TORONTO -- Toronto police are investigating a possible hate crime in connection with a disturbing letter sent to the president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT).

Jennifer Brown is a trailblazer who oversees the largest teachers’ local in North America.

“As such, that’s 11,000 members — looking at their working conditions, bargaining goals,” she said.

“I’ve received treatment from my colleagues, even from within, much differently than any other president,” she said.

Brown is the first Black person to serve as ETT president — a local of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. 

She says she was the target of racist hate mail and was made aware of a letter addressed to her in February.

She tells CTV News Toronto that a torn piece of a Toronto Star article that she was featured in, had racial slurs handwritten over it, including the N-word and racist references to her Jamaican heritage.

The article titled “Thorncliffe Park school suddenly closes” was issued on December 4, 2020.

“I was scared, I was shaken,” a visibly distraught Brown told CTV News Toronto.

She never physically held the letter, but said she was told about it earlier this year.

“The letter was sent to the provincial office. I was told at the time that there was racist hate mail addressed to me,” Brown said.

“I wanted to find out as much as I could about it without actually having to read it and have the poison affect me.”

Her husband read the letter to her in March.

“It takes a toll on her individually, it takes a toll on a family,” said Hayton Morrison. 

“What hurts so much is to think that the letter that I received could possibly have been sent by a fellow colleague,” Brown said.

In a statement to CTV News Toronto, a Toronto police spokesperson said the Hate Crime Unit is investigating the incident.

“Despite extensive inquiries by the investigator, including sending the letter off for forensic testing, a suspect has not been identified at this time and no arrests have been made,” the statement reads.

“What are they doing to teachers in the classroom? What are they doing to students in the classroom? That’s my concern,” Brown said.

A similar incident happened in February, during Black History Month. A Toronto District School Board (TDSB) teacher confirmed receiving a racist letter in connection with an anti-Black racism course he was teaching at the time.

Brown is speaking out about the incident in case there are other victims suffering in silence. 

“My plea for my fellow teachers is, if they have received racist hate mail, please come forward as I am working closely with the Toronto Police to support their investigation of the hate mail. Their story and evidence will help to bring the perpetrator to justice,” she said.

Morrison is supportive of his wife, but says her reliving the event takes a toll. 

“I think it’s great that she’s doing it, but I think it’s so sad that she has to do it,” Morrison said.

‘A serious racism problem’ within TDSB

In the 2019-2020 school year, 291 hate incident reports were filed by TDSB staff — 70 per cent involved race, with 41 per cent specifically involving anti-Black racism.

According to the TDSB’s human rights report, the number of complaints remained steady compared to the year before, even with schools closing after March 14, 2020 due to COVID-19.

“Specifically, incidents citing anti-Black racism exceeded all other incidents reported by a wide margin,” the report reads.

“Employees of the TDSB are required through policy to report to managerial staff any incidents of hate, bias or racism that they encounter through “hate activity reports. Incidents of racism and hate occur in TDSB schools daily and they do so in significant numbers.”

Brown says there has been an increase in divisiveness within the union.

“There has a been a lot of toxic conversation and it’s created a very volatile environment on social media, as well as on e-mail.”

She said many attacks have been directed at her, which have made it much harder to do the work she was elected to do.

“It’s hard not to take it personally, as the first Black union leader,” Brown said.

Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard says it’s a heavy burden to bear.

“You can never actually stand for yourself. You’re a credit or a liability to an entire demographic group of people to your entire race.”

The murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer last May sparked a worldwide movement around anti-Black racism.

Racism is a decades-old problem, but Dr. Richard Douglass-Chin, a founding member of Researchers, Academics and Advocates of Color for Equity in Solidarity, says recent activism could be a catalyst for the pushback.

“I expect to see more of it, not less,” he said.

“But, I think we also need to be cognizant and aware of how we’re going to deal with that and so I think the government is actually thinking about legislation around hate speech.”

Researchers at York University found seven in 10 Black Canadians have experienced racism on a regular or occasional basis, according to an interim report produced in partnership with the Canadian Race Relations.

Brown said a number of action steps have been taken to help address racism within the union. Some of the steps include a listening tour, the addition of a new role to deal with human rights violations, and bringing in experts to speak with members impacted by racism.

She is working alongside police and hopes her experience will serve as encouragement for other potential victims to come forward.

“Racism is not acceptable and it hurts everyone.”

Police call the crimes “completely unacceptable” and are urging anyone with information to contact them.

Police say “even the smallest piece of information could prove vital in finding answers.”