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'Clearly discriminatory and systemically racist': Report on B.C. school board

VICTORIA — A report that found systemic racism in a British Columbia school board and called for a provincewide review is "vindicating," the deputy chief of a First Nation in the province said Saturday.

VICTORIA — A report that found systemic racism in a British Columbia school board and called for a provincewide review is "vindicating," the deputy chief of a First Nation in the province said Saturday.

Jayde Chingee said the McLeod Lake Indian Band and its partners at the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation have tried raising concerns with school officials about anti-Indigenous racism. The report offers a path forward that could be replicated across the province, she said. 

"I think it proves our concerns were real," Chingee said in an interview. "Sometimes we have to reveal the ugly truth in order to make things better."

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside appointed special advisors Kory Wilson and Catherine McGregor to review governance practices at the Prince George Board of Education in February. 

Their report, released late Friday and based on 56 interviews and a review of documents, found Indigenous students are disproportionately held back, placed in alternative programs or classes and removed from the typical graduation path. 

"Unfortunately, we heard many examples of behaviours and practises that are clearly discriminatory and systemically racist," the report says. 

"Though some will argue it is not intentional the outcomes have disproportionate effects on Indigenous students and can only be explained as such."

There is a clear and palpable lack of trust between many Indigenous stakeholders, First Nations and the school district, as well as a "substantial culture of fear" around raising concerns, the report says. 

It quotes one respondent saying they were told not to use their Indigenous name because "this isn't the place for politics."  

One person reported hearing someone complain about having to "hang up that stupid flag" in reference to flying a First Nations flag, while another heard someone say "the natives a restless" in response to drumming. 

"I walk into a school and my chest tightens," another said in the report. 

The Education Ministry says in a statement that beginning immediately, former school district superintendent Rod Allen will join the special advisors and work with the board to draft a work plan for implementing their recommendations and improve everything from relationships with local First Nations to staffing and financial planning. 

The special advisers will submit a final report to outline the progress made by the board in meeting government's expectations in March 2022.

The minister, acting superintendent of the school district and school board chairman could not immediately be reached for comment. 

Among the most concerning findings, the report authors say, was the failure for many Indigenous kids to be deemed eligible for kindergarten, even if they were in full day "pre-K."

And while alternative programs may be seen as the best way to provide targeted support, they have in many cases evolved into "holding tanks" for Indigenous students. In some cases, the modified programs saw school attendance reduced to as little as an hour a day or one day a week, the report says. 

The school bus schedules also prevent many Indigenous students from participating in after-school programs, French immersion schools or other choice schools, it says. 

The racism identified in the report was not limited to the schools but also the broader community, including passionate pushback to a unanimous decision by school trustees to rename Kelly Road Secondary to Shas Ti Secondary, a Dakelh word for grizzly crossing. 

People were up in arms, students walked out of the school with support from their parents, blockades went up, kids were involved in fights and it was traumatic for Indigenous people, the report says. 

As a result, both names were installed on the front of the school above the entrance, however their location above two sets of doors made it appear as though there were segregated entrances.

The report also raised concerns about how federal COVID-19 funding was spent at the board.

The special advisors were only able to make one visit to Prince George due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and say they entered the investigation with open minds. 

"What we found was much more complicated than we thought and so multi-layered that we do not feel we have gotten to the bottom of all the issues," they write. 

They recommend that the province commission a broader probe into B.C. schools similar to "In Plain Sight," a report on anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system by retired judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. 

The school district has a particularly high number of Indigenous learners and the post-report response could be a model for other jurisdictions, it says. 

They also recommend creating an ombudsperson position so that those fearful of retaliation can feel safer making reports. 

"Due to the culture of fear, we think there may be more examples of individuals who feel they cannot identify their concerns for fear of retribution," it says. 

Turpel-Lafond, who is academic director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of B.C., supported calls for a deeper probe.

"This report was very helpful but it certainly struck me as a kind of tip-of-the-iceberg report," she said.

She said she was alarmed by the report's suggestion that many people feared retaliation if they spoke out. She heard similar fears when she was investigating health care, highlighting the important role an ombudsperson could play, she said.

It was difficult to read that students felt unsafe, Turpel-Lafond said, adding she hopes the school district and province respond decisively.

"I know how hard the Indigenous staff and leadership in the Prince George region have worked to change the dynamic inside the school district," she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2021.

— By Amy Smart in Vancouver.

The Canadian Press