Bethany Lindsay, CBC, March 2, 2022
The family of a biracial student has filed a complaint against a Vancouver Island teacher for repeatedly reading aloud the N-word while teaching from a novel chosen to mark Black History Month.
The complaint was filed after the 12-year-old came home from school on Feb. 7 and told his mother and grandmother that his teacher had said the slur multiple times.
“He said, ‘that’s inappropriate, and that’s awful for her to say,'” the boy’s mother said. CBC has agreed not to name her to protect her children.
The Grade 6 teacher at Dunsmuir Middle School in Colwood had been reading to the class from the 1977 novel Underground to Canada, following other Black History Month lessons that the teacher says included studies of prominent Black Canadians and their contributions to fields including science, activism and literature.
The mother said using the slur in any context makes Black students feel singled out and unsafe among their classmates.
“The fact that she said that out loud in the classroom is giving children the opportunity to go use it,” the mother said.
The mother filed a complaint with the B.C. commissioner for teacher regulation on Feb. 24 after she says she was disappointed by the response from the school and the Sooke School District.
Teacher Kathryn Turnbull told CBC she emphasized for her class how offensive the word is each time she read it out. She says she read it out four times that day.
Sooke School District superintendent Scott Stinson told CBC News that while he couldn’t comment directly on any personnel matters involving the teacher, the district takes complaints like this seriously and will investigate fully.
Stinson added that the district is committed to improving diversity and inclusion in its schools, and that means addressing racism and discrimination head on.
Turnbull said she chose the book because it has been vetted by the province and is recommended by the education ministry. She described historical fiction as “one of the most effective methods” for teaching children about difficult subjects like slavery.
“Textbooks and non-fiction print can sometimes be dry, whereas fiction lets the students escape into the lives of the people in the books,” she wrote.
Turnbull said she told parents in an email after the class that the book contained the N-word, and the class had discussed how inappropriate the slur is
“Each time I read the word aloud, I reinforced how offensive the word was and again why it was being used in this particular text and then also reiterated it’s inappropriateness in today’s society,” she wrote.
The student’s mother said she also contacted the school’s vice principal, and then spoke with school district associate superintendent Paul Block on Feb. 14, which just aggravated the situation. She said Block used the term “Negro” to describe Black people during their conversation.
“He … seemed unaware as to how derogatory these words are,” the mother wrote in her complaint.
Stinson said it was his understanding Block was also quoting from the book when he used that word but “whether that word was used in the context of what was in the text or not, it becomes a really difficult thing for us as a system to continue to support.”
According to Markiel Simpson, the situation at Dunsmuir is a symptom of a larger problem in B.C. schools.
He’s part of a group of Black community members who met with Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside earlier this month to discuss developing a new Canadian Black history curriculum and implementing anti-racism training for teachers.
“This is happening all throughout the province, where Black students are actively being harmed by some of the learning materials being shared in the classroom, particularly materials that mention or include the N-word,” he said.