After months of privately pleading with Trustee Nancy Elgie to “do the right thing,” the chair of the York Region school board is now publicly urging her to step down for using a “horrific slur” that has caused such upset among parents, students and staff.
“I have called on her for months to make this right, and I feel now, clearly, the only way to do so is for her to resign,” Loralea Carruthers told the Star. “While I do believe her apology was heartfelt, it is clear that doing all that is necessary in this situation requires Trustee Elgie to resign.”
Elgie has come under increasing pressure to step down after admitting to — and saying sorry for — referring to a black parent as a n----- after a public meeting late last year. Earlier this week, her family announced she is taking an indefinite medical leave, saying she misspoke because of a head injury she suffered last October.
“The use of such a horrific slur, even if inadvertently, has caused undue pain to parents, students and staff of colour in our communities,” Carruthers said. “Trustees have heard from parents directly about how this has hurt them. While we do not have the authority to force a colleague to resign, I strongly urge her to take responsibility for what this has done to our board and the community we serve.”
Read more:York board falters amid accusations of racism, Islamophobia
In an email to the Star Friday night, Stewart Elgie said his mother, Nancy, 82, will not step down.
“My mother cares deeply about the families of York Region, and the school board — that is why she is a trustee. While there have been some calls for her resignation, we've also heard from many in the community and on the board who know her life-long opposition to discrimination. They accept that she was referring to the awful word that kids were being called, not to the parent — and that she has apologized for her terrible mistake.
“She knows that what she said — even inadvertently — has caused real pain, and she wants to help heal that. I hope that people can find understanding and forgiveness in their hearts, and work towards learning, dialogue and restorative justice, not just punishment.”
Carruthers’ call for Elgie to step down comes as a group of parents from across Greater Toronto launch a series of targeted Facebook ads saying it’s time for trustees to vote to suspend Elgie.
Ongoing issues at the York board and accusations that it is ignoring incidents of racism and Islamophobia, as well as questions about trustee spending and conduct, have already prompted the provincial government to send in two investigators. They have been deluged with requests from families to meet — so much so they can now take submissions only via email.
Carruthers, who took the helm just last December, has attempted to make the board more responsive and open to parents, communicating with families, providing equity training for trustees and also reinstating a 15-minute public forum before board meetings.
She is also hoping that at a meeting Monday night, trustees will move forward with plans to create a position for an independent integrity commissioner.
Carruthers is the first member of the board to speak out about Elgie, which is “not only hugely symbolic, but a really strong first step,” said Rob Davis, a former Toronto city councillor and Toronto Catholic school board trustee now co-ordinating the Facebook ad effort. “To publicly say something that may have been said in the backrooms is a big deal.”
At Queen’s Park, Minister of Children and Youth Services Michael Coteau and Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown have also said Elgie is no longer fit for public office.
The Facebook ads, which begin Saturday, have been funded by “people all over Greater Toronto who are very upset with what’s happening at the York Region board … the ads are intended to give people in various wards across York Region an opportunity to know what their trustee is or isn’t doing and to take action,” said Davis.
The ads are specific to each elected official, he added, and will appear in the feeds of their constituents only. They say, in part: “Trustee Nancy Elgie called a parent “the N word” at a school board meeting … Thus far your Trustee (name here) has said nothing … she has the power to suspend Trustee Elgie from the school board. But she hasn’t. Does she stand up to racism?”
Davis lauded groups like the Vaughan African Canadian Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims for “doing the really heavy lifting” in fighting for change at the board, and “this effort is to support their efforts.”
Shernett Martin, executive director of the Vaughan association — who was recently interviewed by a radio station in Ireland about the troubles at the York board — said a town-hall meeting is in the works for community members.
As for Elgie, “we want her to resign and appeal to her to understand that a community is hurting and she is causing disarray in the board,” said Martin. “The way forward begins with her resignation.”
The board had earlier hired an independent investigator to look into Elgie’s comments though an internal probe. In a previous interview with the Star, Elgie’s son Stewart said his mother, who “has worked for fairness and equality her whole life” had “accepted the investigator’s finding that what she said was a violation of policy, even though it was accidental.”
Meanwhile, the York board’s own equity advisory committee met Thursday evening and as a group expressed concerns about Elgie, who was vice-chair of the committee in 2016.
“Trustee Elgie’s comments were unanimously condemned by our committee,” said chair Naheed Yaqubian. “We stand with the public in urging trustees to quickly foster healing, respect, and confidence in the board.”
Carruthers said the board has recently taken a number of steps, such as posting a note from trustees on the board website, to symbolic steps, such as acknowledging indigenous lands before board meetings, to show that it’s committed to positive change.
“This is an ongoing process, and quite frankly I am as frustrated as anyone with how long it can seem to take to make system-wide change,” she said. “I got involved with the school board through my own experience advocating for my own two children, and I am heartbroken at the stories I have heard from parents, students and staff. I believe I have a mandate as the new chair to do all that I can with my colleagues, with our staff team and now with provincial reviewers to makes this right.”
In her chair’s note posted online this week, Carruthers said while a code of conduct complaint is still possible against Elgie, proceeding with one could take months, be costly and would likely be confidential.
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