Presentation made to the TDSB panel on the Draft for the Human Rights Policy and Procedures Thursday, January 28, 2000
Dear members of the Board, Members of the audience I come before you as a concerned citizen. I take great pleasure in being given this opportunity to respond to your draft document on Human Rights Policy and procedures.
We are asked to give our views if this document reflects a commitment by the Board to meet its obligation under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code.
As an elementary teacher with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), I would like to give my views on the importance of a Human Rights Policy and Procedures for the TDSB and if not, what areas are not covered in the policy and need to be addressed. If I were to answer frankly those questions, I would have to start by examining without prejudice my own experience as an educator: What are the most significant facts of life related to discrimination in the education system as it pertains to a city such as Toronto and what is missing that is stopping us from ending this discrimination. Looking at life as it unfolds in a city such as Toronto, one doesn't have to look far for evidence of discrimination.
Most of you have heard the grim statistics about the number of children in this city living under the threshold of poverty: at least 40% of all children in this city face that daily reality. As we all very well know, that poverty level is such that children come to school without having had breakfast. In a typical elementary school in the Regent Park area, 85 children out of 600 will regularly come to school without any breakfast. Luckily enough programs are set up by schools in conjunction with government and private agencies to alleviate this problem but again these programs are always threatened by cutbacks. Such is the case of a school located in the regent Park area who has seen recently donations for their breakfast program cut by 3000$. Even with all the efforts put by teachers, school staff and parents, can we say that these children have the best learning conditions or are they discriminated against? Well, facts speak louder than words.
One has only to look at the latest results published for the Toronto District School Board for the 1999 provincial grade 3 and grade 6 tests to see that whenever a school is located in a low-income area, the percentage of children achieving level 3 and level 4 is remarkably low (generally 20 %) while in higher income area that same percentage is more around 60-70%. What does the future hold for these children when we know that in a modern economy such as the one we have in Canada more than 40% of all the new permanent jobs created require a post-secondary education? One could repeat the same exercise and look at neighborhoods where new immigrant families have arrived. Again the results of the grade 3 and 6 reading, writing and math provincial tests across Toronto show a huge gap between those who are considered as having English as their mother tongue and those who are considered to have English as a second language. They are also discriminated against.
More recently there was a news item in a local newspaper showing that a recent trend in cutbacks to after school activities creates a very dangerous situation for those children who are left to organize activities on their own. The disturbing results show that these children who come mostly from neighborhoods where parents can't afford to pay the after school program fees, are the most likely ones to fail at school and to be cast aside, marginalize and eventually introduce to groups that will have a negative influence on their lives. So as you can see, to quote from your draft document on Human Rights policy, Appendix B, there are a lot of examples of discrimination based on: - Openly disparaging specific cultural, racial, linguistic or religious groups - Excluding a group of people based on their race (racism) And if I may had, discrimination based on the income of their family. Can we say that despite this problem, we are doing our best to maintain the highest quality of education for all students? Well if we go by what the ministry of Education says it seems we are receiving equal and adequate provincial funding throughout Ontario.
I was listening last night at the head office of the TDSB to the trustees debating about the fact that the province with its funding formula puts our board in a very unfavorable situation with the result that by next September close to 400 caretakers within our 479 elementary and middle schools and 114 high schools will be gone, that means on the average almost 1 caretakers less per school. Is this going to help to create a better and safer environment for children to learn? I doubt it as surely as you do. As for educators, we are going to see major cuts in our educational assistants across the elementary schools of Toronto where the kindergarten classrooms, which need the most these assistants, will soon have none. How can a kindergarten teacher be asked to realistically deliver a program without any form of direct professional support? This is also a form of discrimination against younger children.
Lastly, with the appropriation by the government of all the funding going to school boards, we have seen a drastic cut in funding to Special need education even though the government tries to pretend to the contrary by saying they are giving more then before. As a recent newsletter from People For Education explained it may be true the Ministry of education is giving directly more than before they took away the power to tax from school boards, but in their simplistic math they forgot to take into account what the boards were already funding for special education before the government took away their power to raise funds on their own. We are talking of close to 300 million dollars. I am sure if there any parents here tonight who have a special need child they could surely give their own version of the horror story going on about special education. Is it not true that, to quote again from the document entitled Draft Human Rights Policy and Procedures, Appendix B, that there is a "failure to accommodate a person with a disability short of undue hardship" I am sure many of you who are present in this room could give their own stories about discrimination based on any of these criteria or on criteria related to your personal right to conscience, either be on the issue of religious belief or lifestyle.
The most important issue is why, as we enter the 21st century, these forms of discrimination are still happening, even though we are suppose to have a fundamental law of the land, called the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? It is said in this document called DRAFT ON HUMAN RIGHTS POLICY AND PROCEDURES that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the legal scaffold around which this document is built. Any serious examination of that document along with the 1867 British North American Act will reveal to you that there is no statement saying that public education is a guaranteed right under our constitution. Judge Cummings of the Provincial Court, in his July 1998 decision, about the right for separate school boards to levy taxes said that "(public) education is not an entrenched right..." in the Canadian Constitution. At best, it is policy objective where governments can strive towards achieving these goals without any accountability whatsoever.
When one reads the first paragraph of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it says: "the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it, subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." What is most disturbing in that statement is that basic modern human rights such as the right to education, right to health, right to shelter or housing and the right to livelihood are not considered for what they are, i.e., inalienable rights that cannot be given or taken away because they belong to every human being the moment he or she is born to society.
In the Charter we are told these rights have "reasonable limits". How can that be? Unless it is a privilege, not a right every society that pretends to be humane and progressive will be judge on the basis of how they treat all their members, not just a few. That society should ensure, in the case of education, the highest quality of education for all, which is commensurate with the level of development of that society. How can it be that in Canada in the year 2000, we still have a 25-30% level of drop-outs amongst high school kids? How is it that in a modern and a highly developed society such as ours where literacy means more than reading and counting but higher skills such as computer literacy, we can still find amongst the general population an illiteracy level of more than 30 %? This is what happens when education is not recognized as a guaranteed right in our society, along with health, housing and livelihood. Everything else is discussed but not that. This is the major flaw of this document, which we are being asked to endorse.
Even though this is not your prerogative, I urge you to recommend that the right to the highest quality education for all be included as part of any TDSB document on Human Rights and Policies. Without this basic human right to education recognised and guaranteed, it will be illusionary to pretend that we can mend things when it comes to other categories of rights. It will only help to create strife where there should be none. Thank you for your time and understanding.
Fernand Deschamps John Fisher Public School e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org