Anti-racism or equity education in the schools, corporations and government institutions did not begin with the killing of George Floyd and the rallies and protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. But the events of that year helped to encourage and expand this kind of instruction and make it increasingly relevant.
Not surprisingly, there is also a backlash. So-called woke culture is denounced in France, while U.S. teachers can be fired in some states if they discuss slavery, white privilege, anti-Black racism and gender identity in the classrooms. And legislators in the National Assembly in Quebec are planning to allow the utterance of the N-word by university professors.
What is happening in anti-racism work across Canada is difficult to gauge. Its activity is fragmented and one has to pierce beneath the rhetoric of educational institutions.
The tumultuous events in Toronto last year laid bare the pressures faced by anti-racism educators and activists.
On paper the Toronto District School Board has strong equity policies, but its 2018 adoption of the IHRA threatens to undermine them.
The definition of anti-Semitism of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), is the accepted working definition for various national governments, including Canada, as well as in some provincial and municipal jurisdictions.
The origins of the IHRA remain controversial. It is not universally accepted by all international scholars. Starting in 2016, it has become a tool by which Israel seeks to counter an international boycott, sanctions and divestment movement on the part of groups seeking to draw attention to war crimes and international law violations committed against the Palestinian population in Israel and the occupied territories. Seven out of 11 examples of anti-Semitism in the IHRA definition involve critical comments about Israel.
One major Canadian historian whom I interviewed is not too worried about the IHRA, because the measure is not legally binding in Canada. Nobody in this country calling for Palestinian rights is going to be charged and hauled up before a court. Furthermore, there are no criminal penalties hovering over BDS advocacy as has been the case in France or some U.S. states. So a McCarthyite witch hunt is not in the works.
Yet, even in its aspirational form, the IHRA can still intimidate and silence.
I have interviewed two teachers at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) about equity or anti-racism instruction, and both feel compromised pedagogically by the board’s adoption of the IHRA definition. Both want to remain anonymous, because they fear reprisals from their employer.
The first teacher says there is no problem giving lessons on settler colonialism in Canada, Indigenous rights, “land back,” and systemic racism within the Toronto school system.
It is quite another matter to draw parallels between the European settlement of Canada and the Zionist colonization of Palestine. In the latter situation, indigenous Palestinians were uprooted and expelled from the new Jewish state in the course of and following the 1947-48 war, and their emptied properties were made available for incoming post-World War II refugees from Europe. There is an accepted wisdom in the Palestinian community that the Nakba (Arabic for “disaster” or “catastrophe”) continues today.
“When we are talking about who is censoring these conversations, there has to be permission to centre Palestinian truths, narratives and perspectives, and history. If the Nakba cannot be spoken of without being subsumed under the speech of anti-Semitism, then we are left with no language,” the first teacher says.
Whatever an instructor says publicly before students or on social media has consequences. Say the wrong word, and parents, right-wing columnists, various Israel lobby organizations and opportunistic politicians are ready to pounce like the vengeful Furies of ancient Greek mythology.
That is what happened to Javier Dávila. For about 15 years, the TDSB student equity program advisor emailed batches of background material on complex equity subjects from an anti-oppression perspective that teachers might want to raise in class.
Then in May of 2021, violence in Israel and the occupied territories erupted and culminated in the bombing of Gaza and Jewish settler attacks on Arab Israelis in mixed towns in Israel within the Green Line.
To make sense of the escalation of violence, Dávila emailed two large batches containing a diverse number of Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian sources. The aim was to provide insights from moderate and radical voices. It did not mean that the student equity program advisor necessarily agreed with all the perspectives, notwithstanding his sympathy for the Palestinian plight.
Apparently, student equity program advisor Javier Dávila was temporarily suspended and investigated in the spring of 2021 by the Toronto District School Board following a complaint by a Toronto Sun columnist Sue Ann Levy with regards to the internal mailouts containing Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian voices which she described as “virulently anti-Israel.”
All this kerfuffle resulted in Dávila being suspended and investigated by the TDSB.
To be clear, the mailouts were not distributed to a broad audience. Rather, they were aimed at a little over 1,000 educators and administrators within the TDSB with the expertise to sift through the material and determine what might be relevant for a class.
Apparently, the TDSB is obliged to take seriously allegations of racism or anti-Semitism directed against an employee even if they are “vexatious,” says my second teacher source.
Dávila garnered sympathy from former students, parents (including some Jewish parents), teachers, unions and Independent Jewish Voices-Canada. A petition containing 5,000 signatures circulated in support. Shree Paradkar, a Toronto Star race and gender columnist, wrote that the board was essentially killing the messenger.
The suspension turned out to be temporary and Dávila found himself reinstated in the summer. Vindication also came from the TDSB’s independent integrity commissioner.
Still in progress is a complaint from B’nai Brith Canada before the Ontario College of Teachers. In turn, Dávila is suing B’nai Brith Canada and its CEO, Michael Mostyn, for their continued invective.
The whole episode has disrupted Dávila’s life. He is currently on medical leave and not available for interviews. His lawyers, Dimitri Lascaris and Stephen Ellis. provided details of why their client is taking this legal action.
“Despite Dávila’s reinstatement, B’nai Brith continued to smear Dávila using the terms ‘Jew hatred, ‘ ‘glorification of violence,’ and ‘openly pro-terrorism.’ B’nai Brith further announced a self-declared pro-terrorism ‘campaign for consequences’ against Dávila and filed a formal complaint with the Ontario College of Teachers demanding another investigation and the revocation of his teaching license,” they wrote in January.
All this has echoes of a similar suit, this one successful and launched by Lascaris against the same organization, B’nai Brith Canada.
In the meantime, the decision by the TDSB not to continue the mailouts is being interpreted as a sign of backing away from a previous commitment to equity.
Ryan Bird, an official spokesperson for the TDSB denies this, emailing that Dávila’s mailouts never had the status of official communications with TDSB teachers.
My first teacher contact explains that Dávila was part of an internal TDSB equity process, starting with a gender-based violence prevention office he led.
Dávila’s mailouts were popular, the first teacher says.
“The reality is educators are asking for this resource because of its value for over a decade and are no longer able to receive it,” they say.
My second teacher source echoed these comments.
“There are teachers now directly teaching about racism, sometimes within the context of a subject,” they said. “Other teachers are not equipped to talk about anti-racism. The board has provided little to no training.”
The dust has settled, but tensions among teachers, trustees and parents persist within the TDSB. Another high-profile incident last year involved author and equity specialist Desmond Cole, who was taken to task for alleged anti-Semitism after calling for a “Free Palestine” and denouncing anti-Palestinian racism at the board before a class at Marc Garneau Collegiate. A large contingent of students did a walkout in support of Cole and Davila.
I asked Ryan Bird at the Board if some healing was required here, but he was surprised by my question.
“Sorry Paul. I’m not personally aware of any division following that policy update,” he said.
What Bird is essentially saying is that the board is sticking with the IHRA.
“It was not controversial,” says Shelly Laskin, a TDSB trustee and the mover of the successful 2018 IHRA motion which involved amending the standard definition of anti-Semitism as part of a revision of equity policy.
Today, a resource-challenged Toronto District School Board relies on external parties, including the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, to provide Holocaust course material for schools. Not entirely a bad thing, considering how Holocaust iconography such as the Star of David worn by Jews living under Nazi tyranny is strangely being appropriated by anti-vaxxers. There is certainly a lot of ignorance and misinformation about what transpired during the Holocaust in Europe among both adults and young people.
However, the FSWC is also controversial as a participant in the original international formulation of the IHRA in 2016, two years before the TDSB adopted its own policy. Today on its website, the FSWC also styles itself as an organization with an expertise in anti-racism education. Yet, it deems as illegitimate criticism of Israel and its documented practices as an apartheid state. A former Liberal MP, Michael Levitt, heads the Canadian branch. (I tried to reach him, but he did not return my e-mail.)
Sheryl Nestel, PhD, an IJV (Independent Jewish Voices Canada) activist and retired lecturer (formerly with the sociology and equity studies department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto) argues that the FSWC course material does not connect to the lived experiences of students, especially those coming from racialized and colonized backgrounds in the developing world.
There is a way to talk to young people about the Holocaust, but not within the narrow framework set by the board. Nestel observes a focus on the part of the FSWC on individual expressions of hate, rather than systemic racism or intersectionality.
“What concerns me about the focus on the Holocaust as the ultimate racist event is that there is a civilizing mission behind this,” notes Nestel. “Students have to agree and recognize that the Holocaust is the central event of racism historically. So of course, this dismisses the possibility that these people have come from colonial, racist, genocidal experiences, which disturbs me a lot.”
The last word goes to Calgary-based Mark Ayyesh, PhD, a Mount Royal University professor in the department of sociology and anthropology and a Middle East expert. He is currently writing a book about settler colonial sovereignty.
A Palestinian born in the Silwan neighbourhood in Jerusalem, he laments the normalization of the IHRA. “It is in education, it is in politics, it is in media, it is in social media; it is mainstream media; it is in corporations, you name it,” he says.
Ayyesh has harsh things to say about the shallow and corporate forms of anti-racism training, particularly at the TDSB.
He recalls that the high school students he addressed last year in Calgary displayed a better understanding of power imbalances and inequalities than some so-called experts.
“These were all racialized students as well in this group. It is racialized students that are driving the more substantive and real anti-racism which includes the fight against real anti-Semitism.”
Paul Weinberg is a journalist and member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to clarify the nature of the content shared by Dávila which lead to the investigation against him.