When Gulf Islands students head back to school on Sept. 5, they will do so with new anti-racism policies and procedures and a paid anti-racism coordinator in place.
Those changes arise from work done by the district and its Anti-Racism Advocacy Working Group (ARAWG), established in 2020 in response to a public demand for systematic racism to be examined in all institutions and society as a whole.
But ARAWG members from the island’s Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) Community Collective feel the job is far from complete, and say they were shocked when they received an email from board chair Tisha Boulter in May advising that the group would be immediately disbanded, despite committee terms of reference created in 2022 stating the group would continue until May of 2024 and its mandate and existence would be reviewed at that time.
“The unilateral decision to ‘conclude’ the group was made without notice, consultation or even a conversation with members of the committee. This seems utterly out of step with the respectful relations the board claimed to be seeding with community stakeholders around this important issue, and undermined a lot of the trust that was built,” the BIPOC group members wrote in their initial response to the board.
In recounting what occurred during a Driftwood interview this summer, working group BIPOC member Hughson Welch summarized how the decision hit.
“We have a board, a group of Europeans, just informing melanated folks that the discussion that is being had is now over — end of story, that’s it,” he recalled.
Gulf Islands community members and school district personnel created ARAWG following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May of 2020, and an incident at Gulf Islands Secondary School (GISS) in September of that year where some students wore T-shirts hand-painted with racist and homophobic slogans. The committee consisted of all “district stakeholders,” including CUPE, GITA, administrators and DPAC, two trustees, reps from other relevant community groups and BIPOC members Welch, Sharyn Carroll and Molly Murphy. Also at the table was Deblekha Guin, a BIPOC individual and Galiano resident, who represented Access to Media Education. Guin, Welch, Carroll and Murphy say the working group had made progress on a number of fronts, but several issues were not yet resolved or completed.
They note that an uncomfortable exchange occurred the last time the working group met, and attempts to address it were not successful, making them feel as if that could have been a factor in the group’s sudden termination. Yet systemic racism cannot be eradicated if difficult conversations between individuals do not take place, they say.
Trust was further eroded by Boulter’s response to their initial letter and especially when BIPOC Community Collective members and allies attended a June 14 school board meeting on Galiano Island as a delegation. They expected to have a discussion with trustees about their decision to cancel the working group, but Boulter cited meeting rules related to delegations, which do not allow for back-and-forth conversations.
But the silence just fuelled the group’s frustration.
“If it had been a conversation, it would have been better,” said GISS student Finn Bryant, who attended the meeting. “The way it was so one-sided made me sad. I wish they would just acknowledge and be willing to hear what people were saying . . . the presentation was strong and had a lot of emotion and force that made me cry.”
Guin said it’s unfortunate that the board “doubled down at a moment where they could have really practised humility and taken things to a deeper level. They’ve kind of revealed how they want to operate and it’s very demoralizing, and I don’t know what the implications are for the racialized students and staff and other marginalized people down the line.”
“I think the crux of the matter really is that they use the system, which has been created for Europeans, by people of European descent, to give and take power as they see fit,” observed Murphy. “So whenever it gets too difficult for them, they get to stay home.”
Guin and Carroll said the board seemed to miss one of the most important things about the working group’s existence.
“Families of racialized kids felt a tiny bit of reassurance knowing that we were at the table with senior leadership,” said Guin.
Carroll notes that they had become informal resource people or supports for students, families and community members, were invited into some classrooms and led workshops, and did so without any compensation or specific recognition.
“How do we say ‘no’ to helping racialized people who are asking for help from us instead of going directly to the board or administration?” she asked.
Boulter said she has agonized over how the termination of the working group could have been done differently, and understands how Carroll, Guin, Murphy and Welch could be upset.
“There was a building of trust, there was an investment in a relationship over three years, and then the rug is swept out from under you. I think there’s a sense of disrespect and a sense of lack of safety in that . . . I can imagine — I’m trying to put myself in their shoes — that feels like a violation.”
Boulter said that was not the board’s intention, but she still feels the decision itself was the right one. She said that an annual review of the working group was part of its terms of reference, and when that was done in April trustees felt the group had not only accomplished its purpose but set in motion a number of additional things.
The provincial education ministry has also brought in a K-12 Anti-Racism Action Plan for all school districts, she notes.
Boulter added that she found the delegation at the Galiano board meeting extremely disturbing in the way some individuals expressed anger when trustees refused to respond to questions being posed to them.
She said she doesn’t know how the rift can be repaired but she would like an attempt to be made.
BIPOC Community Collective members say the most important thing now is to ensure the emotional and physical safety of racialized students in the Gulf Islands.
As Welch stated, “We’re all swimming in the sea of white supremacy. We all have learning and unlearning to do. This isn’t just about the well-being of racialized students and staff. It’s about ensuring that casual racism isn’t normalized for any students in this district and giving students the tools to build a world where deep equity is a possibility.”