Original Published on Jun 10, 2022 at 21:20

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A coalition of educators and anti-racist advocates are calling on the Stefanson provincial government to commit to both creating a K-12 equity secretariat and supporting the development of satellite offices within local school divisions.

Equity Matters, which represents upwards of 80 Indigenous, newcomer and inner-city community organizations, is hosting a news conference today to unveil its pledge initiative.

The group has asked every provincial political party — the Progressive Conservatives, New Democratic Party and Manitoba Liberals — to formally endorse the creation of new equity infrastructure in the public school system with an official signature.

“If we’re serious about making concrete changes and we want to address the inequities within (public schools), looking at the structural inequities that currently exist, then we don’t just need the talk — we need to walk,” said Suni Matthews, co-chairwoman of Equity Matters.

Ontario recently established a so-called education equity secretariat tasked with identifying and eliminating discriminatory practices, systemic barriers and bias in its schools.

Matthews, a retired teacher, and her colleagues want Manitoba to follow suit.

The coalition has requested the province create a designated secretariat that will be responsible for undertaking equity-based research and policy development, creating inclusive curriculum guidelines and providing education workers with anti-racist training.

Accountability should be built into the office, Matthews said, adding community members want the province to measure and monitor systemic racism by collecting annual equity data from school divisions.

Signatories of the coalition’s pledge will commit to enshrining the secretariat in the Public Schools Act and establishing an assistant deputy minister of education to lead the office.

The agreement requires the secretariat be launched by Sept. 1, 2023.

Equity Matters expects the office to publish an annual report card on its progress once it is up and running.

“Concrete and authentic change comes from addressing deeply embedded systemic issues of colonialism and racism; engaging in difficult conversations; and being transparent and accountable to the community,” wrote Matthews and Crystal Laborero, co-leaders of the campaign, in individualized letters prepared for political leaders.

The duo has contacted Education Minister Wayne Ewasko, NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba’s Liberal party.

In their letters, the authors noted the Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Circle and Newcomer Education Coalition findings in their respective 2022 State of Equity in Education reports.

The findings, released in March, highlight disparities between the number of students and teachers who identify as Indigenous or racialized in the Manitoba capital.

WIEC and NEC argue that increasing the number of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit educators, as well as racialized immigrant, refugee and newcomer teachers in the public school system, will boost outcomes among students who are members of those communities.

“A teacher doesn’t go into a classroom saying, ‘I’m going to target these students,’” said Matthews, who has been involved in anti-racist education work since the 1980s.

However, one’s biases, course content and language choices have lasting impacts on students, she said.

In 2021, the four-year graduation rate in Manitoba was roughly 82 per cent overall, but only 51 per cent of Indigenous students in the province graduated “on time.”

As far as Matthews is concerned, maintaining the status-quo is not an option. “This is an era of racial reckoning,” she said.

Equity Matters wants all metro divisions to start developing local equity offices.

Late last year, the Winnipeg School Division board unanimously voted to establish the first such office before the 2022-23 school year gets underway.

Meanwhile, Manitoba Tories quiet on committing to equity oversight

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba is the lone caucus to keep quiet about whether it will support the creation of an education office to address systemic racism in K-12 schools.

Equity Matters, an anti-racist coalition representing upwards of 80 community organizations, held a news conference Friday to call on the leaders of Manitoba’s three major political parties to sign a pledge to create an education equity secretariat before Sept. 1, 2023.

“Equity-based education needs to be a bipartisan issue in order to address the learning needs of all students within the public education system,” said Jordan Bighorn, a parent involved with Equity Matters.

Bighorn said a secretariat would provide proactive and ongoing leadership to achieve the above goal.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont have both confirmed their intention to sign the pledge.

In response to a request for comment from both Tory Premier Heather Stefanson and Education Minister Wayne Ewasko, a provincial spokesperson issued a vague statement.

“(Manitoba) is committed to improving academic and well-being outcomes for all students no matter where they live, their background or individual circumstances. Equity is integral to all engagement, policies, programs and decision-making,” they wrote in an email.

The spokesperson noted officials are working collaboratively with the coalition “to realize our shared priorities.”

Equity Matters’ vision is to have a provincial secretariat do equity-based research and policy development, create inclusive curriculum guidelines, and offer anti-racist training to school employees.

The group wants the office to collect annual data from satellite sites in all school divisions, including suspensions and graduation rates among different populations.

Co-chairwoman Suni Matthews said concrete data is key, because it will allow the province to pinpoint trends and implement strategies to ensure Indigenous and racialized students can achieve their full potential.

The province must publish an annual “report card” to monitor progress and remain accountable, Matthews said.

The leader of the Manitoba Liberals said the province needs to take equity seriously and put money into the issue in order to improve outcomes for approximately 20 per cent of students who are struggling to meet grade-level expectations.

“Making sure that you have a school system and employees who understand the struggles of their students in (and of) itself would make a big difference,” Lamont said.

In an email, Kinew said all children must be welcomed and celebrated at school.

“Manitoba educators are doing their part every day to help kids feel at home, but we know there is more that could be done,” wrote the NDP leader, adding that’s why his party supports the pledge.

This item reprinted with permission from Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba