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Anti-racism trainer accused of denigrating Toronto principal who died by suicide welcomes review

The Toronto District School Board headquarters at 5050 Yonge Street. Katherine Ward / File / Global News

An anti-racism trainer accused of denigrating a Toronto principal who later died by suicide welcomed a review launched by Ontario’s education minister, saying the allegations against her are false and mischaracterize what happened during two training sessions.

Kike Ojo-Thompson, the founder and CEO of a diversity consultancy group — whose listed clients include major corporations, government ministries and national media organizations — said she would co-operate fully with an investigation launched by Minister Stephen Lecce into 2021 sessions she facilitated for the Toronto District School Board.

“We believe the Ministry of Education is best positioned to investigate this matter to get to the bottom of what transpired at the Toronto District School Board after our workshop concluded over two years ago,” Ojo-Thompson wrote in a blog post on the KOJO Institute website Thursday.

Richard Bilkszto filed a lawsuit against the board in April, claiming the session and its aftermath destroyed his reputation. Bilkszto, who continued to pick up TDSB contracts after his 2019 retirement, claims supervisors did not intervene and later retaliated against him when Ojo-Thompson allegedly implied he was racist and humiliated him in front of colleagues after he disagreed that Canada was more racist than the U.S.

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None of the allegations have been proven in court and TDSB has not responded directly to the allegations. The board released a statement Thursday saying it hired an outside group to lead an investigation into the circumstances around Bilkszto’s death.

Bilkszto’s lawyer confirmed last week he died by suicide on July 13. He was 60.

His case has since garnered international attention and been seized on by a number of prominent right-wing commentators who have sought to roll back diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at Canada’s largest school board.

Experts have cautioned against linking suicide to any single circumstance or event.

Ojo-Thompson called Bilkszto’s death a tragedy and extended condolences to his family. She said she only learned about the lawsuit in June, when she was reached for comment by media outlets.

The incident, she said, had been weaponized to discredit and suppress diversity, equity and inclusion work.

“While the coverage by right-wing media of this controversy is disappointing and led to our organization and team members receiving threats and vitriol online, we will not be deterred from our work in building a better society for everyone.”

The lawsuit indicates Bilkszto pushed back when Ojo-Thompson — citing Canada’s failure to reckon with its anti-Black history, its continued celebration of the monarchy, and her own experience living in the United States — said Black people’s experience of racism in the country was worse than in the U.S. Bilkszto, who mentioned his time as a student teacher in Buffalo, disagreed and made reference to Canada’s access to health-care and public education, according to the lawsuit.

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He said it would be “an incredible disservice to our learners,” to say Canada was just as bad as the U.S., according to the lawsuit. Ojo-Thompson responded, “we are here to talk about anti-Black racism, but you in your whiteness think that you can tell me what’s really going on for Black people?”

The lawsuit indicates Bilkszto maintained Canada was a more just society, while acknowledging its anti-Black racism. Another KOJO Institute consultant then allegedly stepped in and said the session was not a place to be an apologist for either country.

The lawsuit claims Ojo-Thompson brought up the exchange in a followup session a week later as an example of the ways white supremacy is upheld through resistance.

Bilkszto complained to supervisors the exchanges at the training sessions amounted to workplace harassment, according to the lawsuit. He started a sick leave shortly after the training sessions and was diagnosed with anxiety secondary to a workplace event. A Workplace Safety and Insurance Board case manager accepted his claim of work-related stress and granted loss-of-employment benefits covering about seven weeks, finding he was fit to return to work in July 2021, according to a copy of the WSIB decision provided by his lawyer.

Ojo-Thompson says she was never contacted by the WSIB, despite the case manager concluding her conduct amounted to workplace harassment and bullying.

“Neither Toronto District School Board representatives, nor WSIB adjudicators ever contacted any members of the KOJO team about the false claims being made about our work. It is puzzling that a government agency with adjudicating authority would not consult all named parties to a dispute,” she said in the statement.

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After Bilkszto was cleared for work, the lawsuit alleges TDSB “failed or otherwise refused” to reinstate him as principal of an adult learning centre, where he had taught on contract since September 2020, and revoked a separate contract that had been set to start in March.

Reached for comment on Friday, his lawyer Lisa Bildy said she was “not inclined to litigate this case in the media.”

“We have the full recordings of the sessions, which I expect will be released in due course — certainly in the course of the court proceedings, if the family decides to continue with them,” she wrote in an email.

The incident marked a turning point for Bilkszto, according to a statement from his family shared by Bildy last week.

After his experience with the board’s “equity agenda,” the statement says Bilkszto started advocating for a more “equality-focused” approach.

It noted his opposition to TDSB’s recent move to bring in a lottery system, rather than requirements such as test scores or auditions, to admit students to specialized programs and schools in areas such as the arts or athletics. The board says it undertook the change in part to reduce barriers to publicly funded programs and to ensure they reflected the diversity of the city.

Bilkszto also helped found the Toronto chapter of a U.S.-based group that bills itself as a non-partisan civil rights organization that supports a “colour-blindness” approach to race, or what it attempts to recast as “colour-transcendence.” Bildy, a former staff lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms who has been outspoken against DEI training, is a member of its advisory board.

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The group, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, has challenged U.S. universities pursuing affirmative action or race-conscious policies, such as training programs directed at BIPOC teachers.

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