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Anti-racism, diversity training under threat say Black community leaders at Queen's Park rally

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Black community leaders rallied at Queen's Park on Wednesday to fight against what they see as threats to anti-racism, diversity, and equity training in Ontario schools.

Advocates feel that work is under attack after the death by suicide of a former Toronto District School Board principal last month.

Richard Bilkszto, who worked on contract with the TDSB after his retirement in 2019, filed a lawsuit against the board in April, claiming that an anti-racism training session in 2021 and its aftermath destroyed his reputation. 

Bilkszto claimed supervisors did not intervene and later retaliated against him when trainer Kike Ojo-Thompson allegedly implied he was racist and humiliated him in front of colleagues after he disagreed that Canada was more racist than the U.S.

A lawyer for Bilkszto said her client died by suicide in July.

"It is clear to us, that his death has been used as a rallying point for right-wing opponents to dismantle the necessary and imperative anti-racism work," community leader Idris Orughu said outside the legislature Wednesday.

Orughu called any attempts to link death to anti-racism education are "immoral and unethical".

None of the allegations in Bilkszto's suit have been proven in court.

The TDSB has hired a third party investigator to look into the circumstances around Bilkszto's death.

In a statement issued Wednesday evening following the rally, the TDSB said it had “unanimously resolved to reaffirm” the board’s commitment to its anti-hate and anti-racism strategy.

“We are all informed by our individual identities but through our collaborative efforts we can best support our students and staff to create positive and sustainable change,” the statement read in part.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education's staff is reviewing how TDSB training is carried out.

"While the review into these disturbing allegations will occur, we remain firm that professional anti-racism and anti-discrimination training will continue," a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce wrote in a statement.

"We will continue this important work to remove barriers that hold back too many children from reaching their full potential."

Advocates say that while anti-racism education can spark difficult and uncomfortable conversations, abandoning them would be damaging.

"Anti-Black racism has mentally harmed educators, students, and youth for decades, for centuries," said Deborah Buchanan Walford with the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators.

Black leaders feel their lived experiences need to be heard and understood.

"It's not if we're going to experience racism, it's how many times per day," said Charline Grant, co-founder of Parents of Black of Children.

"We cannot have educators dropping the N-word at school to our children. We see the racists being recycled. We have them moved, we see them being recycled. Our children are being locked in rooms."

Those gathered at Queen's Park were encouraged to see a commitment to combatting anti-Black racism in an Emancipation Day message from Premier Doug Ford on Tuesday, but want those words to translate into action.

With files from The Canadian Press

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