Readers scanning the news this week would have come across an item that made them stare, blink, look away and look back again to make sure their eyes weren't playing tricks. It said that, out of respect for Canada's Indigenous peoples, the Toronto District School Board has decided to stop using the word "chief" in job titles. The chief of social work, for example, will be called manager of social work instead.
Was this a joke? Had some satirist planted a fake story to poke fun at the plague of political correctness? The idea was so ridiculous that it had to be in jest. It just had to be.
No such luck. The TDSB is quite serious. Inspired, it says, by the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is indeed removing the word from the titles of senior staff.
Exactly why is a mystery. Understand: The TRC did not call for this. No Indigenous group was demanding it either, the board concedes. Nor is this a case of correcting some kind of cultural theft. Chief is not an Indigenous word by origin. But sometimes, by some people, chief is used as a slur, the board explained, so the TDSB decided to be "pro-active" and make the change anyway.
As the usually measured editorial writers of The Globe and Mail put it, this is bonkers. The word chief in a job title simply means head or top. Chief financial officer. Chief operating officer. Chief justice. Chief coroner. Fire chief. Police chief. The Toronto Transit Commission has a chief executive officer. The City of Toronto has a chief planner. It just hired a chief resilience officer to help it prepare for catastrophic events.
The TRC itself used the dread word in its report, referring to the chief negotiator for the government of Canada and the chief medical officer of Indian Affairs. The Oxford dictionary says chief can mean: 1. A leader or ruler of a people or clan ("the chief of the village") or 2. The head of an organization ("a union chief" or "the chief of police").
Is there a single Indigenous person in Canada who feels slighted or traumatized when someone speaks of a chief librarian or chief engineer? Most have other things to worry about. Having enough clean drinking water, if they live on a remote reserve. Finding a decent job, if they live in a city. With so many challenges facing Indigenous communities, from crime to teen suicide to diseases of poverty, it is monumentally stupid to make an issue of the title that a school-board official puts on the office door. There is enough real pain and real racism in the world without finding bigotry in a common word.
It does nothing for the Indigenous community. It does nothing for the cause of Indigenous rights. In fact, by making something out of nothing, it discredits that cause, tainting it with the scent of wild-eyed zealotry. Changing things means persuading people. You don't persuade people by talking rot. If you go around saying that the "chief" in chief executive may be racist then no one is going to listen to anything you have to say.
Spouting that kind of nonsense drives people into the arms of the Donald Trumps of the world. It gives dangerous blowhards like him just the kind of ammunition they need to attack seekers of social justice.
Look at what just happened at another Toronto institution, Massey College. When a distinguished scholar of the Holocaust, Michael Marrus, made a grossly insensitive, racially tinged remark in what he says was a poor attempt at humour, he was drummed out of the college – a career of decades sullied over a dumb joke.
A group of Massey fellows demanded that the college introduce mandatory anti-racism training. But that wasn't enough. This incident, too, involved the corruption of language. Massey is dropping the term "master" for its (sorry) chief administrator, even though it should be obvious to everyone that the title doesn't suggest a master of slaves. (Universities all over give out master's degrees.) Changing the title of the leader of a cloistered University of Toronto college will have the same impact on the advance of racial justice as changing titles at the Toronto District School Board – precisely none. As incidents like this pile up, the result is a thickening atmosphere of fear that threatens free expression and dampens dissent, the very qualities that places of learning should be cultivating. In the name of stamping out intolerance, these proud institutions are themselves becoming intolerant. Those who dare to stand up against the new puritans – and they are pathetically few – are accused of condoning bigotry. Deny you are an enemy of the people and it only proves you are an enemy of the people.
So university and school board officials run for the hills instead, buckling to every demand rather than risk being labelled reactionary. In the TDSB's case, the board buckled before a demand was even made. That is the kind of cringing posture Toronto can expect from its great educational institutions today.
Why fight for the language? Why defend the reputation of an old professor? Easier simply to surrender. Let the old prof fade away into the shadows. Let the meaning of words be twisted.
What is lost, after all? Only the integrity of the cause. Only fairness. Only truth.