB now has a long road to recovering from its past and proving to its stakeholders consisting of students, educators, and families that their schools are a safe place for all students to learn. Having the Ministry intervene with the governance and organization of the PDSB in order to address its problems with systemic racism has set a stern precedent for other school boards within the province to showcase what can happen when serious allegations of mismanagement and equity related issues are addressed. With the TDSB, YDSB, and most recently, the Durham Catholic School Board, each having their own issues with addressing racism it can be seen that the PDSB is not alone in being able to protect its students showcasing a much larger, possibly provincial, issue. Therefore, it can be asked where the Ministry may be lacking, from an organizational standpoint, to ensure all of its school boards remain anti-racist and safe for students and how it may also be complicit in allowing systemic racism within school boards to prevail. Overall, school boards, along with their respective leadership, all across Ontario should look toward the PDSB and understand the gravity of what has happened and aim to internally review their own positions to ensure they are not perpetuating the same harm toward racialized students that the PDSB did.
Hargun Grewal is in his final year at McMaster University. He has been a student intern with Battick Legal since September 2020.