Black-focused students, not Black-focused inmates


Hell on Earth is what it took for Toronto’s Black community to enlighten provincial and municipal politicians into effecting in Ontario, for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth, civilian control of policing: Ontario’s SIU – the Special Investigative Unit.

However, by comparison, it took more than mere Hell on Earth to finally get a majority of trustees in an Ontario school board to support a grade-level Afri-centered alternative school.

Consider the year when civilian control of the police finally came to fruition – 1990. And the year, two decades later, when the Afri-centered school did – 2010!

The struggle to stem the failure rates of Black students in Ontario schools run decades farther back than had the more recent heightening of public consciousness against police profiling that had led to the deaths of several Black men and youth in Toronto.

In addition, those involved in the struggle for civilian control are generally well known. By comparison, most of those who struggled since the mid-sixties against the low-level streaming of Black students are less known and many, for example, Ed Clarke, Danny Brathwaite, Marlene Greene etc., are not only dead but also mostly forgotten. Those still alive (an assumption here), and likewise also unknown, include stalwarts like Enid Lee, Dr. Odida Quamina, Karen Brathwaite, Hilroy Thomas – luminaries among the brains in developing policy, building organization and operations between the 1970s and the 1990s.

Those stalwarts who brought it current are also praiseworthy. Probably as yet unborn when these others had undertaken to run this marathon, for their present efforts they are both to be honoured by, and to honour, the community for having the courage, stamina and aplomb to run the baton into the stadium and on to the podium.

Also, while at the provincial level most politicians supported implementing the SIU, to date none – including Black MPPs, current and past – has openly supported the school. Many, by comparison, including the current premier and his Minister of Education are publicly disdainful.

Again, in comparison with political attitudes to the SIU, in the weeks leading up to the provincial decision to bring it into fruition, the then premier, David Peterson, held extensive roundtable meetings with community representatives, lawyers, academics et al. True, he weakened its recommended operations, but still provided the legislation and budget needed to implement it.

For the Afri-centered alternative school-previously Black-focused-phalanx after phalanx of Black professionals had honed and thrown their best in abilities to ensure, for Black youth, futures that would be productive, self-determining and doing well. Unfortunately, what too many youth have graduated into are futures of failure, dependency and doing time.

In addition, following yet another set of unproductive meetings – more than 100 initiated by us between 1980 and 1981 – with the then North York Board of Education, demonstrating why teacher expectation and not only curricula was the issue, Enid Lee, that prescient soul, predicted that with the high levels of self-hatred these students were internalizing from the low level expectations had of them, ‘the board was sowing the wind and our youth would reap the whirlwind’.

None of us could have anticipated the mayhem, the gore, the arrogant gun violence which would subsequently incarcerate Black neighbourhoods; by-words for impoverishment, scorn and anti-crime legislation. In fact, in one particular ‘year of the gun’, amongst themselves, Black youth killed more than it had taken the police to in years.

This ‘whirlwind’ had finally come after community reps, following scores of meetings after meetings – board reps it almost seemed, planned meetings to plan meetings – had made our final appeal. Would the board assist us in launching a Black-focused school?

We had done this reasonably, citing as hopeful example the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s previous launch of a gender-focused high-school: St. Jo’s Morrow Park. This was to counter the egregious, low expectations of girls, which was not the equal of boys in math and science.

The North York Board, serving up boxed fruit juices, ginger cookies and white-bread sandwiches in neat triangles and rainbow fillings as they’d done for the two years said: No!

This and other boards went back to their business of schooling. Meanwhile, Black youth wall-papered provincial courts and detention centers; enriched lawyers; saw JPs and parole officers, and wreaked havoc on Black sensibilities.

A Black arm of the KKK couldn’t have hurt more.

Fast forward now to the next leg in this marathon: acquiring the Afri-centered high school. All who decry ‘segregation’ in opposing the recommended high school would likely not visit these courts and holding cells.

Is the future already here? It is, unsightly and upfront, like untrimmed nose hairs. At last count, federal prisons estimate Black inmate populations at near 50 per cent, conservatively-speaking.

Finally, why the feverish push by Harper’s Conservatives to inexplicably ramp up federal incarceration rates when crime levels are said to be declining? This push must be effectively challenged. MP Bob Nicholson, the federal Minister of Justice under whose portfolio this omnibus ‘anti-crime legislation’ falls, has as an advisor a former Ontario MPP who had served in the Mike Harris regime and who had then experimented – for the first time in Canada – with privatizing a prison.

Think Hell on Earth? Think Hell on Hell!

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