Toronto District School Board Gets “Proactive” About Indigenous People

Jobs within the Toronto District School Board done by “Chiefs” will now be done by “Managers”, out of respect for Indigenous cultures.  The move was taken after considering the calls to action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published a report in 2015 about the Canada’s history, stretching over a century, of placing Indigenous children in residential schools.

The issue is that no one had complained. Toronto District School Board Curator of Indigenous Arts and Culture Dan Redbird says no one from the Indigenous community asked for the change, and that “Chief” isn’t a word that has anything to do with Indigenous traditions.

“It was an imposed word that the government introduced with the Indian Act back in the 1800s.” Redbird told Nick Bosvert of CBC News.  

He acknowledged that it’s come to be used as a micro-aggression, and likes that the Toronto District School Board has taken the step, but “doesn’t envision a dramatic impact from the change.”

Image Description: Young white woman wearing a white blouse and dark blazer rests her head on her laptap keyboard. Her long brown hair is in a ponytail.

Content Note: Residential Schools, Nothing for Us Without Us, Abuse, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Forced Sterilization, Retard

Toronto District School Board Wants to be “Proactive”

Here’s some more about the word “Chief” that I learned from an interview on CBC Radio One’s “As It Happens” on October 11:

  • It means “leader”
  • Its origins are Roman and Old French
  • In French, it’s “chef” (which the Toronto District School Board will not be replacing)

The changes that the Toronto District School Board plans to make affect approximately 20 job titles.

I have thoughts.

The “As It Happens” interview was with  Ryan Bird, the Toronto District School Board’s Manager of Corporate and Social Media Relations. The interview in its entirety can be heard here.

Click for a transcript, at “Toronto District School Board: No Chiefs”

I was in the car with my father as we listened to the interview, and it wasn’t long before I turned to him and said, “And here’s where my friend Geoff would say, ‘Did anyone complain about this?'”

Just as interviewer Carol Ott said, “Did you get complaints?”

Geoff and I have been around and around on the issue of people deciding for other people what *should* offend them. Often it’s been disability-related – Geoff has asked why people who aren’t disabled should decide what terminology should offend disabled people, like the word “retard”, and I’ve said, “I didn’t decide that ‘retard’ should offend intellectually disabled people – they’ve told many people themselves that it does.” More recently, it’s been about the choice to keep Washington’s football team the “Redskins” – Geoff says that Indigenous people don’t find the name offensive, and sends me media clips and articles that support his position. I have media clips and articles of my own by Indigenous people that do find it offensive. We do what we do in our debates on most things – agree to disagree.

And if an organization using “Chiefs” instead of “Managers” is offensive to some or all Indigenous people, the terminology should change. I’d absolutely support the Toronto District School Board ( or any organization) talking to the Indigenous community regarding changing anything that they see as potentially concerning , asking “Would changing this be healing?” and acting on those recommendations. But the Toronto District School Board didn’t do that, or if they did they appeared to reject the recommendations of the community, in favour of being “proactive” (Ken Bird’s word) – deciding for the Indigenous community that they *should* find the Toronto District School Board’s use of “Chiefs” offensive, and therefore worthy of addressing before people started to complain.

And they’re wondering why there’s been mixed reaction to their move that they didn’t anticipate.

“Nothing for Us Without Us”

The disability advocacy community has a saying – “Nothing for us without us”.   It reminds people that make the decisions that affect disabled people that disabled people need to be involved in the process. Policy that’s meant to help disabled people, made without consulting disabled people, could end up being useless to us.

“Nothing for us without us” kept going through my mind as I listened to this interview. The point of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its final report was to document the ways that Canada’s government hurt Indigenous people with its insistence that it knew better than their communities how to raise their children (and the horrific abuse that went on in the residential schools) and exploring ways of “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.”

My opinion only, of course…but it’s not “proactive” or respectful to make policy based on what non-Indigenous people think should insult Indigenous people without consulting them, especially when:

  • There’s plenty of easily-accessible evidence out there to suggest that this might not be the case – in this case, commentaries on the word “chief” and its origins, as well as its relationship to Indigenous communities, by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. They all agree – it’s a word imposed on Indigenous people, not one with any significance to Indigenous people themselves.
  • There’s no indication that the issue that the policy addresses is actually an issue.
  • The “proactive” behaviour is actually an example of historically problematic behaviour – Non-Indigenous people deciding that they know what’s best for Indigenous people and going ahead and doing it, without caring what Indigenous people think about it.

Again, not “proactive” – offensive. I find it offensive, at least, and there seems to be some evidence that Indigenous people do as well. Indigenous Canadian author Robert Jago expressed his feelings on Twitter:

Are Good Intentions Always Enough?

I’m not suggesting that the Toronto District School Board didn’t have good intentions. I’m suggesting  its action was tone-deaf.

I’m not an Indigenous woman, and I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to live in an Indigenous person in Canada. But have an imagination, empathy, and as a disabled woman, membership in a group with a similar (not identical, but similar) history of forced institutionalization by the government in highly abusive environments, marginalization, and ongoing discrimination…and hearing about this action by the Toronto District School Board, the rationale behind it, and their self-congratulatory pats on the back for it, made me furious.

I’m a writer and I believe in the power of words to shape attitudes and actions. I’ve had this debate with friends as well. But reconciliation won’t happen because 20 people in a school board get a word in their title changed. You want to make an impression on the kids your schools, Toronto District School Board?  Get some Indigenous speakers in to talk about life for kids their age in reservation towns like Attawapiskat.

Let them learn about the class action suit launched earlier this month by Indigenous women, alleging that they’d been sterilized without consent in the 1990s.

Let them hear stories from the families of over 1000 missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Let them hear stories and ask questions, and find out how they can help. I guarantee that some of these kids have never thought about these issues before simply because no one’s ever talked to them about them…and that once they’re thinking, they’ll want to learn more…and get involved in the dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people about the best ways to bring about reconciliation.

Dialogue, not assumptions. Dialogue will bring about change – it won’t be as easy as changing signs on office doors and printing out new business cards for 20 employees, but it will be deeper and more effective and we’ll all be better people for it.

All That Being Said…

Perhaps there are Indigenous people on the Board at the Toronto District School Board who thought this move was a good idea, and the Board was acting on their guidance. If that’s the case, people should please let Ken Bird know that he needs to speak to this – because nothing in the nearly-eight-minute interview with “As It Happens” or in the multiple media accounts that I read suggests that the Toronto District School Board made this change with any consultation from the Indigenous community.

As always, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about any of this.