Racism runs deep at Hamilton schools, student leaders say

by Richard Leitner
Hamilton Community News

Student leaders say anti-Black racism remains a big problem at Bernie Custis Secondary School after the expulsion of a student in November for carving a large, racist epithet in the snow on the back field.

Greg Dongen and Aztecca Clarke, co-chairs of the school's Black Youth Council, said the same offensive epithet is still commonly heard at the school, which is named after the late Hamilton Tiger-Cat great who was pro football's first Black quarterback.

Dongen said "countless" other racist acts include players on the school's football team doing an "ankle sweep" that imitated cotton picking.

"Students on our football team thought it'd be a funny little joke," he told a news conference at city hall convened by the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI) on Tuesday.

"This was a blatant act of disrespect, a blatant act of racism, and it was responded to by a simple conversation to the football team. There were no repercussions, there were no consequences."


Both in Grade 12, Dongen and Clarke joined other students — past and present — in backing a new HCCI report that urges Hamilton's public school board to initiate an independent review of "institutional" racism, Islamophobia and discrimination at its schools.

The report also recommends the board review police presence at schools and implement comprehensive anti-racism and oppression training for all teachers, staff, educational assistants and administrators.

Other students at the news conference recounted experiences of having their Muslim faith disparaged in the classroom or having the challenges of visible minorities ignored.

Chyler Sewell, a Grade 12 student at Westmount Secondary School who is Anishinaabe, said lessons about Indigenous people in lower grades made no mention of residential schools and treated her heritage as a relic.

"The way the teachers were talking about my people is like we didn't exist anymore. They used a lot of phrases like, 'Oh, they used to do this, they used to do that,'" she said. "And then they never addressed any of the problems that Indigenous people face today."

Ruby Hye, a former student trustee who's just graduated from Westmount, said she repeatedly hit roadblocks when raising race-specific concerns, including at a board mental-health forum where she was the only person of colour among about 150 people.

She said she approached the psychologist leading the forum to ask if she might address strategies to help racialized people deal with unique mental-health challenges and got a cold response.

"She said to me, 'This is not a space to talk about race. Race is not relevant here,'" Hye recalled, adding she got no sympathy when she relayed the encounter to trustees who were there with her.

"Rather than expressing disgust on my behalf or even consoling me, they defended her. They said, 'Yeah, well, this is a space to talk about mental health,'" she said.

"At the board level, the people that are elected to represent the people in this city and their education, that's ridiculous, disgusting."

Maria Felix Miller, who became Ward 3 trustee last June after the sudden death of Chris Parkinson, said she was on hand to hear the students' stories and found them disheartening.

She said the board is a community partner with HCCI and welcomes the report as part of efforts to address equity and social justice.

"It's concerning that a lot of our students are feeling like they have to take this battle and that they feel alone. We definitely do not want any of our students within our system to feel that way," said Miller, who is a person of colour.

"We're hoping that this will continue to promote some real positive changes within our system."