In the long and arduous battle for equality and social justice there comes a time where the community must come together, unify their collective voices, and stand firm for the betterment of our society and the prosperity of future generations.
In a special four-hour board meeting on Monday, June 29 2020 the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and its Trustees took the very important and necessary first step towards regaining public trust by echoing the sentiments of the communities they were rightfully elected to serve and represent.
It’s been over three months since BasketballBuzz first broke the story of Ottawa School Board Trustee Donna Blackburn bullying and racially profiling Ottawa basketball player Styles Lepage at Neill Nesbitt Park in Barrhaven on Friday, March 27rd, 2020.
Ninety-five days, three agonizing months later amidst the loudest global uproar demanding for the end of systematic racism, the Lepage family can finally begin to reconcile and openly talk about the nightmare ordeal that plagued their family and many others affected by unwarranted and blatant racism by everyday citizens, who feel the right to overstep their obfuscated privileged boundaries.
“My kid is much more racially aware than he was before. That wasn’t necessarily the answer I would’ve given you months ago, but that’s the truth. Definitely racially aware.” Lepage’s father, Matthew Kedroe spoke about the effects, inequalities and obstacles that await their youngest child in his path of simply being a black member of his Canadian community.
Unanimous vote for censure, severe sanctions and immediate resignation
Nine of the twelve Trustees agreed that Blackburn breached multiple school board code of conduct protocols — including fiduciary expectations for civil behavior, exploitation of privilege and the privilege of elected office.
The Board expressed “deep concern” and labelled Blackburn’s actions as “shaming, racist, and an abuse of privilege” in the official press release with all Trustees requesting for immediate resignation.
Additionally, the OCDSB called Blackburn’s behavior “disrespectful to the individuals directly involved, disrespectful to the Black community as a whole, and which used language which is known to be offensive and more specifically engaged in an act of anti-Black racism”.
“I find it devastating, I found the last few months unbearable with what we have gone through as fellow Trustees. The e-mails that we have received from the public that extends well beyond the Black community, calling us out for bad behavior, calling us racists, calling us everything under the sun because of the behavior of one person on this board.” shared an emotional Zone 4/Bay Ward 7 Trustee Wendy Hough during her support for sanctions.
“I am angry that I’m spending this evening of my life dealing with this. This is time I will never get back.” added Hough.
Kanata North/ Kanata South trustee Christine Boothby who back in 2017 filled complaints against Blackburn, for “publicly belligerently berating” a volunteer chair during a special meeting also brought fourth the current allegations and initiated the complaint that forced the third-party investigation.
“This has been a terrible stain on the OCDSB, we are not a group of people that carry out this kind of behavior. Trustee Blackburn is not a first-term trustee who doesn’t understand what the role of a trustee is or doesn’t understand when she’s over-stepping what the role of what a trustee is, this is her third-term.” concluded Boothby in her closing remarks.
$50,000 Tax paying Investigator’s Report
Independent lawyer Zaheer Lakhani from Oakville, Ontario was retained by the Board to conduct an investigation into the allegations in accordance to the events that transpired between Blackburn and Lepage.
Although Mr. Lakhani did his best to provide a detailed and thorough report to present factual findings and evidence on how he arrived at his conclusion, there were clear gaps in the publicly funded report that cost tax-payers an unnecessary $50,000 dollars and consumed over a hundred hours of OCDSB staff time.
According to Matthew Kedroe, “The way he handled this whole investigation, was very one-sided. I received a notice of libel which prevents me from really being able to speak on this issue freely.”
“Whereas, he accepted all sorts of information by way of credibility for Donna Blackburn. Susan Carkner spoke on her behalf, the Iman spoke on her behalf. There was zero input from anybody else who might know Styles Lepage and be able to give him a character reference.” continued Matthew Kedroe.
Mr. Lakhani admitted during the video debrief of his facts that, “In the end, unfortunately on the bounds of probability, some of the disputed factors I did align with Trustee Blackburn more so, because of her adverse admissions and because of the fact that she had witnesses that seem to corroborate the events that she expressed.”
“The call to the Iman, the call to Susan Carkner and what they provided in terms of the evidence did seem to line-up very much with what Trustee Blackburn advised. And on top of it all, unfortunately, as much as I don’t dispute the fact that SL is not motivated to lie or would want to lie in a situation like this and I could go on and on about the fact of what stake in the game did he have.”
Several of the Trustees questioned Mr. Lakhani’s interpretation of Lepage’s credibility in the report including the fact that by asking Lepage to provide the investigator with who he thinks is relevant to this event, could easily be misinterpreted as soley a request to provide eyewitnesses, specifically when dealing with e-mail communication as pointed out by Trustee Wendy Hough.
“I just did want to point out that the interpretation of please provide me with the names of people who I should speak to could well be interpreted as being in referenced to people who could speak to the particulars of the incident that happened as opposed to his character.”
Furthermore, when asked by Trustee Sandra Schwartz on whether Donna Blackburn’s posting of a minor’s image to social media constituted as a breach of privacy, Mr. Lakhani “simply concluded that it was the wrong thing to do.”
Additionally, when pressed further Mr. Lakhani seemed to dismiss Lepage’s testimony simply because it was provided in a written format.
“In Style Lepage’s testimony or in the reply that you received there was an indication that he felt his personal privacy was breached, furthermore he also felt discriminated against, singled out and he felt shamed. Is that an actually depiction of what he provided.?” asked Trustee Sandra Schwartz.
“The unfortunate reality of that statement was it was in written form, it would have been of great benefit to me to have heard those statements in person and seeing the reaction of the person expressing those statements. In fact, those exact words were that I asked for clarification from, when I sent back to SL’s council or SL through his council as to what I would like clarification on, and I brought up specifically those, that exact phrase, phraseology to find out were those his own words and some clarification on it, and all I received back was confirmation that those were in fact his words. But again, words like that in terms of someone telling you that this is how it impacted them is something where you really rather have met with them to see how it impacted them.” responded Lakhani.
Rideau-Rockcliffe/Alta Vista Trustee Chris Ellis expressed similar sentiments with the report and its facts, going as far as recusing himself and leaving the meeting directly following Mr. Lahkani’s overview of the investigation.
“I’m blown away at what a sham this whole process is. From the beginning to the end. There’s serious racism issues here and we’re being precluded from discussing them.”
The report also mentioned that Donna Blackburn “confirmed that she has, since this incident, engaged in training related to racial sensitivity” — but failed to mention the training provider and organization.
Racism or Racially insensitive
Systemic change requires tough conversations and being truthful about what is racism and what is not. Avoiding the conversation and coming up with politically correct names or calling the shameful behavior by Donna Blackburn tone-deaf is by no means the correct approach to move the dialogue forward and gain credibility.
“Zaheer skirted around the word racism, he wouldn’t use it, he kept saying racially insensitive, and I’m glad Justine Bell called it for what it was.” continued Lepage’s father.
Mr. Lakhani’s investigative report failed to condemn Donna Blackburn’s behavior as an act of anti-Black racism, instead the third-party lawyer opted for softer language and a term that is not officially included in the dictionary.
Trustee Justine Bell, pushed forward a motion to amend the language used in the official sanctions from “racial insensitive” to engaged in an act of “anti-Black racism”, a move agreed and supported by all present Trustees.
Support from the local community
Kedroe expressed thanks, “The community has been pretty awesome. I truly have to give a lot of respect to Ottawa and the people. It starts with Robin Brown, Richard Sharpe, Ewart Walters, Said Arwo and many more, there is so many to list. But those were some that were there everyday.”
Furthermore, nearly 5000 community members from across Canada have signed a petition to have Donna Blackburn removed from a position she’s clearly not qualified for and no longer holds the vote of trust of her peers and the community.
“If she is still working at the school board the family should sue Donna and the school board in Civil court.” commented Terry Shilton from Victoria, British Columbia.
“Donna Blackburn needs to be removed as a school board trustee for Anti-black racism against a minor.” added Min Kaur from Toronto, Ontario.
Lack of sincere apology
“She never really apologized to the youth publicly. In her public statement she regrets only in the matter in which she delivered the admonishment on the night she posted the youths’ face on social media.” openly discussed Orleans-Cumberland Trustee Keith Penny who also holds the title of Vice-Chair of the Board.
“She could’ve apologized well before May 14th and well before seeking the advise of a lawyer. It doesn’t take a lawyer to say you’re sorry.” continued Penny.
Those same sentiments were also shared by Lepage’s father, Matthew Kedroe shortly after the conclusion of the meeting.
“Realistically, this lady (Donna Blackburn) could’ve just said sorry. Sorry about that, you know what! I made a mistake, I’m sorry sir, done!”
“She needs to be removed and fired, the apology was not authentic. This will not be tolerated any longer.’ expressed petition signee Renee Banks.
Changes to Education Act
Despite imposing the harshest sanctions, the Ontario Education Act prevents the OCDSB from removing Donna Blackburn from her position as a Ottawa Trustee.
The notion that Donna Blackburn, a repeat anti-Black racism offender can be back in a public role after just six months is not only extremely disrespectful to the Lepage family and dangerous for the community, but it also speaks volumes about the required systematic change that needs to push the agenda forward in the drive for equal education for all children.
“We know that systemic racism is real. The fact that we don’t have the ability to ask someone who has committed and act of racism to step down is in fact upholding the systemic racism that we seek to dismantle.”
Trustee Justine Bell proudly expressed her concerns with the lack of necessary options available to the Board for removing a person who not only committed an act of anti-Black racism, violated the privacy of a minor in her trusted community, but also compromised the integrity of her colleagues, the School Board and the overall trust in the Canadian education system.
Minister of Education Calls for Donna Blackburn to resign
On Wednesday, July 8th, 2020, nine days after the special board meeting Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce publicly called for Donna Blackburn’s resignation during a live session at Legislative Assembly of Ontario.
“I too I’m disturbed by the comments of that Trustee in question and I’ve spoken very close to the member from Nepean, the Minister of Heritage, Sports, Tourism and Culture industries and like her I shared deep concern related to the comments and the impact those comments and words have on this young mans life.”
“I’ve spoken to the father of this young man and it’s so obvious that they expect better, and accountability and justice for this type of bad judgement demonstrated by Trustee Blackburn and as stated by members of the community it was shameful, it was racist, it was abuse of her privilege. It is clear that this Trustee must do the right thing and step down.