The purpose of this article is not to question the existence of systemic racism in our institutions. Time and again it has been shown to exist. How to deal with it is still open for discussion, but that is not the topic for today. This article’s sole purpose is to address the narrow issue of whether Hamilton Wentworth District School Board Trustee Becky Buck has been fairly treated in the aftermath of allegations of racism against her, and calls for her to be removed as deputy Chair of the board—a position to which she was elected in December.
The accusation of racism at HWDSB
In August of 2020, the HWDSB was rocked, when a former student trustee who had just graduated from Westmount posted tweets that accused trustees of racism. The most serious of these was that a trustee had used the “n” word in a discussion about Serena Williams. She went on to cite other racist incidents, White Trustee claiming that there is “too much Black leadership” in our extremely anti-Black school board. White Trustee claiming that Arabs/Muslims are evil & that we shouldn’t waste our time/breath discussing such hopeless people. White Trustees/Staff consistently encouraging me (a Brown female) to operate more like my co-Student -Trustee (a white male). White Trustee shaming me (a brown girl) for not wearing a Christmas sweater to a Board meeting.- Being silenced, lectured, called aggressive & told to trust the expertise of white Staff when wanting to discuss an anti-oppressive/anti-racist lens for the Safe Schools Panel.”In a subsequent independent third-party investigation of the charges, none of the above allegations were found to have involved Buck. The “n” word incident, which arguably breathed life into the whole investigation could not be substantiated by the investigator at all, and the other examples were mostly substantiated– but were attributed to other trustees—not Buck.
Findings against Buck
Instead, Buck was found to have made two statements that in the opinion of the fact-finder were racist. The first was in 2019, when during a discussion on whether to create a designated indigenous student trustee position, Buck argued that it would be unfair to create a special position for one group and not for other marginalized groups.
The second incident was Buick’s use of the term “twitter trolls” to describe some of the abusive tweets and email messages she and other trustees were receiving regarding a debate over eliminating the police liaison program that saw 11 officers of the Hamilton Police Service make regular visits to schools.
Timeline leading to the crucial vote
To best understand the second instance, a bit of a timeline is needed. The debate that led to the termination of the police liaison program took place in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd murder.
- Floyd’s death took place on May 25th. Immediately Black Live Matter demonstrations took place in cities across the United States.
- A week later the first BLM rally took place in Hamilton.
- On June 4, a coalition of Black and racialized activists called on the city’s leadership to defund the Hamilton Police Service for what they say is “state sanctioned” anti-Black racism. The demonstrators live-streamed from outside HWDSB office calling on the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to remove school resource officers – constables assigned to work at high schools – and to fund a “public review of police violence that occurred in their schools.”
- As the pressure built, on June 8 HWDSB Board Chair Alex Johnstone and Education Director Manny Figueirdo issued a statement reading, “We are outraged by the acts of anti-Black racism and violence that led to the recent deaths of members of the Black community in the United States and Canada,” The deaths of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet remind us again of the ongoing, systemic injustice, inequality and violence that target Black communities.” Regis Korchinski-Paquet was a Toronto woman suffering from a mental health episode who apparently jumped from an apartment balcony after police had been called by family to intervene. Immediately afterwards police were blamed for her suicide but the SIU investigation later cleared police of wrongdoing.
- Adding to the anti-police sentiment in Hamilton, an independent review into homophobic violence at the 2019 Pride celebrations in Gage Park was released that concluded the Hamilton police should apologize for an “inadequate” effort that left attendees and the public unprotected.
- June 8. At an emotional meeting HWDSB, on a motion by Trustee Maria Felix-Miller, voted to review the school police liaison program. A motion to suspend the program while the review is underway was defeated. Buck was one of seven trustees who voted against the amendment. The matter was to be finalized at a board meeting June 22 when an update on the board’s Equity Action Plan would be presented.
- In the next days, the letters to the editor pages are filled with calls to defund police. With the decision looming about a review of the police liaison program in Hamilton schools, HWDSB trustees begin to be deluged with social media messages calling for the cancellation of the program. Some of the messages are threatening and personally abusive.
- June 12. thousands marched in a rally in support of black organizations in the city calling “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
- June 13. Two protests – one beginning at Dundurn Park, the other at Gore Park – eventually converged in front of city hall forecourt with raised fists and Black Lives Matter signs.
- June 18 Hamilton Councillors, Maureen Wilson and Nrinder Nann join calls to cut the police budget. “Today, we’re here at the request of thousands of residents that we serve to add our support to the call to defund the police and prioritize investing in community safety and in well-being,” Nrinder Nann said. “Hamiltonians have heard the call and are responding,” Wilson said, referring to a nearly 4,000-name petition calling on council to “defund” police.
- June 22, the day of the vote on removing police liaison program from schools: Kojo Damptey and a racialized student Group, the HWDSB Kids Need Help Coalition published a letter calling for the police to be removed from all schools, and the removal of Mac security chief Glenn De Caire. Of the HWDSB they write, “When many teachers and staff within the school system are faced with addressing issues of racism, they focus on white guilt and white fragility. It is unfair for racialized students to carry the labour of educating teachers, staff and administration on how to address racism within the school system.”
- That evening, as the debate and vote on the police liaison issue were taking place at HWDSB, more than 100 protesters chanting “Black lives, they matter here” shut down the intersection of Main and Bay Streets. As they engaged in the sit-in, they were joined by HWDSB trustee Cam Galindo who joined the Board meeting remotely with his phone. Later the crowd cheered after listening to the school board vote to end the police liaison program.
Becky Buck explains her position
Three trustees voted against the removal of the Police Liaison Program—Buck, Kathy Archer and Carole Paikin-Miller. In the debate, Becky Buck explained her position.
A man was tragically and brutally killed at the hands of a police officer. This moment in American history became the catalyst for calls for change across our land as well as America. Canadians have been compelled to look deeply into systems which govern us and ask if all Canadians are equally protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Every level of government and this is true all of the time has the duty to ensure that the rights and freedoms of all who are in their care are being met regardless of the race, their national origin, the colour of their skin, the religion that they practice or the sex that they proclaim.
We have the opportunity right now to discuss real, substantive change…at this crucial moment in history we are being pressured to sever ties with those employed to be our protectors…Reducing this partnership would be to our detriment I believe and can’t lead to meaningful solutions to the issues that have been brought up.
Buck went on to say that she had consulted widely with her constituents on the matter as well as board staff.
The feedback I have received has been overwhelmingly supportive of the work that Hamilton Police do in our schools. Staff at both the elementary and secondary level have shared stories about how liaison officers have gone above and beyond to build relationships with students and with staff.
She described the hundreds of form letters, tweets and emails that had been flowing in to her and other trustees—a good number of which were from out of town and even out of country.
Buck told the Bay Observer that she was open to reforming the police liaison program. She specifically referred to the fact that sometimes the same officers engaged in the liaison program were called on to address incidents needing police response. She thought that was a problem that needed addressing. But she added there were areas where she thought the program continued to be valuable, specifically in combatting cyber-bullying and equipping young people to recognize the dangers of human trafficking.
Back to the meeting, when it was time to vote on the issue, in a departure from normal rules of order, trustees were allowed to make further comments as they cast their votes. As she voted against cancelling the police program, Buck commented, I just want to remind trustees that, where the public can get caught up in the emotions of the situation, we do need to think rationally and logically about future consequences when we make moves like this. When we make any move, and consider how the decision will impact not just students today, but students in the future and what this could mean. I’ll let the twitter trolls have that one. (It need be noted here that because of COVID, the meeting was being livestreamed remotely, and hundreds of real-time tweets from the public were scrolling up on trustees screens throughout the meeting.
Investigation into racism allegations
That was June 2020. Two Months later, graduating student trustee, Ahona Mehdi issued her accusation of widespread racism on the board and the outside investigator was called in. The report was completed in December 2020 and released to the public in February 2021. Among other findings the report found that the three trustees who voted against the police liaison program had made racist statements.
On the issue of the use of the term ‘twitter trolls” the investigator seemed to suggest that there was a distinction between calling local activists posting abusive tweets “twitter trolls,” as opposed to people further afield. Despite Buck’s insistence that the term was directed at no particular group, the investigator wrote, “The Investigator finds that Trustee 2 used the term “Twitter trolls” in reference to community advocates.” She did not explain the distinction between tweets coming from community, as opposed to non-community activists; but apparently felt that abusive tweets from the community required a higher threshold of tolerance. Nor did she explain on what basis she possibly could conclude who was being referred to by Buck. Despite what arguably might be viewed as justifiable pushback, Buck nonetheless, said the use of the term ‘twitter trolls’ was unprofessional, apologized, and agreed to participate in sensitivity training, which she later said was helpful.
That leaves the issue of Buck voting in 2019 against the creation of a category of student trustee specifically for indigenous students, arguing it was unfair to other minorities. In that case the investigator seemed more intent on determining which trustees allegedly thanked Buck for making the statement, than to explaining why or if, Buck, in arguing against prioritizing one minority above another, had made a racist statement. In the light of truth and reconciliation efforts, one could well disagree with Buck’s position and argue that generations of institutional abuse require some prioritization, but can Buck’s intent of supporting other racial minorities be considered racist?
Letters supporting Buck have appeared on the HWDSB agenda for January 17, calling for apologies to the trustee. When she ran as a rookie trustee in 2018 she garnered more than 6,000 votes, easily outdistancing four other candidates and capturing 61 percent of the vote. Trustees who voted for Becky Buck as vice chair describe her as one of the hardest-working trustees. She is a member of 10 committees—a workload comparable to that of a city councillor earning nearly eight times a trustee’s stipend. When asked to comment on her experience in this situation in an earlier Bay Observer story, Becky Buck noted “It’s scary that in this social media era everything you say is analyzed and pulled apart. That if you have a position others disagree with—you are (considered) a hate -filled person. But it’s part of being in public office.” She then remarked that “hate doesn’t drive out hate”—a comment that, when published, triggered online criticism for her use of a Martin Luther King quote.