Allegations of systemic racism rocking the Greater Victoria School District
How the school district has taken one misstep after another in fraught conversations around Indigenous learning
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How the school district has taken one misstep after another in fraught conversations around Indigenous learning
Carey Newman, or Hayalthkin’geme, hunches over a totem pole in the courtyard behind Oaklands Elementary School. Working a chisel into the grooves of the cedar pole, he smooths out the face of a raven.
Newman and his wife initiated the Legacy Totem Pole project in 2018 as a group effort with students, staff, and community members. Nearing completion, the pole needs to be done in only a few days, so Newman works into the night, his headlight illuminating the concave moon, thunderbird, eagle, bear, otter, and other critters embedded within the structure, propped up on its side.
Days later, in front of hundreds, Newman and representatives from the Greater Victoria School District (SD61) unveil the three-metre tall totem pole at the entrance of the school.
A Kakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw man, Coast Salish artist, and father to a young daughter, Newman had hoped the totem pole’s installation would mark the beginning of future reconciliation.
His story with the school district is generational. His father taught art to Indigenous students for 20 years and his daughter started at Oaklands Elementary in 2015. In the ‘90s, Newman established a scholarship for Indigenous students, focused on participation in arts and culture. While he plans to continue the scholarship, the totem pole may be his last project with SD61.
Just weeks before the unveiling, he resigned from his role on the SD61 Indigenous Ad Hoc Committee, citing “a pattern of systemic racism” in the district and calling for a commitment to Indigenous representation.
When he resigned, Newman criticized what he called a “cynical and flagrant use” of the word “reconciliation” during the district’s budget process.
His criticisms of the realities of reconciliation in Indigenous education aren’t isolated, or new.
Graduation rates have long been used as a measure of student success in BC schools, and throughout time, the rates among Indigenous students have lagged far behind those of the general student population.
In 1999, a report by the BC Teachers Federation’s Task Force on First Nations Education pointed to the harmful impacts of colonialism, the Indian Act, residential schools, and generational trauma as reasons for the Indigenous student population’s “lack of success.”
“The impact of these practices continues to affect many in First Nations communities and is part of the reality that must be understood by teachers if they are to effectively teach all the students in their classes,” the report reads.
There was backlash to the task force recommendations, especially around equity policies, but there was also a strong will to improve the system. Still, 22 years later, more work needs to be done, says Victoria High School teacher Frank Conibear, who co-chaired the task force and is now chair of the Greater Victoria Teachers Association’s Indigenous Education Committee.
When it comes to graduation rates, he says, “The numbers aren’t different to any dramatic degree.”
According to the 2020 School District Report for SD61, six-year graduation rates for Indigenous students hover around 60 per cent compared to more than 80 per cent for the total student population.
But Conibear says schools need to do more than improve graduation rates. “The politicians will say, ‘We’re not graduating enough of our students,’ but it’s not all about graduation,” he says.
Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, agrees.
Because racism and colonialism are “embedded in the education system,” she says, “we might want to look at what the requirements are for graduation and what we're recognizing as achievements.” She adds: “If Indigenous students aren’t graduating at the same rate, let's look at what they're bringing to the table and what's not working.”
Notably, Conibear says the district’s strategic plan was rewritten with input from the Indigenous Ed committee after members criticized its lack of Indigenous voices. He gives kudos for the action taken but says the incident was representative of a larger problem:
“You need to have a relationship with Indigenous programs; you need to have a relationship with the local nations and a good understanding that you really have to work at that relationship.”
Newman’s issues with SD61 began in 2017, when the district hired a non-Indigenous district principal for the Indigenous Education Department (IED) without consulting Indigenous education committees or leadership.
“First of all, I don’t think it’s possible for a non-Indigenous person to have a better understanding of what Indigenous kids need,” he says. “If you grew up in it, and you felt the systemic issues, you felt the overt racism, then it’s easier for you to see it and anticipate it.
“No disrespect to the person they hired,” he adds. “But in my mind, there’s certain things you can’t teach, learn, or feel.”
Not long after the non-Indigenous principal of IED was hired, Nella Nelson, or Klaapalasugwela/Maxwagila, retired as district coordinator after operating IED for about 20 years. Nelson’s years of teaching, mentorship, and leadership were celebrated in many communities, but Newman noticed that the posting to replace her didn’t seek out an Indigenous candidate.
After he voiced his concerns, an Indigenous woman was hired for the job, and Newman was asked to join the Indigenous Ad Hoc Committee.
“I don’t think they understood what (Nelson) meant, both to them as a district and to the Indigenous community,” he says. “So that’s kind of the beginning of, I think, how we got to where we are now.”
Years later, on March 1, 2021, a virtual committee meeting was shut down after SD61 board trustee Ryan Painter, who was chair of the Education Policy & Directions Committee indicated that, according to board bylaws, too many Songhees and Esquimalt Nation members were present.
“[Board chair] Jordan Watters called a halt to that meeting so they wouldn’t look bad,” Newman says. “But in my opinion it was way too late.”
Painter later resigned from his role as committee chair and offered a public apology.
It was just a few months later, during budget discussions, that comments made around Indigenous Education would finally bring Newman to cut ties with the district.
Facing an $8.6-million dollar budget deficit—mainly from increased expenses and the effect COVID-19 had on enrolment funding and international student fees—the district published a survey asking for input on where the board should make cuts to cover the gap. One of the questions asked respondents to choose the strategic plan that needed the most investment. The choices included separate options for ‘academic success of Indigenous learners’ and ‘academic success of all learners.’
Newman joined the chorus of public outcry over the survey question, calling it unconscionable to ask the public to rank basic rights. The question was removed.
“How terrible is it to have the basic needs of students being compared against each other?” he asks. “I'm not interested in who wrote it. I'm interested in how something like that could get through however many layers of approval and however many people. That's why we call things systemic, because...nobody noticed.”
Budget talks continued, with several programs sliding onto the chopping block, most notably the music program—a move that prompted immediate public backlash from students, teachers, and families. Dozens of students and parents gathered outside Lansdowne Middle School South Campus on April 12, holding signs and playing cellos. For the rest of the month, music notes dotted signs in yards and windows around the city, with messages like: ‘Music Matters.’
The city-wide backlash meant either an explanation or a change of plans; the district started with the latter. During a committee meeting on May 10, Kim Morris, SD61 secretary-treasurer, showed slides that asked, under a heading of reconciliation, if students participated in band and whether music would improve Indigenous completion rates.
Newman says the slides also stated, “The biggest impact SD61 can make on Indigenous student success is literacy.”
Newman says not only did the presentation exemplify the board’s “paternalistic” attitude toward Indigenous people, but positing the proposed cuts to music funding as if they were part of reconciliation was salt in the wound.
“On top of it all, the language that we’re asking our kids to learn isn’t even the language that was taken from them,” he says. “It isn’t literacy in Kwak’wala, SENĆOŦEN OR Hul'qumi'num, it’s English. And we all have to have it, but there’s some pretty vicious ongoing paternalism in saying that (English) is the most important.”
He quit his position with the Ad Hoc Committee and called on the district to apologize and take action.
In his resignation letter, he wrote, “This sequence of events reveals a pattern of systemic racism that can no longer be seen as a collection of unfortunate missteps, but rather as proof of deeply entrenched paternalistic attitudes towards Indigenous people and our education that continue to this day.”
Hundreds signed Newman’s letter in support, and the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association published its own scathing letter, saying the events of 2021 point to “a pattern of colonial thinking permeating the leadership of (the district).”
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“Making some connection between middle school music programs and Indigenous graduation...is not only problematic and a complete fallacy, but it pits one program against another,” Waldron says. “It creates an unsafe environment for our Indigenous students. For it to be said publicly that there’s not going to be more music programs so [Indigenous students] can learn to read...is brutal and shortsighted.”
SD61’s Morris says the district was trying to realign with its strategic plan and examine parts of the budget where investments were being made in one area but lacking in another.
“One of the major tenets of the budget was to talk about reallocation or reinvestment in what our data showed us,” she says. “And so when we see that our data is showing us that a lot of our students aren't doing very well—does that mean we have to have a conversation about realignment?
“It's unfortunate that the topics came together like they did,” she adds.
In the end, most music funding was spared, with just a five per cent cut to the program’s budget. Cuts were made in clerical and administrative areas, among others.
After Conibear held a series of Zoom calls with Indigenous teachers who felt hurt by their trustees, the Indigenous Education Committee presented a motion to the board and trustees, asking them to develop both a plan to address systemic racism and colonialism within the school district and an authentic consultation model for Indigenous partners and staff.
“It isn’t meant to be a punishment,” Conibear says. “This is meant to open the doors to having dialogue and having an understanding.”
On June 3, SD61 added an additional $50,000 to its budget for reconciliation and antiracism initiatives.
“We know we have a lot of work to do,” says secretary-treasurer Morris. “And we want to make sure Indigenous voices are at every table.”
Without those voices, she adds, “it’s presumptuous of us to know how we can move forward.”
Newman agrees that the key to moving forward is representation.
“We don’t have an Indigenous voice at the district table,” he says. “The people in Indigenous Education should have a voice when it comes to not just Indigenous education but all education.”
He hopes Indigenous-led initiatives, like the Legacy Totem Pole, pave a path for new dialogue.
“When I think about reconciliation, I think about all the kids who have been a part of this project, and how engaged they’ve been with it...and in 10-15 years, they’re going to be the ones having these conversations.
“How different will those conversations be?”