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Politics front and centre in contentious school board election

Educators are calling the local vote for school board trustees one of the most politically charged they've ever seen as questions of critical race theory and anti-woke activism grip the region's school system
WRDSB meeting
WRDSB meeting

Local educators are calling the upcoming election for school board trustees, “the most important race in the last two decades.”

Over the last few months, the Waterloo Region District School Board has been in the spotlight because of controversial conversations at board meetings about what is and is not being taught in the region's school system.

It has placed Waterloo region at ground zero for a battle over political ideology. 

Jeff Pelich is the president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and thinks we are at a crossroads in Waterloo region when it comes to our school systems and now we have to choose a path to walk down. 

“I can tell you that over the last six months, things have changed dramatically,” said Pelich. “It is essential more than any election in the last decade, municipal, provincial or federal; this is the one and it's taking place in our school boards.”

Since a May 30 school board meeting that had Cambridge trustee Cindy Watson, bring forward a motion for a review of critical race theory(CRT) and white privilege at the WRDSB, political discourse has been injected into the veins of the school system. 

“I'm hearing from parents, they're concerned about principles of CRT, which is very divisive,” said Watson. “It divides children into two categories, the oppressed or the oppressor.”

Watson was unable to provide any specific examples of CRT being taught in schools, but rather she is relaying concerns that parents are having. 

“I'm not saying I understand it fully (CRT), I'm just telling you what I have heard from parents and teachers,” she added. 

WRDSB coordinating superintendent Lila Read confirmed that CRT is not currently taught at schools in the WRDSB except in two secondary level courses, set by the province.

“People who are asking if that's being taught in our elementary classrooms likely don't understand what critical race theory actually even is,” said Pelich. “It's a theoretical framework taught at universities; it's a lens that folks use when approaching a topic or a concept, but it's not something that we would ever teach kindergarten to grade eight students.”

What is taught in WRDSB classrooms are age appropriate concepts related to anti racism, anti homophobia, acceptance and inclusion, said Pelich. 

There has been a growing movement with this upcoming election to promote candidates who hold “anti-woke” ideologies. 

A website called Vote Against Woke features a number of trustees from Waterloo region as a way of endorsing candidates the website creators believe align with the anti-woke side of politics.  

The website describes terms such as 2SLGBTQIA+, AMAB, and BIPOC as “cultish” and “unintelligible” and describes "woke" as a term popularized by "progressive activists who saw themselves as having (metaphorically) awakened to bold new insights about the racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.

It says it's a belief system that "leaves little room for dissent, casting even minor doctrinal disagreements as manifestations of injurious bigotry that must be investigated and punished." 

The site recommends "non-woke candidates" Watson, her Kitchener counterpart Mike Ramsay and Cambridge trustee candidates Bill Cody and Linda Brooks among others from across the province.

According to the website, their goal is to, “Take back the education system from woke activists in the next Ontario School Board Trustee Elections.”

Cambridge trustee for WRDSB Jayne Herring, advises people who are voting in this upcoming election to watch who is endorsing these candidates and be as informed as possible. 

“I think if somebody doesn't have facts to back up what they've been doing and what they're saying, then that should be a question,” said Herring. 

The divide in candidates running in this election is clear, she added. Herring is not seeing the same issues as Watson being raised by teachers or parents. 

“We have seven other trustees who are 'woke' who aren't receiving those calls, either. So, we're very confused by that,” said Herring. 

Herring said the trustees bringing these concerns forward have been asked repeatedly to give names and examples of CRT and these concerns, but have yet to do so. 

“I've never seen it taught in a thousand classrooms I've been in. So what's to be gained by continually saying that when somebody tells you that it's not happening,” asked Herring. 

Pelich and his organization is experiencing a similar trend. They have not received any complaints regarding what is being taught in their classrooms from either school board trustees or parents. 

Pelich said claims of them indoctrinating children is absurd and harmful to the education system. The only thing they teach is the curriculum set out by the Ontario government. 

“It's about being accepting, inclusive and engaging students in critical thinking. We teach the curriculum, that is what we are taught to do, and to teach that curriculum in an age appropriate way,” he said. 

Pelich believes another reason why this election is important is the identity of certain groups of students and faculty members. 

With all of the discourse between groups and trustees on social media, he said he has heard from members that they are afraid about what will happen if certain trustees are elected. 

“They feel as though either their identity won't be respected, or the identity of their students won't be respected,” said Pelich. “ I identify as gay, my partner and I have a son in the system, and I'm afraid about some trustee candidates and the impact that they might have.”

Trustees that are being elected need to be 100 per cent student centred and not be aligned with any political party, said Pelich. 

“We need to think about what is best for our children's education, fostering a safe environment for everyone and to not fill it up with our own politics,'' he added. 

Both trustees say they support the voice of parents and the democratic process of electing members to the board. 

“There is always room for more consultation and I'm just trying to represent all students and all parents,” said Herring. “Elections are decided by people who show up.”