Whenever jeewan chanicka got out of his car to visit a school in the last academic year, his first as education director at the Waterloo Region District School Board in Southwestern Ontario, he scanned the area for anyone that appeared suspicious.
Over the course of that school year, Mr. chanicka reported at least three online threats of harm levelled against him and members of his staff to the region’s chief of police.
What’s more, in the week before summer break in June, he blocked more than 350 people on social media who had flooded both his personal and professional accounts with racist and hateful comments.
That onslaught followed a speech he delivered to trustees where he told them that divisive discussions at the boardroom table about gender identity and race were negatively affecting some marginalized students and their families who had attended meetings online.
In a January board meeting, a now-retired educator said that students were being exposed to what she characterized as inappropriate sexual materials in library books. And shortly before Mr. chanicka made his speech in June, a trustee put forward a motion to examine how much critical race theory – a concept that studies how racial bias in institutions leads to systemic inequity – was being taught to children. (Other than being mentioned in two advanced senior courses, it isn’t).
These same topics have been brought up at school boards south of the border, polarizing education systems in certain jurisdictions. In some states, legislatures have even proposed bills that limit what teachers can say about subjects such as critical race theory and gender. Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a bill earlier this year – dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law – that bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through Grade 3.
Although no new laws have been put forward in Canada, similar rhetoric is gaining a foothold here, too.
A couple of years ago, in Langley and Abbotsford, B.C., supporters advocating for a more inclusive educational environment faced a small but vocal group of counterprotesters who labelled LGBTQ-friendly curriculums and policies as a “dangerous agenda” that “abuses” children.
More recently, in the run-up to this weekend’s municipal elections in B.C. and Ontario’s on Oct. 24, some trustee candidates are pushing agendas that oppose the discussion of topics such as gender identity in classrooms. One candidate in Ottawa posted a message on social media saying he wants to remove “ideological indoctrination” from schools – despite the fact that the curriculum is within the purview of the provincial government.
The Waterloo region, where the rhetoric appears to have gone the furthest, has seen some recent demographic changes. Germans were among the first settlers in the area, and the region still has a Mennonite influence, especially in some of the rural areas. But it has also become a tech hub and recent census data showed an increasing number of residents speaking Arabic and Punjabi at home, highlighting the growing diversity in the area.
School boards across the country have nurtured changing demographics and put in place various equity policies. However, the way in which the Waterloo school board, with a population of 65,000 students, has focused its attention on equity issues, now under a director with an activist background, has come under scrutiny – championed by supporters, labelled as “woke” by detractors.
Mr. chanicka is not your typical education director. He has spent years teaching in the public school system and working at Ontario’s Ministry of Education and as a superintendent of equity and anti-racism at the Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district. But unlike other leaders, he also has a track record of being visible and vocal. He supported and marched in demonstrations for Black Lives Matter and Idle No More, and co-founded the Coalition Against White Supremacy and Islamophobia. Mr. chanicka is Muslim, and he spells his name with lower-case letters because he identifies with his Polynesian Indigenous spirituality and says that he doesn’t give more importance to himself than his surroundings, including animals, bodies of water and trees.
In his speech to trustees at the June meeting, Mr. chanicka said community leaders told him that divisive conversations in the trustees’ boardroom were affecting students to the extent that some were becoming suicidal or wanting to leave the region.
“We have to have conversations that are truthful and compassionate and caring. What I can say right now is that the ways that the conversations are happening are putting many at risk,” he told trustees.
Although school boards do not write curriculums, they are responsible for developing policies – and Waterloo’s board has not been immune to controversy.
One such example was its position on celebrating Halloween in schools.
For a few years, the Waterloo board sent a note to schools that not everyone chooses to celebrate Halloween and to plan activities that don’t exclude children who opt not to wear a costume.
The board under Mr. chanicka was more explicit in a directive sent to school last October: Educators were to avoid Halloween celebrations, including costume day, decorations, and distributing treats, causing confusion among some parents.
“We’re decentering, we’re not deleting,” Mr. chanicka said as he reflected on that directive recently. He explained that the board hadn’t cancelled Halloween, but rather it was not promoting it through school parades.
Another controversy followed in January.
School board staff were in the middle of reviewing library collections at schools to make sure they were appropriate and in line with the board’s equity, anti-racist lens.
Carolyn Burjoski, then an elementary-school teacher at the board, raised concerns about two books available in elementary-school libraries – Rick by Alex Gino and The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey – that she felt weren’t age-appropriate because they discussed asexuality and transgender young people.
Minutes into her presentation, chair Scott Piatkowski, who is an elected trustee, interrupted. He told the board her presentation was violating Ontario’s human-rights code, which protects gender identity and gender expression. The board voted 5-4 not to let the teacher continue her delegation.
The video from the meeting has not been posted on the board’s website because of legal reasons, but the echoes of that exchange can still be heard. In the weeks that followed, Ms. Burjoski took legal action against the board. Mr. Piatkowski received death threats. He was called a “groomer” and a “pedophile” in voice-mail messages. Mr. chanicka and the board were accused of silencing residents and condoning teaching children so-called radical gender ideology. (The province’s elementary sex-ed curriculum includes discussions on gender identity and gender expression.)
“It has been relentless,” said Mr. Piatkowski of the barrage of hate mail, Twitter attacks and voice-mail messages. He spoke to police about “the ones saying that they’re going to come into my house at night and slit my throat, or the voice mail that says they’re going to come and shoot me in the face.”
He is running again for trustee. He says he wants to continue being part of the board’s equity work.
What is unclear is how much of the criticism that the board receives comes from Waterloo residents. Mr. Piatkowski said one of the threats he received was traced by police to a local resident. Others, he and Mr. chanicka say, appear to be from outside the community, like the Texas number that has appeared on their phones.
Jeff Pelich, president of the local elementary teachers’ union, has watched the pushback against the board over the past year. The new director was inheriting a mix of progressive and right-leaning trustees, but he says the tone was never as bad under the former director, who was white.
“There’s always been an undercurrent from some trustees regarding some of the work that the board has been doing, and the Ministry [of Education] has been directing,” Mr. Pelich said, speaking about policies to promote equity. “But I think they have found a target in jeewan.”
The situation in Waterloo is also emblematic of a small but vocal movement among those seeking political office.
In mid-August, People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier urged supporters at a gathering in Sooke, B.C., to “engage at the municipal level, at the school board level” because he believed “the radical left is everywhere and we need to take their place,” according to a CTV News report.
And in B.C., observers have expressed concern that some of the aspiring municipal politicians are opposed to the province’s anti-bullying policies, codes of conduct and curriculum resources that include sexual orientation and gender identity.
B.C.’s Education Minister, Jennifer Whiteside, along with a number of education associations, released a statement last month amid the rhetoric at the municipal level. She stood behind the curriculum, saying that it focuses on respecting diversity and differences.
“No student should be excluded or bullied because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” she stated.
Andy Knight, a distinguished professor in political science at the University of Alberta, said some people have felt emboldened to vocalize their views after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, and more recently following the truck convoy’s occupation of Ottawa earlier this year, during which protesters displayed the Confederate flag and other hate symbols.
Mr. chanicka said one of the threats he received was by someone who associated themselves with the convoy, who told him they were coming to hold him “accountable.”
Prof. Knight was dismayed that an ideological fight has found its way into the Canadian public-school system, because “then you ignore the real purpose of education, which is to teach people about things that they don’t know.”
“A number of white parents have been raising concerns that their kids are being taught critical race theory and that they are being shamed because they are white. Yet, many of those parents cannot identify any books being used in the classroom and most don’t have a clue what [critical race theory] is,” he added.
In Waterloo, trustee Mike Ramsay, who is running for re-election, said he received e-mails from parents concerned that critical race theory was underpinning lesson plans.
He did not respond to The Globe and Mail’s requests to speak with a parent who complained or to share the e-mails.
“I’ve always felt that political indoctrination really has no place in our classrooms, and it’s been allowed to creep in,” he said. “It’s divisive, it’s wrong and it’s not doing anything to help with student learning and achievement.”
In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Ramsay said his focus is on student learning and putting an end to divisive politics. Yet, he also co-wrote the motion debated in June that asked staff to prepare a report explaining how critical race theory influences the development of lesson plans, and which grade levels those plans are introduced.
The motion was defeated.
For his part, Mr. chanicka worries about how these discussions will affect students. The most recent student census in Waterloo showed one-third of students identified as racialized, and nearly a quarter of those in Grades 7 to 12 self-identified with at least one 2SLGBTQIA+ sexual orientation. Research has shown that many of these students are overrepresented in the achievement gaps.
“Making sure that all kids can be successful is not a woke agenda,” he said. “It’s us, as a public-school district, caring about all kids.”