M’Chigeeng chief, Rainbow Board chair disagree on school board’s approach to reconciliation efforts

M’CHIGEENG FIRST NATION—M’Chigeeng First Nation Chief Linda Debassige is at odds with the Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) and says the board suffers from accountability and transparency issues.

On Friday, RDSB issued a press release that reaffirms the board’s commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its 94 recommendations. It includes statements from board Chair Doreen Dewar about its intolerance for violence, discrimination and racism within its schools. This follows the Friday, September 14 student brawl at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS).

Chief Debassige dismisses the press release as a “tactic.”

“The press release was a futile attempt and reconfirms their denial of the systemic racism and discrimination that continues to exist,” she says.

“To me their response is just a way to again minimize and deny what has occurred, what continuously occurred and has occurred in the past. The systemic issues aren’t new and the racism existing at that school (MSS) is not new either,” alleges Chief Debassige.

Chair Dewar says RDSB has its own TRC action plan that the board adopted in July 2018. It is designed to guide the board’s work in Indigenous education over a five-year period. She says working with First Nations groups and continuing to include Indigenous content in all grade levels is an important initiative.

“It’s an ongoing process that we’re absolutely committed to,” she says in a phone interview, adding that RDSB is allegedly one of few boards in the province with an in-depth plan or commitment to action on the 94 recommendations.

“We look forward to working with First Nations to implement all of the items that are listed in the TRC.”

Chief Debassige says she has not seen RDSB’s action plan and, according to a claim from embattled RDSB trustee Larry Killens, that plan does not exist. The Expositor has not investigated and therefore cannot confirm that allegation.

On her end, Chief Debassige says she needs to meet with all of the 11 First Nations that RDSB represents before she can commit to any meetings with the board.

“I’m not saying no; I welcome it very much, but not at this time. We as leadership need to meet and discuss situations amongst ourselves first, and the leadership of RDSB after,” she says.

There is one designated First Nation trustee on RDSB — M’Chigeeng’s Grace Fox — to represent the 11 First Nations, but Chief Debassige dismisses it as, “Basically a token position. There’s only one, versus how many others,” referring to the other elected trustees.

RDSB has publicly stated it wants to engage in meaningful conversations with First Nations to move forward.

“We have reached out to communities from Manitoulin Secondary School to join with us in a constructive dialogue,” states Chair Dewar in the press release.

“The news release was a very strong reaffirmation of our commitment and we really will not tolerate violence or discrimination,” Chair Dewar told The Expositor. “We will look forward to further discussions with our First Nations advisory council and further implementation of the huge commitment to Truth and Reconciliation.”

“They have no other option than to say that. We know that’s what they’re going to say,” says Chief Debassige, alleging there have been issues at the board for years that have not included any use of “constructive dialogue.”

At last Thursday’s rally to oppose discrimination, organized by M’Chigeeng First Nation, Chief Debassige had accused RDSB of a “continued lack of concern for student safety and success.” Chair Dewar has chosen not to respond to that allegation, and points to the board’s August statement against the Ontario Progressive Conservative government’s decision to stop developing curriculum that includes an Indigenous focus. It resolved to continue infusing Indigenous content across grades and subject areas.

Chief Debassige’s concerns about the TRC recommendations go far beyond RDSB’s actions and up to the heart of the commission itself.

“It lacks an implementation plan; it’s a document that has no teeth,” says Chief Debassige. “The TRC document misses the mark as to the actual spirit and intent of the national TRC findings.”

The TRC’s 94 recommendations surfaced while M’Chigeeng was without chief and council, so the community had no opportunity to vet it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Chair Dewar has since contacted The Expositor regarding Trustee Killens’ allegations about the Truth and Reconciliation action plan not existing. She provided the meeting minutes which indicate that Trustee Killens was present, voted in favour of and signed the plan.