Hundreds of Calgary Catholic School District students walked out of class Thursday morning to draw attention to what they call systemic racism in the education system.
The demonstration comes on the heels of two incidents that surfaced this past week. In one case, a white woman was seen on video using the N-word. On Wednesday, the Calgary chapter of Black Lives Matter said the woman is a Catholic school teacher at Bishop McNally High School who was talking to students when she used the word, something the school board has not confirmed or denied.
It marks the second time in a week a racist incident like this has happened, according to BLM. Four students were suspended from St. Michael School for recording their principal saying the N-word, according to CBC News.
“Using that word from a place of privilege is hate speech,” BLM said. “It is oppression, and the conversation around not saying it has gone on long enough without any consequences for perpetrators.
“This is especially egregious in a school setting with its power dynamics and paternalistic figures and its role in developing and educating our children.”
In an Instagram post, BLM alleges that the woman said the word multiple times in different contexts.
“When will the trauma of racism be more important than protecting white people’s reputations and comfort?” BLM said.
“What will the City of Calgary do to ensure Black children and people are safe to speak of the abuse they face?”
Racism is not new in Calgary, BLM said, but what’s novel is people being reprimanded for posting online about racism — for saying, “I am being harmed.”
“Racialized children have been saying this for as long as they have been here,” BLM said.
“The response they have received has taught them that they do not matter. Children are dying because they are living in a nightmarish cycle of gaslighting and harassment, being told to behave in the face of someone else’s violence when they are not being protected by our institutions.”
‘I’ve never had a Black teacher’
At Thursday’s protest, 16-year-old McArthur Hilton said hearing about the incidents was painful. Hilton said he and other students want to see change within schools and more training for teachers when it comes to race issues.
“It really hurt my heart when I heard that,” Hilton said. “It’s such a derogatory term, and it needs to be stopped by Black people, by all types of people.
“I don’t appreciate that from an older person who is supposed to be an example to us. As students, we’re supposed to look up to the teachers and be doing the right thing. They should not be using that word at all.”
Grade 11 student Audrey Micah also spoke to reporters and said they want to see more diversity in schools.
“I’ve never had a Black teacher. I really never had Black teachers in all my years,” Micah said.
The students were supported by Marion Ashton, executive director of the Sankofa Art and Music Foundation, a Calgary non-profit organization that works with marginalized diverse youth using art as a tool for social change. Ashton said there need to be clearer guidelines for school administration on unacceptable and racist language.
“As a society, we cannot continue to think this is OK. It’s not OK. It’s a new day. They have found their voices, and it is our job to support them — that’s why we’re here today,” Ashton said.
“The white community knows use of that language is not acceptable,” she added. “To be in that position, as an educator — to use that word to our children — it’s not OK. We need clear standards around the use of language.”
Ashton said there needs to be more research about Black students’ experience in the school system.
The night before the walkout, she added that the event was not meant to be a protest but rather an opportunity for students to voice their concerns and have conversations about race in schools.
“It beautiful to watch them take charge and bring awareness to challenges that they are facing in the school system,” Ashton said on Wednesday.
She said she wants the education minister and school boards to take ownership for their roles in these harmful incidents.
“We have seen too many of these videos,” Ashton said, adding that she is fed up with the misunderstandings and the miseducation of Black Canadian youth in the “trauma zone” — what she calls school.
Authority figures using the N-word is irresponsible and completely disregards the experience of Black children, Ashton said, explaining she is disgusted that adults don’t know the impact of their words.
In a statement, Calgary Catholic School District chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas said the board is aware of the student demonstrations that took place across Calgary on Thursday, and “they hear the voices” of their students.
“There is work to be done in our district on systemic racism,” he said. “In consultation with stakeholders, we will work on professional development for all our staff and on information for our families.
“Each and every one of us has a role to play in the fight against racism.”
On Wednesday, Szumlas said he couldn’t discuss specific situations due to privacy concerns but did make a statement.
“We apologize and our hearts go out to any student or staff member ever impacted by systemic racism,” the statement read. “We take every situation seriously and will investigate each individually to ensure a positive outcome that aligns with our faith.
“We will continue our work in education around racial justice and are looking at ways for students to feel safe in reporting any instances of racism, bullying, harassment and discrimination.”
The students marched to Calgary Police Service headquarters where they raised similar race issues with members of the police force.
“I think the message they were trying to get across was based on current events with the school board and the use of the N-word. I think their conversation was about systemic racism,” said Craig Collins, a senior constable with the CPS’ Hate Crimes Unit.
“I think the service and the chief has been very vocal in their responses to the community. There’s an issue and it’s being dealt with at the highest level.
“I find it quite powerful that this great big group turns out and asks to speak to me to confirm we are taking it seriously.”