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Seven Oaks launches first-of-its-kind anti-racism strategy in Manitoba

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Rebecca Chartrand is trying to figure out how to teach her seven-year-old to feel comfortable in his brown skin.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/12/2020 (594 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Rebecca Chartrand is trying to figure out how to teach her seven-year-old to feel comfortable in his brown skin.

Throughout the last year and a half, her son has started to talk to her about race; he has described feeling ostracized by his classmates because they look different than him, and once, he called himself “unlucky” because of his skin colour, recalls Chartrand.

“I do everything I can as a mother to help him feel proud of who he is as an Indigenous person, but that’s different than what his lived experience is going to be like because of the colour of his skin,” said Chartrand, a mother in the Seven Oaks School Division and longtime Indigenous education expert.

Seven Oaks School Division chairman hopes kids will bring anti-racist teachings and skills home. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Racialized students — in Seven Oaks, often Filipino, South Asian, Black, and Indigenous students — have different school experiences and outcomes than their white peers, who see themselves reflected in the white teachers who make up the majority of Manitoba’s teachers.

For Chartrand, the key to helping all kids make sense of their identities and succeed in school is embracing anti-racist education. So she didn’t hesitate when she was asked to lead a new equity-based initiative in her children’s school division in late June.

The video of a white police officer in Minneapolis kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for several minutes, and the global outrage caused by the 46-year-old Black man’s death, prompted Seven Oaks to formally endorse anti-racist education with a new project in the summertime.

Rebecca Chartrand is leading a new equity-based initiative in the Seven Oaks School Division to create a culture shift where students and staff actively practise anti-racism. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Superintendent Brian O’Leary said the division has always prided itself on diversity and inclusion, but its anti-racism initiative is “moving the needle further along in a direction we’d already been going.”

School trustee Derek Dabee echoed those sentiments. “We’ve always been mindful and aspiring, now we will be intentional,” Dabee said, listing off the division’s correspondence in English, Punjabi and Tagalog, as well as its Ojibwa and Filipino bilingual programs.

In collaboration with teachers, trustees and school leaders, Chartrand is developing a framework that will hold the administration accountable.

School trustee Derek Dabee says the division's anti-racism goals will be intentional now, instead of just mindful and aspiring. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Her blueprint will require the collection of staff self-identification survey data and the introduction of an employment equity policy and specific equity training. The goal is to create a culture shift in Seven Oaks so students and staff don’t just discourage racism, but actively practise anti-racism.

“It’s about understanding my bias — that’s what anti-racism wants you to do. It wants to deconstruct it and understand your opinion,” she said.

Since June, Chartrand has been researching best practices across the country when it comes to division equity policies, organizing committee meetings and discussions, and purchasing anti-racist books for staff in Seven Oaks.

Among their reading list are American titles How to Be an Antiracist, White Fragility and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Chartrand, the former Indigenous education lead at Seven Oaks, said there have been discussions about reading Canadian authors, including Desmond Cole and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

The aim is to teach staff how to be anti-racist so they can teach students how to be anti-racist and ultimately, kids can take those skills home, said Greg McFarlane, chairman of the school board.

“This is going to make sure we can have this grassroots culture of anti-racism,” said McFarlane, who brought forward the idea of an anti-racist strategy to the division when he decided he could no longer be silent after Floyd’s death.

In the late spring, McFarlane published a statement about his lived experience with anti-Black racism. Now, he wants to encourage other Manitoba divisions to launch anti-racism strategies.

The State of Equity in Education Reports released this fall show the Winnipeg School Division is the only division in Winnipeg with an employment equity policy. Seven Oaks’ division plans, however, indicate it is committed to ensuring its staff reflects its community.

Both O’Leary and Chartrand share the belief that the strategy’s success will rely on individual educators and how they choose to implement it.

The division plans to host a virtual anti-racism town hall with community members in early 2021.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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