The York Region public school board is investigating accusations that a trustee referred to a black parent as a “n—–” in front of others after a public meeting, the Star has learned.
The board is already reeling from a string of controversies. This latest allegation comes as it struggles with numerous complaints of racism and Islamophobia — and criticism from Ontario’s education minister, who had previously demanded a report on how it is handling parents’ concerns.
“We are aware of the allegation, and at a staff, level have brought in a third party to conduct an independent investigation (into the alleged slur),” education director J. Philip Parappally said in an email. “Racism of any kind is not acceptable, and we have policies and procedures in place in the event allegations of this nature are made by anyone affiliated with the board, attending our schools or working for the board. This includes trustees.”
However, he also said that “to ensure fairness and impartiality,” the board will not comment on the probe, conducted by outside legal counsel, until it is completed — likely before the end of the year.
While the board has not named the trustee in question, several sources confirmed it is Nancy Elgie, 82, who has been on the board since 2000.
Reached at her York Region home, Elgie said: “there is no merit in the accusation, but I will co-operate fully in the investigation.”
When asked if she was denying having uttered the slur, she responded: “I’m not saying anything like that … I’m just saying there is no merit in the accusation.”
Elgie, who represents Georgina, is the widow of Robert Elgie, a prominent Ontario cabinet minister in the Bill Davis government in the 1970s and ’80s.
Sources say a small group of staff and trustees heard the alleged slur, made as a black parent was being interviewed by a television reporter following a board meeting to discuss equity issues on Nov. 22.
That parent, Charline Grant, previously launched a human rights complaint over alleged discrimination her son suffered at his Woodbridge school. While she did not hear any such comment, she was informed of it days later.
“The first thing that came to my mind was it just shows how out of touch the current board and trustees are with the issues we are seeing,” Grant told the press. “To say that now, with everything else that’s going on, it just shows that’s just a part of who they are.”
The York Region District School Board has also been named in a human rights case launched last week by the Vaughan African Canadian Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims on behalf of a number of families.
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter — already concerned with York’s ongoing troubles — said in a statement to the Star that “now, more than ever, parents and students need to be assured by the board that they are taking action to address the community’s concerns regarding racism and equity. The board is responsible for ensuring that an appropriate response is taken on these matters.”
Lawyer Selwyn Pieters, who has been involved with human rights issues at the York board, recently posted a video on his Facebook page in which he discusses the incident.
“Imagine a trustee of that school board, a trustee, watching one of the black parents give an interview recently with respect to racist incidents at the York Region District School Board, and she turns in the presence of her colleagues and called the lady a n—–. Trustees overheard it, and school board officials overheard it, and nothing happened to that trustee … You know what? She should have been fired, or a process should have been in place to remove that trustee.”
In an interview, Pieters told the press the allegation is so serious that Hunter needs to step in.
“I believe that this is a matter where the deputy minister of education and the minister of education should step in and exercise their investigative powers,” he said. “It shows that the school board is broken … and something needs to be changed.”
New board chair Loralea Carruthers told that “racism of any kind is not acceptable. As trustees, I do believe we have an important role in providing leadership in this area.”
Carruthers said that the moment the alleged slur was heard, “action was taken … and was followed up afterward with a serious conversation.
“The previous chair took witness statements, and it became obvious that staff were also witnesses. So the decision at the time was for this to be handled under the ‘respectful workplaces policy.’
“It is now under investigation by a third party, so I’m not allowed to comment on the details.”
Carruthers said it’s important to note that while the board is doing good things in a number of areas, it can “learn from this” alleged incident.
“We are here to change the tone and address the larger systemic issues, which I hope will include trustee training.”
The alleged incident is causing upset among parents. Pieters, in his Facebook video, calls the York board “a bastion of racism.”
“We’ve got a black education minister, and we’ve got a Liberal premier, Kathleen Wynne, and yet we have a school board, we have a large school board, the York Region District School Board, where anti-black racism and Islamophobia flourishes,” he said.
Recently, the board’s head of equity, Cecil Roach, sent a letter to the director and senior staff criticizing the way complaints of discrimination were being handled, including the case of a Markham principal who posted anti-Muslim material on her public Facebook page, for which she later apologized.
Roach said he wrote the letter only after consulting with his lawyer, Pieters, who told him he had a “legal obligation to speak up” under both the human rights and education acts.
His letter came just days after Hunter met with board officials to discuss parents’ concerns about racism, as well as the secrecy surrounding trustee travel. She later demanded a plan of action by Jan. 13.
The situation and the minister’s intervention is unprecedented in Ontario education, experts have said.
Recently the board elected a new chair, Carruthers, replacing longtime and controversial chair Anna DeBartolo. Parents had pressed the board’s 12 trustees for a change in leadership given all the turmoil.