Activists demand equity oversight in the school system

By Maggie Macintosh

Journalist of the Local Journalism Initiative

A coalition of anti-racism educators and advocates is calling on the Stefanson government to commit to both creating a K-12 Equity Secretariat and supporting the development of satellite offices within local school divisions.

Equity Matters, which represents more than 80 Indigenous, newcomer and inner-city community organizations, is hosting a press conference today to unveil its pledge initiative.

The group called on every provincial political party — the Progressive Conservatives, the New Democratic Party and the Manitoba Liberals — to formally endorse the creation of a new equity infrastructure in the public school system with an official signature.

“If we’re serious about making real change and we want to address inequalities within (public schools), looking at the structural inequalities that currently exist, then we don’t just need to talk, we need to walk,” he said. Suni said. Matthews, co-chair of Equity Matters.

Ontario recently created a so-called Education Equity Secretariat to identify and eliminate discriminatory practices, systemic barriers and biases in its schools.

Matthews, a retired teacher, and her colleagues want Manitoba to follow suit.

The coalition has called on the province to create a designated secretariat to undertake research and develop equity-based policies, create inclusive curriculum guidelines, and provide workers with education anti-racism training.

Accountability should be embedded in the office, Matthews said, adding that community members want the province to measure and monitor systemic racism by collecting annual equity data from school divisions.

Signatories to the Coalition Pledge will commit to enshrining the Secretariat in the Public Schools Act and appointing an Assistant Deputy Minister of Education to lead the office.

The agreement requires the secretariat to be launched by September 1, 2023.

Equity Matters expects the office to publish an annual report on its progress once it is operational.

“Concrete and genuine change comes from addressing deep-seated systemic issues of colonialism and racism; engage in difficult conversations; and be transparent and accountable to the community,” campaign co-leaders Matthews and Crystal Laborero wrote in individualized letters prepared for political leaders.

The duo contacted Education Minister Wayne Ewasko, NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Dougald Lamont, Leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party.

In their letters, the authors noted the findings of the Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Circle and the Newcomer Education Coalition in their respective 2022 reports on the state of equity in education.

The findings, released in March, highlight disparities between the number of students and teachers who identify as Indigenous or racialized in Manitoba’s capital.

WIEC and the NEC argue that increasing the number of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit educators, as well as racialized immigrant, refugee, and newcomer teachers in the public school system, will improve outcomes for students who are members of these communities.

“A teacher doesn’t walk into a classroom and say, ‘I’m going to target these students,'” said Matthews, who has been involved in anti-racism education work since the 1980s.

However, biases, course content and language choices have lasting effects on students, she said.

In 2021, Manitoba’s four-year graduation rate was around 82% overall, but only 51% of Indigenous students in the province graduated “on time”.

For Matthews, maintaining the status quo is not an option. “It’s an era of racial reckoning,” she said.

Equity Matters wants all metropolitan divisions to begin developing local equity offices.

Late last year, the Winnipeg School Division Council voted unanimously to establish the first such office before the start of the 2022-23 school year.

Maggie Macintosh is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works for the WINNIPEG FREE PRESS. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. Turtle Island News does not receive funding from the LJI government.

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