Winnipeg Catholic school releases racism review, but former student questions commitment to change

By | September 13, 2020

A Winnipeg Catholic school has released findings from a review on racism at the school, along with an action plan, but a former student and an anti-racism expert have doubts about whether the plan will truly bring systemic change.

St. Boniface Diocesan High School hired a consultant in June to conduct a review of racism and bullying at the school, after students took to social media to tell their stories and a former student related her experience to CBC News.

“It is fair to say the board of directors of St. Boniface Diocesan High School are saddened and surprised by the research and results of the review,” board chair Larry Wandowich said in a letter to parents this week.

“We know we are just at the beginning of a powerful conversation, on a path of listening and learning — together.”

Roughly 540 students, parents and school staff were twice invited to participate confidentially in the review, said school principal Jaime Siska. That included a mix of white people and people of colour, she said.

Only 27 people volunteered to be interviewed, though, according to the review’s executive summary.

Wapastim Harper, a young Indigenous man who attended the school for four years before graduating in June, was among those who declined to participate.

His experience dealing with the school’s administration about racism led him to believe that the review was more about saving face than stopping racism rooted within the school, he said.

“Since Day 1, [there has] been, almost every month, a racial issue,” he said.

What are they actually going to do? Because that’s where the rubber meets the road.– U of M professor Joe Curnow

Harper says he was bullied, threatened, and endured many micro-aggressions from teachers and students at the school.

During the 2017-18 school year, Harper and his classmates were asked to create a video about truth and reconciliation in Canada, which he says he saw as an opportunity to show that there are problems at the school, and he could be part of the solution.

In the video, which Harper showed to CBC, he says the Catholic school failed to recognize Indigenous peoples’ right to their spirituality, customs or ceremonies, and said there was discrimination rooted in the school.

But after seeing the video, he says a teacher told him he was wasting his time.

“‘Our school is perfect,'” Harper recalls the teacher saying. “‘There’s nothing for you to do. It’s just a waste of time for you to even try.'”

Wapastim Harper, who attended St. Boniface Diocesan High School for four years, said he was shut him out from discussions about anti-racism and diversity when he contradicted the school’s view. (CBC)

The video was circulated to staff, but Harper said there was no response until a staff member approached him privately, saying the administration had threatened repercussions against any staff who watched or spoke about the video.

“I was hurt.”

Harper reported multiple racist incidents to staff during his time there, but the school suffers from “institutionalized amnesia,” he said, absolving itself from racism by victim-blaming or arguing the problem was limited to a few students.

Principal Siska told CBC News she was unavailable for a phone interview but would answer questions by email.

When asked about the charge of “institutionalized amnesia” at St. Boniface Diocesan, Siska confirmed that the school received complaints of “racially based bullying” from a student in the fall of 2017 and early 2018.

“We recognized that we needed to listen and learn more deeply which is why we commissioned Dr. Edmund to conduct the review this summer,” she wrote, referring to Dr. Lois Edmund, the conflict mediator and clinical psychologist who was hired to complete the review.

Edmund declined to be interviewed for this story.

‘Some students were not safe’

Her review found that “intimidating behaviour patterns” stemmed from “a very few number of students,” and that the harassment revolved around race, gender, sexual identification or parental status.

The aggression was not “widespread, but was experienced repeatedly,” said the review’s executive summary, which was sent out this week.

“Some students were not safe; some students were significantly hurt by it; a few families left the school,” the summary says.

The review only looked at student interactions. Siska said that was because other mechanisms, such as internal administrative reviews and union grievances, deal with staff members.


Aggressors were typically disciplined privately, the review says, adding that “few people observed any assertive consequence” and most parents were never notified about incidents.

The review says “assertive measures” must be taken, and future incidents must be dealt with “decisively” and “with formative correction.” Victims must be acknowledged and protected, it says, recommending that trauma-informed counselling be offered “either through the school or initiated by the parents.”

The school’s board of directors also sent out an “early action plan,” listing broad goals in areas such as policies and practices, training and hiring. The goals include launching “a holistic review of school policies including progressive discipline, communication practices, safety and respect of students … based on the concerning findings of Dr. Edmund’s report.”

Red flags in summary, action plan

There are several red flags in both documents, says Joe Curnow, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba whose research focuses on anti-racism and systemic social problems.

The language is vague, and doesn’t explicitly say what the problem is, or identify specific enough actions, she said.

“That’s a red flag in terms of not naming white supremacy and settler colonialism as the problem that they’re trying to address,” said Curnow.

“What are they actually going to do? Because that’s where the rubber meets the road.”

Joe Curnow, shown here in a February 2020 file photo, says schools need to assume racism is rooted in policies, curriculum and employees in order to effectively work to address it. (Gary Soliak/CBC)

The fact allegations of racism at the school were addressed strictly as bullying, and that only a few individuals were found to be at fault are also problems, she said.

“When schools and organizations treat racist incidents as isolated, as highly individual… then they tend not to take the structural, long-term approaches to changing systems that are really required.”

Schools that are successful at addressing institutionalized racism assume that it is rooted in policies, curriculum and employees, said Curnow.

That approach takes longer, but is something St. Boniface Diocesan will need to do if it wants to properly rid itself of institutionalized racism, she said.

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