School board responds to alleged racist remark by MSS staffer

SUDBURY—A student at Manitoulin Secondary School was sitting in the school’s front office when she chanced to overhear a conversation that she said stunned her. She alleges one of the school employee uttered a derogatory remark about First Nations students.

Newiin Nekiiyaa Noakes went home, unsure what to do about the remark but knowing that she had to do something. “I just wanted to stand up,” she said. “I wanted to show that racism is still going.”

Like many social media savvy young people, Ms. Noakes turned to her online community, posting the alleged comment on her Facebook page.

“Sitting in the office, guess they didn’t notice I was sitting there,” she posted. “The one secretary said to the other one ‘these damn Native kids are always getting stuff for free, and they don’t care about anything, just like all the other Natives.’ C’mon now…seriously?”

The response from across the Island was immediate and massive. In the conversations that followed, Ms. Noakes shared her misgivings about reporting the incident to the school principal, although that suggestion was among the first that she received. In the end, she did bring the incident to the attention of Manitoulin Secondary School Principal Laurie Zahnow. What followed was a shock wave that flowed swiftly up through the administration and to the Rainbow District School Board (RDSB).

“The last thing in the world that would have occurred to us was to just sit and wait for something to go away,” said RDSB Chair Doreen Dewar. “That kind of comment is absolutely not acceptable. There is absolutely no room in our schools for this type of comment.”

Ms. Dewar said that the board “does not feel that racism is measured in degrees. Racism is racism.” Despite the abhorrence the board feels toward the alleged comments, and that the comments would not be tolerated, Ms. Dewar said the board was not going to shirk from its responsibility to respond. “The RDSB owns it,” she said. “The question facing us now is ‘where do we go from here to ensure that this never happens again’.”

“We know it (racism) happens everywhere,” said Ms. Dewar, “but it has no place in our schools.” To that end, the board chair assured The Expositor that “we are going to do everything in our power.”

Ms. Dewar and Superintendent Lesleigh Dye (the RDSB administrator responsible for First Nations and Inuit education and Equity in Education) both sit on the First Nation Advisory Committee, which had met early that afternoon. “We had definitely discussed it,” said Ms. Dewar. Part of that discussion revolved around ideas on how to deal with the issue of racism. “We discussed ideas and best practices and what we are going to do to move on from here,” she said.

Although the board does not discuss the specific response to the comments or any/if sanctions have been part of their response, Ms. Dewar noted that the RDSB does have policies in place for dealing with such incidents and that there are established administrative procedures in keeping with provincial directives.

Those procedures include cultural sensitivity training, being proactive to the incident, which includes the use of this type of scenario to inform professional development day training and cultural activities in Grades 7 and 8 included in the curriculum of all RDSB schools.

Superintendent Dye noted that the incident is providing a “tremendous opportunity to work with the 11 First Nations we serve to stand together and learn.”

Ms. Dye said that she had conversations regarding the incident with M’Chigeeng Education Director Robert Beaudin and with M’Chigeeng Chief Joe Hare and that the RDSB would be working closely with the band council on the issue.

The superintendent pointed out that all staff has been made aware that they are required to report conversations that are inappropriate.

Although there were plenty of calls for the dismissal of the staff member who was alleged to have made the comments in the Facebook conversation initiated by Ms. Noakes’ initial post, her own reaction is not that severe. “I don’t want to see anyone fired,” she said. “I just wanted to stand up against racism. It wasn’t right in a government building.”

Ms. Noakes said that while the comments in the Facebook conversation were mostly positive and supportive, she did run into some people who suggested that she had made up the whole incident. “There is nothing I can do about that,” she said. “I know what I heard and I had to do something.”

Ms. Noakes was a 2014 Miss Manitoulin contestant and one day hopes to pursue a career as an early childhood educator.