An Open Letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Mitzie Hunter

by Debbie L. Kasman in

To:  The Honourable Kathleen Wynne, Premier of the Province of Ontario and the Honourable Mitzie Hunter, Minister of Education

March 4th, 2017

Dear Premier Wynne and Minister Hunter,

The systemic racial discrimination that the Reviewers – Mr. Case and Ms. Herbert – are currently investigating in the York Region District School Board is happening in other school boards in Ontario, too. There’s also systemic gender discrimination occurring in school boards across the province.

Six months before the York Region District School Board Trustee – Nancy Elgie – uttered a racial slur, two students at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board reported they heard Trustee Gordon Gilchrist make inappropriate comments about members of the Alderville First Nations Youth Band. The youth band was playing in the foyer at the Grand Opening of the Cobourg Collegiate Institute. Education Minister Liz Sandals was in attendance and you, Premier Wynne, had just released the government’s Action Plan for Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. You had also just publicly apologized for the brutalities committed for generations at residential schools and the continued harm this abuse caused to indigenous cultures, communities, families and individuals.

The Director of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board – W. R. (Rusty) Hick – hired a third party investigator to investigate the allegations made by the students. The investigator concluded that given the balance of probability the assertions the students made about the trustee were substantiated. The Board censured Trustee Gilchrist and removed him from the expulsions committee but they did not remove him from any other committees.

This caused a media uproar. The Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation wrote letters to you, Premier Wynne and Minister Hunter, calling for Trustee Gilchrist’s resignation. A group of teachers from the school where students from the youth band attended also wrote a letter calling for Trustee Gilchrist’s resignation. The Chief of Alderville First Nation – James Marsden – and his council did the same. Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations – Perry Bellegarde – became involved, too. The local newspaper published all the letters and Kristin Rushowy, Education Reporter with the Toronto Star wrote a news report about it, which was published on June 12, 2016.

This wasn’t the first time Trustee Gilchrist was censured. In 2008, he had written a letter to the editor of the local newspaper that many deemed to be racist. In the letter, he told government officials to “turn off the immigration tap.” At that time, Trustee Gilchrist was removed from the Board’s Program Review Committee. The public demanded his resignation but Trustee Gilchrist refused to resign.

When trustees censured Trustee Gilchrist a second time (and voted to remove him from the board's expulsion committee), they allowed him to continue to serve on the board's program committee and they did not even consider removing him from the committee responsible for the hiring and promotion of superintendents. This was problematic because the trustees were about to hire a new superintendent to support the implementation of your First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework, Premier Wynne. (What if someone from a First Nations Community were to apply for the position? What if a Muslim candidate applied? Also, it is recommended in the Operational Review Guide for Ontario District School Boards, 4th edition September 2010 that trustees only be involved in the hiring of Directors.) It would be highly inappropriate for Trustee Gilchrist to be involved in the hiring and promotion for the new superintendent responsible for implementing the First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework. Yet the trustees allowed it!

In addition, Director Hick did not veto or even caution the trustees about this decision. The entire board meeting is available for the public to watch on the board's website. [Note: The video has since been taken down, the Director of KPRDSB is now the Executive Director of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, and Trustee Cathy Abraham is now the President of the Association.] What’s even more alarming is that Trustee Gilchrist was allowed to be involved in the promotion and hiring of nearly a dozen superintendents since he first made racist comments in 2008!

Furthermore, 3 English Public school boards have severely gender imbalanced leadership teams and trustees have been involved in many of these hiring decisions, too. Lambton Kent DSB has 6 men and only 2 women on its senior leadership team, Waterloo Region DSB has 9 men and only 3 women on its senior leadership team, and the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB has 7 men and only 2 women on its senior leadership team. Of the 31 English Public school boards currently in Ontario, more than 10 have senior leadership teams that are comprised of more men than women. This means that nearly 42% of English Public school boards in the province of Ontario are teaching hundreds of thousands of students that men are better leaders than women!

According to Warren Kennedy, the Executive Director of the Ontario Public Supervisory Officials Association, there were 168 female superintendents and 161 males registered with the association as of October 17, 2016. There is no shortage of qualified female superintendents in the province of Ontario.

Why is the government allowing school boards to operate with severely gender imbalanced leadership teams? Why is the government letting trustees be involved in hiring decisions pertaining to superintendents? Why are directors of school boards allowing trustees to be involved in hiring decisions involving superintendents and why are they allowing severely gender imbalanced senior leadership teams?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development states that governments have an important role to play in promoting gender and race equality. On June 7, 2016, you, Premier Wynne, announced a target for women to make up at least 40% of all appointments to provincial boards and agencies by 2019. You said you’d like to see other businesses and corporations follow the government’s example. You established a committee, led by finance Minister Charles Sousa and Tracy MacCharles, the minister responsible for women’s issues, to implement recommendations from a report on gender diversity on boards in Canada. You said that “women set the standards for the world” and it is up to women in Canada to set the standards high. You recognized women’s issues are everybody’s issues and they are economic issues.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also aware of the government’s responsibility to promote gender and race equality. On November 4th, 2015, he announced Canada’s first gender-balanced federal cabinet in Canadian history. When asked why parity was important to him, he said, “Because it's 2015.”

Canada and the global community look to the education system as a way of increasing gender and race equality in the economic and political worlds. This means school boards must act as role models. Directors and trustees have a legal, moral and ethical obligation to work toward eliminating gender and race discrimination in school boards. When they don’t, they are not fulfilling their responsibility as agents of the government, nor are they fulfilling their legislated duties.

Any recommendations that are made to you, Premier Wynne and Minister Hunter, as a result of Mr. Case’s and Ms. Herbert’s Review of the York Region District School Board must be mandated for all school boards in Ontario. You must also incorporate gender equality in any orders you give.

For real change to occur, every single school board in the province of Ontario must work toward eliminating race disproportion and gender imbalances in their education systems. School boards must practice that which they preach!  Being hypocritical in a world that is becoming increasingly zenophobic and misogynistic is not an option.

You must also work toward further reducing the power that school board trustees hold, Premier Wynne and Minister Hunter. Trustees should not be involved in the promotion and hiring decisions for superintendents in any school board in the province.

School boards also need to have an internal mechanism for reporting, in good faith and without reprisal, when an employee, student, or parent has a legitimate concern about race or gender discrimination. School boards must deal with these complaints swiftly and appropriately.  

Additionally, the funding model for education, which pays secondary vice-principals and principals more money than their elementary counterparts needs to be revised. The funding model is based on discriminatory thinking from a time period when the field of elementary education was female-dominated and when women were not perceived as “breadwinners."

Moreover, Regulation 274, which requires principals to hire based on seniority, needs to be repealed or heavily tweaked so school boards can hire racially appropriate and gender balanced teams. Female students need to see more female role models in positions of power. Elementary male students need to see more men in elementary classrooms. And minority students need to see more minority educators in the classroom and in positions of power. Otherwise, our students will never reach their full potential.   

Finally, school boards need to keep track of the demographic background of employees through voluntary diversity censuses. School boards need to design systems that create checks and balances to help ensure a fair and inclusive way of mentoring, hiring and promoting staff.

Premier Wynne and Minister Hunter, it is your duty as Head of the Ontario government and as Education Minister to do everything in your power to ensure all school boards in the province of Ontario are doing everything in their power to eliminate race and gender inequality within our systems of education.

This is the only way we will properly educate the nearly two million students who currently attend Ontario schools.

Please do not shy away from this issue. I urge you to take urgent action.


Debbie L. Kasman

Founder and co-leader KPR Women – a grassroots coalition promoting the interests of women and minorities who work in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, international educational consultant and former teacher, principal, principal assistant to the superintendent for Special Education, acting interim superintendent for Curriculum and Special Education, and student achievement officer at the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat at the Ministry of Education in Ontario.