Edmonton’s school board diversity a disappointment to those who followed issues of racism in schools

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A year after issues of racism and discrimination in Edmonton schools were thrust under the microscope, some voters are disappointed Edmontonians didn’t choose more school trustees of colour.

“What I was hoping to see was that we would be seeing a more diversified board of trustees. But it didn’t happen the way we thought it would,” said Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton.

At least 14 people who are visible minorities ran for public school trustee, out of a pool of 40 candidates. Two were elected, including Nathan Ip, who will serve his third term on the board, representing Ward H in southwest Edmonton.

Saadiq Sumar will become a first-time trustee in southeast Edmonton’s Ward G when board members take the oath of office Tuesday.

His predecessor, Bridget Stirling, called for the school division to review its school resource officer program in June 2020. The program saw city police officers stationed in 19 public schools.

While the former board debated the issue, then-Ward A trustee Cheryl Johner made a racist remark, implying refugees were violent. She resigned from the board the next day.

In April, a 14-year-old Black student at Rosslyn School was the victim of a video-recorded beating by students who were calling him racial slurs. The school is in Ward A in north Edmonton.

Edmonton’s Catholic School board also came under scrutiny in 2019 when a school staff member questioned if an 11-year-old boy wearing a do-rag head scarf was affiliated with a gang.

It was these incidents, and other lesser-known ones, that prompted Belen Samuel to run for trustee in Ward A, she says.

The community organizer came in second place, with school principal Sherri O’Keefe winning the seat.

Born in Zimbabwe with Eritrean roots, Samuel was a refugee who moved to Edmonton in junior high.

“It’s important that students see someone who looks like themselves, has similar experiences as themselves,” she said.

More than a third of Edmontonians identified as a visible minority in the last national census in 2016. The largest cultural groups in the city were South Asian, Chinese, Black and Filipino.

A newly updated anti-racism and equity policy is an important step for the public school board, Samuel said, but they must act upon it.

Ward A trustee-elect O’Keefe was unavailable for an interview, but said in an email she is aware of concerns about racism in division schools and wants to support work to tackle it.

Trustee-elect Sumar said a lack of diversity on the board was one of his main motives for running. Becoming a new dad, and concerns about the provincial government’s approach to public services were the others.

He said it was frustrating to see Black candidates for both trustee and city council unsuccessful in the election.

“It does raise some really important questions,” he said. “What are we doing wrong? What can we do to elevate those voices?”

Creating more welcoming schools could mean reviewing the division calendar to make more allowances for major Sikh or Islamic holidays, he said.

They also need a permanent alternative to police in schools that supports, not penalizes students, he said.

After suspending the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in September 2020, the division now uses a “school safety coach” model in five schools.

Sixteen months after the board asked administrators to review the SRO program, that work has yet to begin. The division has issued two calls for proposals and is in the process of choosing a contractor, spokesperson Carrie Rosa said.

Edmonton Catholic Schools still have 12 police officers working in 15 schools.

Translating ballots into representatives

Trisha Estabrooks, the public board’s chair who was re-elected in Ward D, said she was encouraged by how many diverse candidates ran.

She doesn’t know why that didn’t translate into elected representatives, but says getting more folks onto the ballot is a start.

A pledge to be the first Alberta school board to collect race-based data on students, and efforts to recruit more diverse school staff are commitments the board must follow through on, she said.

Ibrahim said his organization will work with whoever is elected. He wonders if vote splitting between candidates was a factor in some wards. The financial barriers of paying for advertising and campaign events are also substantial, he said.

“I think it would be really nice to have people of various backgrounds at the table, because of the experience that they bring to the table.”

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