Protesters disrupted the swearing-in of the York Region District School Board on Monday night in a backlash against a trustee-elect accused of making racist remarks during her campaign.
“Please don’t sit idly by while this racist is sworn in,” activist Desmond Cole urged, asking anyone concerned about trustee-elect Elizabeth Terrell-Tracey to join protesters. Local media reported during the fall election campaign that Ms. Terrell-Tracey made comments on Facebook about opponent Lena Singh’s Guyanese heritage, saying voters needed a trustee who was born in Canada.
The trustee-elect later told local media her Facebook had been hacked.
Ms. Terrell-Tracey was elected trustee for East Gwillimbury and Whitchurch-Stouffville with 9,344 votes to Ms. Singh’s 5,788. Many of the approximately 20 protesters on Monday evening held up Guyanese flags, made emotional pleas for her resignation and urged the members of the public who were there to push for policy changes in the board. Ms. Terrell-Tracey attended the swearing-in and did not address the protesters or the media.
“This board has a history of having racist trustees on their board, and we’re going to stand for it no more,” parent Charline Grant told the people in attendance, many of whom stayed after the trustee-elects were hurried off to another location to continue taking their oaths. Ms. Grant was involved in another high-profile case involving racially charged language last year, involving then-York Region trustee Nancy Elgie.
Ms. Elgie was overheard using a racial slur to describe a black parent in conversation with another trustee. Ms. Grant said she was the parent. Ms. Elgie resigned in February after months of calls to step down, including one from the provincial education minister. In a video posted to YouTube, she said she had made a “terrible mistake,” and had suffered a concussion, a common symptom of which is mixed-up words. She said she apologized right away to her co-trustee, but that part was not heard.
At the outset of the swearing-in ceremony, education director Louise Sirisko had said she understood that people might be experiencing hurt, concern and, in some cases, “extraordinary anger.” She noted if the swearing-in could not proceed, she would call a recess, move the trustees, and live-stream the event.
“It is imperative that the trustees-elect take their oath of office this evening,” Ms. Sirisko said, saying the Board needed to be constituted in order to establish policies, approve their budget and consider accommodations. When the swearing-in was moved, and the live-stream kicked in, the audio feed was cut off for protesters to give speeches.
Some of Ms. Terrell-Tracey’s supporters denounced the protesters as they left the room following the change of location, with one man yelling that the group were “radicals.”
In a press release about Monday’s events, the board said that it does not have “legal authority” to remove an elected official from office, and that accountability measures such as its code of conduct apply only after someone is sworn in. Protesters handed out pamphlets on Monday evening urging constituents to write to the Ontario Ombudsman asking him to lobby the Ministry of Education to include trustee-elects in that code.
The board and new trustees returned to the auditorium after the private swearing-in for a special meeting called to hear concerns about "the trustee-elect for East Gwillimbury and Whitchurch-Stouffville.”
Board chair Corrie McBain began the meeting by denouncing “the racist, xenophobic and hurtful comments attributed to Trustee Terrell-Tracey,” and saying it would be disingenuous to say the Board wasn’t concerned. “I fully expect and encourage our communities, including staff and students, to hold us accountable,” she said.
Students, parents and community members took turns at a podium, giving speeches for five minutes at a time. The Board had asked people wishing to speak to apply for delegate status before the meeting, prioritizing residents of York Region in their queue. Some speakers thanked the school board for holding the meeting in their remarks, and several addressed the newly sworn-in trustee directly as she sat at a table on the stage.
“We’re not going away,” Ms. Grant said. “We’re not going to stop until you resign.”
With a report from the Canadian Press