Harold Brathwaite made history in 1994 when he was appointed director of education for the Peel District School Board (PDSB), becoming the first Black person in the country to hold the role. He was lauded for his leadership in fighting racism in the education system as well as helping at-risk youth in the Black community. Dr. Brathwaite died of colon cancer on May 31, a day before his 80th birthday, in Mississauga.
When Dr. Brathwaite was hired for the job, he brought a new perspective, one of visionary and progressive leadership, according to Beryl Ford, former chair of the PDSB. One of the major initiatives he helped create and implement was the curriculum planning guide “The Future We Want: Building an Inclusive Curriculum” in 2000. Its goal was to help transform the curriculum to align with the school board’s vision of equity and inclusion. It was built around the notion of curriculum being more than just content and what was in the textbook – it expanded into the entirety of a school’s community. The moment a child walked into the building was seen as an opportunity for learning.
The Peel school board, which covers a region west of Toronto including Caledon, Brampton and Mississauga, is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse in Canada: about 83 per cent of its secondary school students are racialized.
Ann Lopez, a teacher with the PDSB when Dr. Brathwaite was there, said the “The Future We Want” initiative was designed to create more inclusive schools by challenging oppressive structures within, such as the “isms”: racism, classism, ableism and so on.
Dr. Brathwaite also had a hand in changing the hiring practices within the PDSB to make it more equitable and made sure data on racial diversity was gathered.
“He focused his role at the time on equity, fairness and inclusiveness for all students and staff,” Ms. Ford said. “Harold understood the communities and how necessary it was to include them in decisions moving forward. He gave them a voice.”
He was involved in anti-racism work in the broader community as well: In 2015, he was a part of a group that helped change Toronto Mayor John Tory’s position on carding by the city’s police, a practice known for racially profiling Black people.
“He always stood up for what counted, sometimes in the quiet and behind the scenes, but he saw it through,” said Gordon Cressy, former Toronto city councillor and Dr. Brathwaite’s friend for 40 years. “There was no arrogance in Harold. But there was a tenacious spirit to see things done.”
Harold McDonald Brathwaite was born in St. Michael, Barbados, on June 1, 1940 to Lotty and Mcdonald Brathwaite. He had five siblings. He leaves his daughters, Jennifer and Michelle, and his partner, Christine Shain.
Harold went to elementary school at St. Giles Boys’ School and received his secondary education at Combermere School and Harrison College in Barbados. He then completed his undergraduate degree at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1965, which included a year at l’Université de Lyon in France. Then, after teaching for three years at Harrison College, he immigrated to Canada in 1968 to complete a master’s degree in French at McMaster University.
Dr. Brathwaite spent 31 years working in publicly funded education. He taught at the elementary, secondary and university levels, rising through the ranks of school administration with the Halton Board of Education, then becoming principal of M.M. Robinson High School in Burlington. In 1984, he became superintendent for French-language schools in the Toronto Board of Education, and in 1991, he became the board’s associate director of education.
“I think he always viewed education as a way to allow people through and give everybody a fair shot,” Mr. Cressy said.
Dr. Brathwaite was a member of the board for People for Education, a Canadian organization aimed at strengthening the public education system. Annie Kidder, the group’s executive director, said he joined the board at a time when People for Education was evolving, and he played a huge role in that evolution for the organization to be a voice for the education system itself.
“There was never any question about where his heart lay or where his incredible advocacy, in particular for dealing with systemic racism and making sure that the public education system could live up to its promise of providing equity to all students, and he never veered from that path,” Ms. Kidder said.
He also served on several professional associations and committees. Among many, he was a member of former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty’s transition team, a trustee of the Art Gallery of Ontario, chair of the legacy Nelson Mandela’s Children Fund of Canada, a member of the Toronto Lands Commission and a member of United Way of Peel.
He retired from his director of education position with the PDSB in 2002, but came out of retirement the next year to become a senior adviser to the president of Seneca College. Then, from September, 2004, he served as executive director of the Retired Teachers of Ontario until his second retirement in 2015.
In recognition of his many contributions to education in Ontario, a school bearing his name was opened in Brampton in 2003. In keeping with Dr. Brathwaite’s own values, the school’s vision focuses on growth opportunities, collaboration, community and change.
Dr. Brathwaite received numerous awards for his contributions to education and to his community. Mr. Cressy said he never sought them out, but they came to him anyway, including the Peel Board’s Education Champion Award, the 1995 Canadian Black Achievement Award for Education, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations Award, the first Egerton Ryerson Award from People for Education, and the Barbados Ball Canada Aid’s Errol Walton Barrow Award. In 2006, he was also named to the Order of Ontario.
“He was the most hard-working person I knew,” said Jennifer Brathwaite, one of his two daughters. “You couldn’t not work hard because he set that standard for himself. He had the expectation that you would at least try to work to the best of your ability.”
Despite the efforts of Dr. Brathwaite and others in the PDSB, systemic racism remains an ongoing issue there. Earlier this month the board fired its director of education, Peter Joshua, following reports of anti-Black racism within the PDSB.
Mr. Cressy said Dr. Brathwaite’s voice would be important in the current Black Lives Matter movement if he were still here. “To me, part of Harold’s legacy is the people, especially the young people he inspired. He encouraged students to strive to be the best they could be, and he challenged all of us to stand up against racial injustice wherever or whenever we see it.”