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Ontario Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Stephen Lecce.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Stephen Lecce is under fire from education and anti-racism advocates after revelations that he participated in a “slave auction” and “slave day” with his fraternity at Western University more than 15 years ago.

Mr. Lecce served as Education Minister in Doug Ford’s government and is seeking a second term representing the riding of King-Vaughan in the June provincial election. He took part in the controversial events in 2006 while he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, as first reported by PressProgress this week. Both were part of an annual event called Derby Days, which involved a charity drive.

Mr. Lecce was apparently one of the “slaves” auctioned off to another student – a type of fundraiser with racist origins that was common at American and Canadian fraternities and even high schools until recent decades.

In an e-mailed statement, Mr. Lecce said, “The event from 2006 was inappropriate and in no way reflects who I am as a person, which is why I unreservedly apologize. I will continue to passionately advance the interests of all Ontarians – irrespective of faith, heritage, orientation or race.”

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which represents 83,000 members, released a statement condemning Mr. Lecce’s past actions as “deplorable anti-Black racist behaviour” and calling on Mr. Ford, the PC Leader, to address them.

The Ontario-based advocacy group Parents of Black Children also issued a statement in response to the news, saying it shone a light on “the anti-Black racism that has been and still is a part of university culture in Ontario, where Black students are often forced to navigate this racial trauma alone.”

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Three NDP candidates in Ontario have called on Mr. Lecce to withdraw from the election.

“Mr. Lecce chose to lead and participate in events that mocked and trivialized this painful history,” said Jill Andrew, Faisal Hassan and Laura Mae Lindo in a joint statement.

“He also chose to conceal them for years as a public official, as a minister charged with the education, opportunity and well-being of Black students and as the person tasked with overseeing the province’s investigations into anti-Black racism in schools. All of these actions are repulsive and constitute clear anti-Black racism,” the statement said.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca also commented on Mr. Lecce’s situation.

“I think it is reprehensible. I think it is clearly regrettable. I know that he’s apologized for it,” Mr. Del Duca said. He was not calling on Mr. Lecce to drop out of the race in his riding.

Mr. Lecce’s past behaviour drew comparisons to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who in 2019 was revealed to have dressed up in blackface on multiple occasions and stated that he could not recall how many times he had done so.

Nigel Barriffe, president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, said learning about Mr. Lecce’s participation in events that were “anti-Black to their core” calls the politician’s judgment into question. As a teacher in Toronto, he said he was at a loss for how to explain it to his Black students.

“It’s them feeling even more unsafe, knowing that the Minister of Education, the person in charge of public education, participated in such an event and thought nothing of it at the time,” he said. “It’s easy for him to apologize now – he got caught.”

While slave auctions were apparently permitted in Mr. Lecce’s time by his fraternity, a little more than a decade later, they were banned. As reported by PressProgress, a 2018-19 Derby Days guide published by Sigma Chi specified that any events involving “Auction of Human Beings or Servitude” were prohibited. Sigma Chi did not respond to a request for comment.

While events run by university-affiliated fraternities and sororities are treated as off-campus activities that are not under the jurisdiction of the institution, Western University has grappled with on-campus racism throughout its history and administrators have sought to address it formally in recent years.

In 2020, the President’s Anti-Racism Working Group at Western University presented a damning report to the school, in which its members said they found “systemic problems embedded within the university’s colonial history, traditions, structures, practices and policies that normalize ‘whiteness,’ that ‘other’ racialized groups, and that perpetuate racism.”

In her 2020 book They Said This Would Be Fun, writer Eternity Martis documented her experiences with anti-Black racism while attending Western University and, based on her time there, the news about Mr. Lecce was unsurprising to her.

“It was very much still a ‘boys will be boys’ type of culture at the university in terms of fraternities, and even in 2010, we had pro-rape chants during frosh week and nobody really questioned them,” she said.

“I think the very essence of what a fraternity is, it’s engaging in misogyny, in racism and homophobia and transphobia in an attempt to form a ‘broship’ or friendship, and that hasn’t really changed.”

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