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B.C. school district apologizes for ‘slave day’ and blackface yearbook photos

 A photo of a page in a yearbook from Rosedale Middle School in Chilliwack, B.C., about the "student auction" or "slave day" event.
A photo of a page in a yearbook from Rosedale Middle School in Chilliwack, B.C., about the "student auction" or "slave day" event. Instagram / @BlackVancouver

The school district in Chilliwack, B.C., is apologizing after images of a yearbook surfaced online depicting an event called “Slave Day” and a student in blackface.

On Tuesday, an Instagram account run by the website Black Vancouver shared photos of a yearbook from Rosedale Middle School, open to a page about a “Slave Day” fundraising event in which students were auctioned off to be slaves for a day.

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“Rosedale students could buy slaves at the auction and use them the following school day,” the photo caption in the yearbook read. It also said the event raised $450.

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“Obedient slaves carried books, wrestled, dressed in crazy costumes and committed outrageous stunts to please their masters and the crowd.”

The post has received hundreds of comments, with several people saying similar events happened at their schools.

In a letter published on the school’s website, interim Supt. Rohan Arul-pragasam said the event was just as wrong then as it is today.

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“As a school district, we don’t have all the answers. We make mistakes. And we need to learn from them,” he wrote.

“We take responsibility for that and I unreservedly apologize on behalf of the district for that event.”

Makena Lejeune, who is Black, went to a different school in Chilliwack, but remembers seeing the photos in the Rosedale yearbook.

“I was not surprised — racism in Chilliwack, I’ve experienced it too much,” Lejeune told Global News. “Mostly, I was really disappointed and I felt bad for the people of colour at the school.”

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She said the district’s apology is just a start.

“There needs to be more training from these teachers to learn how to deal with these incidents and that information can be relayed onto students.”

Arul-pragasam also referenced a photo of a student appearing in blackface as part of a mock-trial classroom exercise that appeared in the 2017 yearbook for G.W. Graham Secondary.

“The school bears responsibility for allowing it to happen,” he wrote. “Today we can look back and ask how did we let that happen? But we did, and we need to take responsibility. We do.”

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The principal at G.W. Graham also acknowledged the blackface incident.

“It is unfortunate our actions were not stopped at the classroom level and discussed as a learning opportunity for those involved,” said Chuck Lawson in a second letter in the website post.

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“Our youth are going to make mistakes, and it is the role of the adults to bring concerns forward in a respectful manner. Moving forward, we will strive to do better.”

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Arul-pragasam urged the public to share any other incidents of discrimination that took place in the district.

“I want to hear from the community about them,” he said, “preferably directly instead of through social media, which I find difficult to engage authentically in meaningful dialogue.”