Hamilton trustees made racist comments against Black and Muslim people, silenced student: report

A review of allegations of racism raised by former student trustee Ahona Mehdi at Hamilton’s public school board has found she was, at times, silenced and singled out. It also found some trustees made racist comments toward Black and Muslim people and didn’t understand the concept of equity.

It has a dozen recommendations for Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), all of which are being adopted, according to the board’s chair.

The report from Arleen Huggins, lawyer and partner with the law firm Koskie Minsky LLP, and Philip Graham, a senior Associate with the same firm, was released Wednesday afternoon.

The probe came after Mehdi and Ruby Hye, another former trustee, shared concerns about their experiences with the board.

Mehdi is a first-generation Canadian who graduated from the board in 2020.

Silencing, racism and lack of training

The investigators say in the lead up to the Safe Schools Panel board meeting on Oct. 28. 2019, one trustee singled out Mehdi by editing her statement to remove any reference to her personal experiences. The report also found it was likely the trustee asked her, in general, to soften any issues she raised related to oppression or anti-racism.

The report also states when Mehdi wanted to prepare a motion to terminate the police liaison program in mid-June 2020, she was asked to do so under the supervision of a staff member and the same trustee. The investigators said that “is inconsistent with the autonomy the student trustee holds as a member of the board representing student interests.”

And when the motion was ready, despite insufficient governance, training or guidance provided to Mehdi, it was not accepted because it was late, even though she would have had enough trustee support to submit it.

Trustee 1, who the report refers to as chair of the board at the time, “acted deliberately and arbitrarily in denying the complainant’s written notice of motion, and in a manner that was inconsistent with past board practices, which allowed for late submissions,” the report read.

During a trustee meeting on June 22, which discussed ending the police liaison program, the investigators found trustees “knew or ought to have known that their comments were not only insensitive but expressions of anti-Black racism.”

A trustee also made racist comments while speaking about creating an Indigenous student trustee position, and also said on Sept. 30, 2019 that doing so would be inequitable.

Another trustee was also found to have said “overtly anti-Muslim and racist remarks” and displayed “a problematic attitude toward equity issues” during meetings.

Another finding from the investigation states trustees didn’t get sufficient governance training (e.g. how to submit a motion) and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training.

12 recommendations and apology from chair

The recommendations include mandatory annual governance training, providing more support and mentorship for student trustees, and mandatory ongoing EDI training for all trustees.

Board trustees voted to adopt and act on all the recommendations. The motion, approved last night, also said staff will report back with “what is actionable within the recommendations and no further sanctions be made.”

HWDSB chair Dawn Danko said she has issued a formal apology to Mehdi for what she went through. She also said trustees were “shocked” and “saddened” while reading the report.

“We are committed to making sure every student, every employee every community member has the right to feel safe and welcome … the report shows that it’s very clear we failed to do that for our former student trustee Ahona Mehdi,” she said during an interview on Wednesday.

Dawn Danko, chair of Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, said trustees are committed to making changes in light of the report. (Submitted by Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board)

Danko said there are systemic issues and biases the board needs to face head-on now that they have been brought to light.

“I think the investigator really saw where we have practices in place that ultimately can lead to silencing someone like our student trustee,” she said.

Danko said she wants an external investigator with knowledge of EDI, anti-Black racism and oppression to review policies for the trustees and change the system.

“It’s absolutely critical we start this work, we do it quickly and that we hold ourselves accountable for it.”

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