The Right to Exist: Why Prairie School Districts Need BIPOC Support Positions Now

The right to exist.

Some folks would say, well, that’s bare minimum.  Life is a Charter right, alongside liberty.  It’s a given, a taken-for-granted, a gimme, a no-brainer.  But not for all.

Not for racialized children on the prairies.

My own experience as a Black student in prairie schools, before I became a Black prairie educator, was one that was not only steeped in white supremacy, but that also saw, as key ingredients, several examples of overt racism.  And here’s the tea on that: over the past twenty years since my own high school graduation, regrettably, not much has changed.  The stories that circulate among friends and family and within racialized communities about the immense racism faced by children in our schools today would gut the most hardened of listeners.  But beyond small familial circles, these stories often go untold and unheard.  Even worse, the perpetrators of such racism typically escape consequence from school leaders, who are decidedly unequipped to deal with this particular problem, however ubiquitous it may be.

Some stories of school-based racism, we do have the luck (and regret) to hear about more broadly.  And they should gut us all.  Last December, it was a teacher’s aide in Kamsack, Saskatchewan telling a 10-year-old Indigenous girl named Isabella Kulak that her traditional ribbon skirt wasn’t appropriate attire for the school’s formal day.  More recently, I read about James Lasu, the young Black boy from just north of Calgary who endured racist taunts and bullying at school, his classmates verbally equating him with a monkey.  When asked if any of his fellow students ever stand up for him when this happens, James, who loves art, music, and basketball, answered bravely, “They just watch me be hurt and cry.”

Like Isabella Kulak and her family, James and his family decided to speak up and speak out, and not without risk.  Their stories, two of countless similar ones occurring every day, made news, made people aware of these otherwise silenced atrocities.  What courage, what power, what promise these young people have shown.  In speaking up, they ring an important alarm.  But they also stick their necks out into the cutthroat and apparently lawless landscape of racist prairie cyberspace as well as a dangerous physical reality.

A child, however brave, should never have to do this. 

It is only the cowardice of legally responsible adults that forces them to do so.

The first person to speak out publicly after an incident of racism at a school should be the school officials, preferably the district director, to condemn the acts of racism happening directly under their watch.  I would say that the first line of defense ought to be the school district’s anti-racism consultant or advisor, except there’s just one problem with that idea; despite promising developments in some post-secondary institutions, these positions scarcely exist in k-12 education in western Canada – a glaring human resource omission with grave consequences.

In 2018, 13-year-old Kaleab Schmidt was found unresponsive at his home near Balgonie, Saskatchewan.  The young immigrant from Ethiopia died by suicide after experiencing unresolved racism at school, which was often explained away as “bullying,” a misnomer that ignores a problem with much deeper roots than this whitewashing term can capture.  But the absence of high-level educational positions filled by qualified individuals with knowledge of these important social complexities surrounding racism, allows such whitewashing to continue unchecked.  Meanwhile, Black children, Indigenous children, and children of colour are suffering. 

And some of them, like Kaleab, are dying.

When school-based bullying surrounds race, let us call it what it is: racism.  To disconnect this specific social evil from our intervention conversations is short-sighted and harmful.  Further, racism is a beast which extends far beyond personally mediated conflicts, and well into the fabric of our very society, and the everyday goings-on of life, death, and schooling on the prairies.  What of that?  What of the fact that BIPOC children and youth face racism daily as an expected element of their educational experience in this country?  What system-led proactive measures, interventions, or supports exist to counter this broader, more insidious form of racism?

Not even in our increasingly courageous public conversations around mental health do we dare to sufficiently explore the impacts of racism and colonization on the mental health of BIPOC people and youth specifically, who are almost always over-represented in statistics surrounding these issues.  Take the alarming suicide rates in Northern Indigenous communities, for example, where the rate is in some cases nearly three times higher than the national average.  Has it crossed nobody’s mind, no psychologist, no psychiatrist or counsellor’s mind that fighting through racialized colonial violence day in and day out and at every turn may have an impact on one’s mental wellbeing?  That this may be contributing factor worth further study?  Indeed, these connections have been studied and advocated for, though not nearly enough.  And without a race and power analysis of the mental health landscape, over-sanitized anti-bullying or suicide awareness efforts of any scope and on the part of any school system will fail to adequately curb adverse mental health impacts among BIPOC youth, as they will fail to address the root problem.  Indeed, these efforts are akin to those of a doctor trying to treat a cough that is cancer-related with whatever lozenges may be found amid the lint in their pants pocket, likely offered with some suspicion of hypochondria.

Although BIPOC people have grown accustomed to such gaslighting, we are far from comfortable with it.

Looking at the status quo in education so far, almost every school district in the country is likely to have an anti-bullying policy.  Very few, at least on the prairies, are likely to have an anti-racism policy, let alone an anti-racism advisor, someone with the tools to help students and teachers and administrators learn about, understand, and confront the ever-present and ever-suffocating force of racism that pervades school culture.  Often, school districts will sooner rely on professional learning for educators that focuses on the disturbingly lauded “resilience” of BIPOC youth, rather than find the bravery to look in the mirror at why such resilience has become necessary in the first place.  I’d say it is incumbent upon school systems to begin this much needed process of self-reflection.  Defensible interpretations of provincial Human Rights Code legislation posit that negligence on the part of school officials to address, if not enact preventative and proactive measures to combat racism, may establish grounds for legal ramifications.  Employment Act legislation similarly protects employees, i.e. educators, from race-based harassment at work.  And I encourage any and all victims of negligence in this regard to pursue such legal avenues with the greatest of resolve and ambition.

Systemic racism has been happily ignored for so long by prairie educational leaders that they may actually believe it’s not a problem worth fighting against; their inaction says as much.  While it may be easy for some to suggest that there is simply no racism in our k-12 education systems to begin with, without a doubt, the festering of racism on the prairies is coming to a head.  Incidents like those affecting Isabella Kulak, James Lasu, Kaleab Schmidt, and innumerable others are but the bubbling over of a full and boiling pot.

And it’s again easy to suggest that said pot is meant for melting, and that everyone ought to just jump into this mix and become, all of us, one thing: uniform expressions of the Canadian identity (which is all too often assumed to be monolithic and white).  But it is precisely this idea that we should all assimilate into socially established and vigorously policed white settler norms that raises the temperature of the burner on which our hot pot sits: Turtle Island.

Yes, our pot is but a young colony on land that is immortally Indigenous; lest we forget.  And in order to exist here cooperatively with Indigenous peoples and other groups, we must at bare minimum attempt to understand the socio-political climate in which we and our school systems all marinate here on the prairies, where past government sought through legislation to enforce the afore-mentioned assimilation ideal through the scourge of residential schools, whose spectre still haunts our existing institutions of learning, and indeed our society on this largely non-urban landscape.

In stark contrast to this sordid history, such natural beauty there lies, outside of the distracting bustle of the scarce prairie city.  My wife and I have long considered moving outside of town ourselves; there’s a place deep in our hearts that so values the openness of space, the quiet of solitude, and the calming lull of nature.  But upon deeper reflection, that dream is greatly tempered by the increased potential within rural areas of western Canada for overt racism to run rampant.  Know this; it is a mark of privilege not to have to consider the potentialities of racism when planning a geographical move.  Personally, I think someone who could create an app for predicting overt racism levels based on city, town, or rural municipality could become rich, as every BIPOC person considering relocating would benefit from such a technology. 

So as not to generalize, let me be clear; the world is full of social justice change makers who were born and bred in Canada’s so-called breadbasket, many of them white allies who, seeing their world for what it was and not what it was sold to be, decided to do something about it.  But the prairies are in many ways haunted by the openness of non-urban space that all too often seems to either push Indigenous people out or swallow Indigenous bodies up.  The shooting death of Colten Boushie still haunts us all.  Some days, what haunts me too is how, following the murder, some school districts instructed teachers not to facilitate discussions of the topic among students.  This, while Indigenous students and their allies everywhere were very freshly and very actively grieving, and were met in their own school communities, by their own teachers, not with open arms, but with plugged ears. 

I say to you that such a community is no community at all.

In willfully ignoring the grief of our Indigenous students, we ignore the stark reality of systemic racism within our own home: the prairies. And on this issue, a stance of silence is a stance of complicity. Following Colten Boushie’s murder, the officers tasked with delivering the news of his death to his mother, in the same instance, smelled her breath, asked if she’d been drinking, and told her in her state of shock to “get it together” while they, by some accounts, illegally searched her home.  And following the Stanley trial, the RCMP, rather than host town hall meetings on rural racism, moved swiftly to host town hall meetings on rural property crime, following complaints from mostly white farmers that slow police response times were to blame for farmers “taking the law into their own hands.”  In light of such alarming expressions of obvious systemic racism among police, is it any wonder that BIPOC students and families on the prairies are calling for the full removal of police from schools?

In illustrating all this, I hope only to highlight the deeply entrenched and staunchly protected colonial narratives that construct a rural Canadian white man as “king of his castle” as Gina Starblanket and Dallas Hunt put it in their book Storying Violence: Unravelling Colonial Narratives in the Stanley Trial.  If you haven’t read Storying Violence, do.  I would argue that it’s essential reading for every person living within the borders of what is now commonly called Canada.  Confronting difficult truths, not shying away from them, must be the primary element of any imagination of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. 

Storying Violence | ARP Books

We must own up to the fact that Indigenous peoples and other people of colour often do not feel welcome within the sprawling patchwork “kingdoms” of the prairies, schools and all, and that so-called trespassing there can signal death.  These historically entrenched colonial narratives that position white property owners as birthright royalty are still vivid today.  But they somehow omit that settlers could only build their so-called castles and their schools after “clearing the plains” of the Indigenous people and children who occupied and used the land responsibly for thousands of years prior, and whose inherent rights remain connected to it. 

As for my own story, it lies in the white-perpetrated kidnapping of my mother’s ancestors and their forcible removal from Africa during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

That’s how I ended up here, on this side of the ocean.  As the so-believed property of the ancestors of today’s white property owners.

Now, to ask me to sit in a classroom somewhere on Indigenous territory, rural or not, and to request, however politely, that I don’t talk about my story or about how it is ongoing, or how it is inextricable from our contemporary relationships to each other and to Indigenous peoples, is unthinkable.  But this is precisely the strategically chosen and inherently oppressive education strategy persists broadly on the prairies.  And while it may have the intent of keeping up appearances or ensuring that kids “play nice” at school, it has the impact of essentially extinguishing my existence, because it extinguishes the story of my existence.

As for BIPOC people broadly, know this: our racialization is tied to much more than the colour of our skin, which is why everyone ought to stop saying such foolishness as “I don’t care if you’re blue, green, or purple!”  By all means, miss us with that.  Our racialization is not merely skin-deep.  It is tied to our stories, to our identities, our humanity, our cultures, and indeed to our modern existence in an evil but inescapable social hierarchy that beats us down constantly, sometimes literally. But this hierarchy, and those who, from its peak, maintain it, also beats us down the way a dripping tap beats on the eardrums and then the brain, until you can’t take it anymore.  Until it’s torturous.  Until you’d just as soon grab a sledgehammer as call a plumber. 

Call that abhorrent dripping white supremacy, call it microaggressions, call it shade, call it living in constant fear that if you express yourself, your racial identity, or worst of all, your demand for self-determination and liberation, you will be stopped from doing so, persecuted because of it, or eliminated altogether, perhaps even by those sworn to serve and protect you.

That’s how we live, if you can call it that.  In fear.  And in the words of the late Nina Simone, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me.  No fear.”

So, yes, racism is an immense and immediate problem in our school systems across the prairies and indeed the country.  And no, we are not yet free. 

Therefore, I join the call of educators like Helen Vangool for BIPOC support positions in every school and school district in the prairies and beyond.  I join the call for anti-racist and anti-oppressive education for every teacher and every student in every classroom in the country.  There is much more yet to do, but let us at least begin there.

We must confront the fact that colonization began on these lands hundreds of years ago, and that it continues to operate, sometimes especially palpably in schools.  But the fact that the operation of colonization has been occurring on these Indigenous lands for hundreds of years now, and is protected by all manner of settler laws, policies, and paperwork, does not automatically prove that the operation of colonization, then or now, has been in any way legitimate. 

The so-called owners of my enslaved ancestors had paperwork too.

So let’s talk about all of that.  Let’s talk about the notion of Canada for what it truly is: a house of cards, whose very foundation is the tremulous soil of colonization and racism.  Not even the most well manicured of lawns can conceal such ever-quaking earth, whose ear-pounding rumbling is nothing less than the karmic cry of our ancestors for justice on the land.

Now I have not come to be the big bad wolf and blow this house all down, but for the love of God, can we at least talk about it?  Some of us need to in order to be free. 

Some of us need to in order to live.

– KD

If you’d like to help advocate for BIPOC support positions and anti-racist education in prairie schools, please contact your school district today.  Click the links for live lists of Saskatchewan school divisions, Alberta school divisions, and Manitoba school divisions. Click on the name of your specific school division to find its main contact information. In your communications, please be prepared to challenge any responses that try to centre multiculturalism or cultural responsiveness as the work of anti-racism, as these are quite separate from anti-racist and decolonizing education, and are decidedly inadequate tools for overcoming oppression.

Questions to ask your school division:

  • Do you have an anti-racism or BIPOC support position in your school division?
  • Do you have a plan to create an anti-racism or BIPOC support position in your school division?
  • Does your school division have an anti-racism policy of which I can obtain a copy?
  • Does your school have a plan for creating an anti-racism policy? What is the timeline for doing so? Who is advising on this policy work and what are their qualifications?
  • What is your school division doing to actively combat systemic racism?  Who is responsible for this work, and what are their qualifications for doing so?
  • What proactive measures are in place within your school division to prevent my child(ren) from experiencing or witnessing overt racism at school?
  • What sort of anti-racism training do your educators and/or students receive? How regularly does your school division provide this training?
  • Who delivers anti-racism training to the educators and students in your school division? What qualifications do they have in this area?
  • Is anti-racism training mandatory for the educators in your school division? If not, why is that?