By Jamie Smallboy/Nohtikwew pisim, Kyla Epstein, and Krista Sigurdson
Symbolism is no substitute for genuine transformative change. At the tables of power, we believe these should be words to live by.
From what we’ve observed around the Vancouver School Board table, an elected body still striving to live up to its stated commitments, there is a gulf—one that often occurs in political decision-making—between rhetoric and action.
In recent years at the school board, land acknowledgments, and talk of meeting reconciliation “goal posts” have become commonplace. These gestures matter—as long as they are joined by actions. The problem arises when nice-sounding words obscure inaction on issues that impact marginalized students.
As recent calls for racial justice remind us, opportunities and outcomes are not created equal. Due to the cumulative effects of unjust policies that favour certain students and decisions that perpetrate systems of inequality, others are left at the sidelines, excluded from reaping the rewards of what should be the great equalizer: public education.
Some trustees have given short shrift to decisions meant to remedy racial injustice in education instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue and making decisions that would have lasting effects for students, especially those who face multiple barriers. They continue to say "this is not the time." For the sake of every student who has experienced injustice, this way of governing cannot continue.
Over the past two years, we have repeatedly witnessed motions intended to reaffirm commitments to meaningful reconciliation and racial justice get shelved:
We saw it when Trustee Jennifer Reddy's motion to consult with the Squamish Nation on land-use issues was removed from the agenda, deferred, and then—due to time passing and the project already being submitted to the province—became impotent; squandering another opportunity for meaningful action by the board.
We saw it during a discussion of the land and asset strategy when the board was called upon to comply with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action; the motion was referred and deemed not urgent.
We saw it when a call was made to link the board’s reconciliation priorities to the TRC Calls to Action; a majority voted against the motion. We saw it in the dismissal of an antiracism training motion for all district staff when the deadline for accomplishing the goal got extended to over a year from when the motion was introduced.
And yet, the board has the capacity to act swiftly when it wants to. Compounding existing barriers to participation (e.g. requiring requests to speak three business days in advance, delegation screening, and having to provide materials in advance), further changes were made to limit democracy. One change brought forward by the NPA, passing within minutes at the board’s October 26th meeting, was the reduction of time for members of the public to speak at meetings by half and restrictions on issues permitted to be discussed.
These swift changes show how, in addition to neglecting concerns about racial justice, this board repeatedly attempts to shut down public input by creating multiple barriers for trustees to hear from delegations about experiences of racism and calls for change. These may seem like mundane bureaucratic regulations but, especially when an agenda is only shared three days in advance, these are effective barriers to participation.
Narrowing the opportunity for public input is the opposite of good governance and takes us further away from transparent, accessible, and equitable processes. These changes create multiple barriers for stakeholders, particularly racialized and marginalized communities, and do not address systemic barriers nor stand up for the rights of young people. During this devastating pandemic, that has widened socioeconomic and racial disparities. Now is the time to call upon those governing public education to redouble their commitments to systemic change.
We need to hear from a broader range of children, families, and educators toward a more just vision of public education. We need processes that effectively engage and seek input. We need to prioritize decisions that will improve the lives of students marginalized by unfair systems. At the VSB table, vocal debate and dialogue—hallmarks of representative democracy—are often seen by some trustees as attacks on the board, instead of opportunities to inform and improve decision-making.
The way forward is to live up to land acknowledgments and our stated commitments to equity and racial justice. Trustees elected to defend the rights of students to access a thriving education must not let them down.