Patti Bacchus: School boards need to go beyond mere Indigenous land acknowledgements

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      A Greater Victoria School Board public committee meeting March 1 was a rude reminder of how far school boards need to go in moving from performative territorial acknowledgements at the start of school board meetings to authentically welcoming First Nations to participate in decision-making.

      That public online meeting started with the chair, Trustee Ryan Painter, taking the Indigenous-territory acknowledgement further than usual, saying it was “super important” to him to “really position ourselves in place and space where we are in terms of whose land we’re occupying and whose land we’ve come from, and I think it’s super important to situate ourselves in that space when we do this work, so just really opening my heart and being very open to that and hope that others are as well.”

      Then Painter noted there were “some new faces” in the Zoom meeting and asked who was there representing two local First Nations: Esquimalt and Songhees. The Esquimalt and Songhees members at the meeting introduced themselves with their titles, including Esquimalt chief councillor Rob Thomas, Esquimalt executive director Katie Hooper, that First Nation’s education coordinator (I didn’t catch the name), Songhees councillor Karen Tunkara, and two other Songhees representatives (I didn’t catch their names either).

      Instead of welcoming them and thanking them for taking the time to join the meeting, Painter responded that “our bylaws are pretty specific around representation at the table and we stick by those pretty strongly”, suggesting only one representative from each nation could be in the Zoom meeting and the others should cede their spaces and watch on YouTube instead.

      In total, Painter cited the board’s bylaws seven times in a meeting that lasted 27 minutes, as if they were some sort of divine direction and not just the board’s made-up rules being used as tools of oppression to maintain colonial power and governance structures. So much for situating oneself with an open heart.

      It was not only rude to treat any guests at a public meeting that way, it was a shockingly disrespectful way to treat leaders from First Nations, who are rightfully asking to participate in decisions about the future of schools that many of their members attend, on their own territories.

      I’m not just picking on the Victoria board and Painter—the same reconciliation facade occurs in other districts as well, where board-crafted rules, policies, procedures, and bylaws are used to uphold and protect power systems that could be considered white supremacist and are designed to maintain orderly meetings by keeping various groups and individuals out of real decision-making.

      Victoria School Board trustee Ryan Painter

      Last month, I wrote about the Vancouver School Board making changes that make it harder for people to speak at their meetings—particularly in light of the board’s review of policing in schools and who can speak at committee meetings about it—and the many barriers they’ve deliberately erected to public participation, all in the name of efficiency.

      Real change is both needed and possible

      Instead of invoking made-up rules and bylaws and using them to gatekeep, school boards should focus on identifying and removing barriers to participation in decision-making, especially when it comes to local First Nations on whose territory the trustees are apparently so grateful and respectful about occupying.

      Trustees like Painter who want us to know how “super important” it is to “situate themselves in that space” and “open their hearts” need to do better than repeatedly citing oppressive bylaws to tell Indigenous people they shouldn’t be in Zoom committee meetings. What difference does it make if there are three representatives present from a nation instead of one? Why make such a scene about it?

      The March 1 Victoria meeting went steadily downhill from there, not surprisingly, but very unfortunately.

      First were the usual technical difficulties many experience during online meetings, which is fair enough, although you’d think a year into this they’d have worked that out. Then there was confusion and argument over approving the meeting agenda and which version of the agenda was the correct one. This seemed to stem from a dispute over a motion Trustee Diane McNally had submitted prior to the meeting, which, apparently, was included on one version but not another. McNally’s motion called for a restart of planning processes for the future of two schools, Craigflower Elementary School and Shoreline Community Middle School, which are both in need of significant work and seismic upgrades.

      The board is considering whether to combine the two schools into one in a new building, upgrade either or both, and make possible changes to their grade configurations.

      I’ve been following this debate because Shoreline was promised a seismic rebuild five years ago, to the point where it had plans in place to relocate students during construction and was packing up for the temporary move—only to have the former B.C. Liberal education minister, Mike Bernier, pull the plug on the project at the last minute. It’s a community that’s been treated shoddily for too long, and I was pleased to see renewed interest in addressing the dangerously poor condition of the schools.

      Both the Esquimalt and Songhees nations are interested in the plans, as many of their members attend these schools. McNally’s motion called for a planning process under the “active and direct guidance” of the Lekwungen (Esquimalt and Songhees) community to create a school that honours their culture, history, and wisdom in its design, vision, goals, and curriculum, given that the process to date has lacked adequate consultation.

      McNally submitted her motion in what she says was a spirit of reconciliation, but Painter ruled it out of order because it called for the board to do things differently than they’re already doing. Well, good grief, if we’re going to make any progress toward the reconciliation to which we’ve committed, school boards are going to have to do a lot of things differently.

      Lekwungen Cultural Twitter

      From that point, the meeting continude to deteriorate, which I didn’t think was possible, with trustees talking over each other and trying to outmanoeuvre each other in a parliamentary-procedure performance you’d expect from a satirical news site, not an elected school board. This got Painter so flustered he started threatening to “name” a trustee, which led to two trustees asking to be named. I don’t even really understand what that means, and I’ve chaired and been to more school board meetings than most.

      Before the Victoria committee could agree on its agenda, the board chair, Jordan Watters (who was present but not chairing), jumped into the debate, suggesting they end the meeting because she didn’t think “trustees are in the mood to have a respectful conversation”. With that, Painter declared the meeting over, with no business getting done and no word on when that might happen. It reminded me of being in a packed station wagon when my dad would threaten to turn the car around and go home if my sisters and I didn’t stop fighting.


      For elected trustees to behave so badly—when several stakeholder representatives, district staff, and Indigenous representatives had taken the time to log into the meeting, prepared to participate in good faith—and then abruptly end the meeting without conducting any business was disgraceful and insulting to those in attendance and, frankly, to everyone in Victoria, by whom the trustees are elected and paid to represent.

      The work that needs doing

      School boards use standing committees to have more informal discussions than regular board meetings allow, with laxer procedural rules. The purpose is to enable and encourage discussion to inform trustees with more points of views and to dig into issues and get feedback and advice from stakeholder groups and the public. Using rules—or board-created bylaws—is necessary to maintain order and fairness, but they shouldn’t be invoked to limit who can speak and to refuse to even consider trustees’ motions, unless absolutely necessary. 

      Victoria School Board chair Jordan Watters

      It’s important that those who are present and representing groups be their groups’ chosen representatives, but that’s up to those groups to determine and for the school board to respect. From there, school boards need to identify barriers to participation, particularly from groups they don’t always hear from. Sometimes that requires a rethink of meeting formats and setting aside old assumptions. A good start is to ask people and groups how they prefer to be engaged. That requires truly open minds, not just proclamations of open hearts, and not saying you want to engage folks and then insulting them when they show up at your public meetings.

      The way forward

      I often watch school board meetings and despair about how seldom the word “student” is heard as adults around the table engage in petty arguments and spend more time fighting about rules of order (which they often get wrong) than on improving teaching and learning conditions and student outcomes. The good news is a lot of great work is going on in Indigenous-education departments in school districts around the province, and many are showing tangible results in terms of increased graduation rates for Indigenous students.

      As more Indigenous educators are hired and move up in school district leadership, along with improvements that have been made to B.C.’s school curriculum, I believe things will continue to improve. What we also need are more Indigenous trustees at board tables, whether that’s through elections or in designated seats, and being clear that First Nations are welcome to participate in all decision-making processes and will be treated respectfully.

      Rattling off a territorial land acknowledgement, however passionately, isn’t enough, and, at worst, it can be hypocritical. It needs to be followed through with a commitment and a willingness to move out of colonial comfort zones protected and reinforced by oppressive rules and bylaws.

      No one said it would be easy, but it will be worth it.

      For those of you getting time off for spring break, enjoy and stay safe! I’ll be taking a couple of weeks to work on preparing my vegetable-garden beds and to look for lost treasure on the beach. See you in April.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.