First published in the Winnipeg Free Press Friday May 7, 2021
When it comes to the problem of racism in Canada’s education system, racism is built into the very system. So, what is “new” with the government of Manitoba’s Bill 64? If passed into law, it will further entrench systemic racism. Bill 64 fails to explicitly focus on systemic or equity issues and proposes changes that actively undermine voices from equity-seeking groups. At a time when communities of colour continue to demand the need for advancing racial equity through education and justice, Bill 64 demands attention and outrage.
Racism starts with the very name of Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act. Using the language of “modernization” assumes that the proposed policy is designed for “progress”. In this way, language is used by the government to obscure the reality that what is being offered is actually having a negative impact on equity-seeking groups. It also assumes that our colonial institutions and racial capitalistic relations are something to be reformed, instead of abolished and rebuilt. However, the issue with Bill 64 is more than semantics or epistemology.
Bill 64 does not adopt an explicit anti-racist approach to address inequities in education and thus fails to address the systemic issues facing families who self-identify as Black, Indigenous, or other equity-seeking groups. The Bill is related to the K – 12 Education Commission Report, within which there is no mention of racism, equity, or poverty in the entire 309-page report. However, there is one mention of “anti-racism” along with “gender equity”, but this is discussed as a liability issue to be “accommodated” as part of “respect for human diversity”. This contradicts the empty acknowledgement made in the beginning of the document: “the philosophy of inclusion is a foundational principle of the education system in Manitoba”.
In 2020, the Newcomer Education Coalition released The State of Equity in Education Report to advocate for more representations of racialized newcomers among school staff and boards in Manitoba. As the report states, “In 2018, of the 54 school trustees on the school boards of the six school divisions in the city of Winnipeg, only 3 are trustees who are persons from racialized communities.” The report also emphasizes on the important role that school boards can play in leading and influencing decisions on equity policies and practices. For these reasons, community advocates want school divisions to be more “intentional and accountable” about addressing equity in schools. This will ensure that the curriculum, programs, and activities are more appropriate and responsive to the education needs of racialized families. Bill 64 does the very opposite by ignoring the needs of students based on their race or any other equity issue.
Racialized students, especially those who identify as Indigenous and Black, continue to face racism in schools. They are disproportionately represented in school discipline and suspensions. Racialized students also are often streamlined into lower track education programs, if not pushed to criminalization, often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Racialized students must cope with negative educational outcomes and its impact on their mental health and well-being with limited to no supports. By neglecting to focus on equity-seeking groups, Bill 64 promotes the “organized abandonment” of racialized communities (a term used by Ruth Wilson Gilmore to refer to a strategy of capitalist state development to exploit the most vulnerable and racialized communities).
In a push to further undermine racialized communities, Bill 64 plans to shirk public accountability by excluding the voices of racialized communities. Most racialized communities live in Winnipeg. The proposed changes will reduce the 37 school divisions to 15 catchment areas, each with one representative, not proportional to student population. In doing so, the Winnipeg catchment area will be given one voice to represent 55% of Manitoba’s student of colour population. The voices of equity-seeking groups in Winnipeg will be muffled.
The decrease in public accountability is accompanied by increased government control of schools. Communities Not Cuts Manitoba have highlighted in their hashtag #StopBill64 that the government plans to “eliminate elected school boards and replace them with an appointed – unaccountable – panel to oversee education for the entire province.” The appointed panel is politically influenced and, most likely, will not be reflecting the various racialized communities in Winnipeg.
By pushing for more government control along with equity blind policies, the proposed document, if passed into law, is very damaging in a province that is designed and maintained through conditions of inequities. This will further privilege white-middle-class lives and provide a school culture that is more accommodating of white supremacy. We need to work towards dismantling racist policies and institutions to create conditions of care. Bill 64 will make it more difficult than it already is to advocate for opportunities and supports for racialized communities.