Education minister orders review into allegations of TDSB principal who died

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TORONTO — Ontario’s education minister said his staff would review the allegations of a principal who died by suicide after launching a lawsuit against the Toronto District School Board for allegedly failing to support him when he was accused of racism during a professional training session.

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Minister Stephen Lecce called the allegations raised by Richard Bilkszto “serious and disturbing,” announcing his staff would review what happened and bring him “options to reform professional training and strengthen accountability on school boards so this never happens again.”

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“This tragic incident only underscores the need for greater accountability of school boards and the necessity to ensure professional training is free from harassment and intimidation,” he said in a statement.

A lawyer for Bilkszto said her client, who worked on contract with the TDSB after his retirement in 2019, died by suicide on July 13. He was 60.

TDSB issued a statement commending Bilkszto for being a strong advocate for students, especially in adult and alternative education, over his 24-year career. The board declined to respond to the allegations.

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“While we are in the early stages of the information gathering process, we share the Ministry of Education’s desire to learn what happened and will work together with them as part of any review and make any necessary changes,” the statement read.

Bilkszto filed a lawsuit against the TDSB in April related to two online anti-racism training sessions in 2021, when he claims to have been implicitly referred to as a white supremacist by the trainer and berated in front of his colleagues when he disagreed that Canada was more racist than the United States.

None of the allegations have been proven in court and his lawyer, Lisa Bildy, said TDSB had not yet been served with the claim. She said she planned to meet with the family “in the next few weeks,” to discuss the future of the lawsuit.

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The claim says Bilkszto acknowledged the country’s own anti-Black racism, but suggested Canada was a more just society than the U.S., making reference to different approaches to public education and health care.

He alleged the TDSB failed to investigate his workplace harassment claim and then retaliated by disinviting him from a graduation for a program he helped create and revoking a temporary contract offer.

He started a sick leave shortly after the training sessions and was diagnosed with anxiety secondary to a workplace event, according to the claim and a copy of a Workplace Safety and Insurance Board decision provided by his lawyer, lightly redacted to omit the names of medical professionals and the case manager, along with addresses and phone numbers.

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The WSIB decision dated Aug. 16, 2021, concluded Bilkszto was subject to workplace harassment and bullying. The case manager wrote the trainer appeared to intend to cause reputational damage and make an example out of him. The decision granted him loss-of-earnings benefits up to July 1, 2021, noting the medical evidence on file indicated he could return to work at that time.

The consulting firm hired to conduct the training session did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Toronto School Administrators’ Association, which represents principals and vice-principals at TDSB, said it had also requested the board investigate Bilkszto’s claims of workplace harassment.

“To our knowledge, an investigation has never happened,” its statement read.

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Bilkszto’s case has become a lightning rod for a number of prominent right-wing commentators who have sought to roll back diversity, equity and inclusion training and initiatives at Canada’s largest school board.

His lawyer, Bildy, said she was pleased to hear the minister had ordered a review. In an email, she said it should examine not just this incident, but the “purpose, process, and value of this type of DEI training.”

Bildy was a former staff lawyer for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which gained prominence for its legal fights against COVID-19 public health restrictions. She likened DEI training to “woke struggle sessions” in a post to her Twitter account Tuesday.

A statement from Bilkszto’s family, released through Bildy, said that after his experience with the board’s “equity agenda,” he started advocacy for a more “equality-focused” approach.

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It notes his opposition to TDSB’s recent move to bring in a lottery system, rather than requirements such as test scores or auditions, to admit students to specialized programs and schools in areas such as the arts or athletics.

In an effort to ensure the programs reflect the city’s diversity, 20 per cent of the spaces are reserved for students who are Black, Indigenous, Latin American and Middle Eastern, while 50 per cent of the spaces in math, science and technology programs are for students self-identifying as female, according to the board’s website.

Bilkszto helped found the Toronto chapter of a U.S.-based group that bills itself as a non-partisan civil rights organization that supports a “colour-blindness” approach to race, or what it attempts to recast as “colour-transcendence.” Bildy is a member of its advisory board.

The group, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, has challenged U.S. universities pursuing affirmative action or race-conscious policies, such as training programs directed at BIPOC teachers. In a publicly posted letter to Harvard University last year, the group questioned the school’s move to host spaces for people with a shared identity to discuss a report outlining Harvard’s historical connections to the slave trade.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2023.

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