Pressure on the Simcoe County District School Board from the advocacy group Parents Against Racism Simcoe County (PARSC) has been building over the past two years since the group’s formation in November 2020.
The pressure came to a head this week during the board’s regular meeting on March 22, when the group, during a deputation, demanded Midland/Penetanguishene/Tay/Tiny trustee Robin Talbot resign, alleging racism and sexism on the part of the rookie trustee.
“Since October, we've seen clear, direct biases demonstrated by members of this board; trustees who publicly align with union groups, municipal political agencies and organizations,” said PARSC member Sarah Peart who provided Wednesday’s deputation to the board along with group founder Natasha Shakespeare. “We call on Chair (Jodi) Lloyd to remind all trustees of their duty to keep all students safe. We ask each board member here today to hold their peers accountable and to task.”
Shakespeare started PARSC originally on Facebook back in November 2020 as a way for Simcoe County parents of Black or biracial children to share their experiences and come together to work toward grassroots change in schools. Over time, the group grew and met with the school board in early 2021 to discuss a list of 23 demands to address anti-Black racism.
The demands were originally laid out by Parents of Black Children, a Toronto-based group seeking to reform education at the provincial level. The demands range from reforming the Education Act, eliminating streaming, collecting race-based achievement and discipline data, removing police and police-run programming from schools and hiring more Black teachers.
When reached for comment on Friday, Sarah Kekewich, manager of communications for the Simcoe County District School Board, noted many strides the board has made in their equity, diversity and inclusion work over the past few years.
Through their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) department, the board provides learning sessions, book studies, conferences, and workshops for students and staff as well as leadership training.
They have also brought in system-wide strategies such as:
- establishing a Human Rights and Equity Office in 2022;
- hiring six graduation coaches for Indigenous students, three for Black students and one for LGBTQ+ students;
- hiring a social worker specifically tasked with supporting the work of the diversity, equity and inclusion department in 2023;
- establishing an equity advisory committee;
- growing partnerships with Simcoe County minority-supporting organizations such as Uplift Black, The National Council of Canadian Muslims, The Gilbert Centre, The Black Youth Helpline, PFLAG Simcoe/Barrie, Shak’s World and Am Shalom Congregation.
“We continue to work with students, staff, parents/guardians, and community partners to ensure that our schools are the safe and inclusive places they are intended to be,” said Kekewich. “When incidents of racism, bias, hate or oppression do occur in our schools, they are taken very seriously with immediate action and consequences for those involved.”
In June 2022, the advocacy group released their first-ever PARSC Facts 4 Impact Report, which compiled survey data from 537 participants on their experiences in schools in Simcoe County.
It is noted in the report that there have been five items addressed by the public school board since PARSC started their work, including the board agreeing to monthly meetings with PARSC; the board completing an equity audit; crazy hair day events being denounced by the board; harsher consequences for hate language; and diversity, equity and inclusion training being provided to educators.
Prior to and since the release of the report, the group has done multiple deputations before trustees, focusing on different demands and topics each time.
In June 2022, the group did a deputation calling on the board to eliminate police presence in schools. In November 2022, the group called on the board to hire more Black graduation coaches.
During the November 2022 meeting, newly elected trustee Talbot had his first public interaction with the group, when he noted it was “quite the accusation” when Peart said inaction on the group’s demands was upholding systemic racism.
During a Dec. 21, 2022 deputation when the group shared a letter of support by the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner that highlighted the importance of their Facts 4 Impacts Report, Talbot asked a series of questions of the presenters.
“Forgive me for lack of background but... I'm ignorant. I'm new. So please, bear with me. Are you elected officials? Do you have bylaws? Are you just a pressure group? I don't understand where you're coming from and the authorization for whom you speak,” said Talbot.
At the end of February, PARSC put a call-to-action letter-writing form on their website, calling for Talbot’s resignation.
“Not only was the (Dec. 21) comment problematic, the tone and cadence shouted racist and sexist,” notes the letter.
During a deputation by Peart’s daughter Trinity Parchment at the board’s meeting on Jan. 18 when she spoke about her experiences with anti-Black racism while attending Barrie North Collegiate, Talbot can be seen on video rummaging through his bag and checking his cell phone and computer during Parchment’s presentation.
“Not once did he appear to give his attention to the speaker,” notes the call to action.
Natasha Shakespeare says supporters of PARSC have sent more than 100 emails on the issue to the school board and trustees, and have received no response. She alleges Talbot has violated the trustee code of conduct on multiple occasions based on his actions during their delegations.
“The (board’s) silence and lack of action upholds systemic racism,” Shakespeare said this week. “PARSC will continue with the call to action until trustee Talbot resigns and the board of trustees denounces his behaviour publicly.”
When reached for comment on Thursday, Talbot said he has no intentions of resigning.
“They’re overreacting,” said Talbot. “They’re a pressure group. They’re not elected. They have no board of directors. I pointed that out in one of my questions, and ever since then, they’ve thought I should resign.”
“It’s just their arrogance. That’s all,” he said.