By Daniel Shiu (he/him), BCTF staff, Professional and Social Issues Division
As one of its priorities, the BCTF states it will “…continue to address barriers in our structures through decolonization and antiracism work.”1 This work is courageously hard but, at the same time, audaciously hopeful. To address decolonization and antiracism, meaningful, effective, and enforceable policies are fundamental both at the provincial and local levels. Examining the local collective agreements for specific articles protecting members against racial discrimination and/or racism is a start.
The vast majority (over 90%) of the 60 school districts in BC include anti-discrimination articles in their collective agreements. Although implicitly under-stood, only a handful of districts explicitly recognize the right of their employees to work, learn, and conduct business free from discrimination and will not condone or tolerate any expression of discrimination, while nine districts simply state they subscribe to the provisions and principles of the BC Human Rights Code. In contrast to these generalized guarantees, two districts state they will consider reflecting their community’s diversity when hiring new staff.
With some variances, most school boards prohibit discrimination on the following bases: race, colour, age, physical or mental disability, sex or sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, creed/religious or political affiliation, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, or family status. Of interest, four districts also include a clause prohibiting discrimination against members based on a summary or criminal conviction charge unrelated to their employment, and, uniquely, one district prohibits discrimination on the grounds of being HIV positive. Although the bases on which discrimination is prohibited are necessarily specific and comprehensive, the definition of discrimination itself needs further clarification. From Lexico and Merriam-Webster, discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment of different categories of people. How-ever, what constitutes discrimination and what particular acts and expressions are considered discriminatory? What and whose criteria, interpretations, and, ultimately, lenses are used?
In addition to the articles prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, 35 districts explicitly include policies regarding race, race relations, or racism. Three districts, however, do not have any written policies against discrimination based on race or make any reference to racism. For those that do, the com-mon policy mirrors the one against discrimination: the district and union do not condone nor tolerate any written or verbal expressions of racism. To help reinforce this commitment, two districts support resources and/or curriculum that promote a multi-ethnic approach with a multicultural/antiracist focus. Only one district defines racism specifically as any action toward a member (e.g., name-calling, graffiti, physical violence) intended to depict a group negatively or that lowers the member’s self-esteem because of their ethnic/racial background.
Contractually, the superintendent (or designate) would investigate any formal complaints or allegations of such racism and would notify the complainant of the investigative results. A few districts further outline possible disciplinary actions for members found to have committed such offences: verbal or written warning/reprimand, transfer, suspension, or dismissal. Mediation, education, and reconciliation, although not written in our collective agreements, may, and perhaps should, also be courses of action in these critical situations.
Despite these policies, some common ground on terminology is needed. From grassroots activists to educators and scholars in the field, both historic and contemporary, countless individuals have played a part in defining race and racism and in challenging the structures that have created, maintained, and even fueled them. Ijeoma Oluo defines racism as prejudice, supported by systems of power, against someone because of their race.2 This definition echoes and reinforces the work of Robin DiAngelo, who states that racism is a “deeply embedded historical system” that is “backed by legal authority and institutional control.”3 They are not the first, nor will they be the last, to define racism as a social construct that has systemically permeated into our societal (un)consciousness.
Considering these definitions as a framework for antiracist policies, our collective agreements glaringly omit the existence of systemic racism. Although the purpose of the language in these agreements is to protect individuals from personal racist attacks and racial discrimination, it does not address the deep underlying power structures that perpetuate societal racism. Furthermore, according to Emma B. Lowman and Adam J. Barker, racism is “not a homogenous way of thinking, but rather the deployment of particular strategies to justify particular treatments of different groups of peoples,” and, in turn, “[d]ifferent kinds of race-based judgments and systems are used to justify different kinds of colonialism.”4 Acknowledging our colonial past is a start, as it created, shaped, and influenced our current educational philosophies and practices.
Given our responsibility as educators to truth and reconciliation through decolonization, local collective agreements need specific antiracism policies, particularly policies against anti-Indigenous racism, to provide greater safeguards and commitments to the work of the BCTF and its members.
A significant part of the work is to learn, relearn, and unlearn the colonial structures, systems, and policies we have inherited in order to begin addressing and challenging existing barriers to authentic equity, inclusion, and diversity free from any discrimination and racism.
1 Members’ Guide to the BCTF 2021–2022, BCTF, Vancouver, 2021, p.1.
2 Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race, Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, 2019.
3 Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Beacon Press, Boston, 2018, p. 21–24.
4 Emma B. Lowman and Adam J. Barker, Settler Identify and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada, Fernwood Publishing, Winnipeg, 2015, p. 42.