Despite Edmonton’s diversity only two member of visible minority community elected to school board

Saadiq Sumar

A year after issues of racism and discrimination in Edmonton schools were thrust under the microscope, some voters are disappointed Edmontonians didn’t choose more trustees of colour for the public board.

“What I was hoping to see was that we would be seeing a more diversified board of trustees. But it didn’t happen the way we thought it would,” said Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton.

At least 14 people who are visible minorities ran for trustee positions with Edmonton Public Schools, out of a pool of 40 candidates.

Two were elected on Oct. 18, including Nathan Ip, who will serve his third term on the board, representing Ward H in southwest Edmonton.

Saadiq Sumar will become a first-time trustee in southeast Edmonton’s Ward G when board members take the oath of office Tuesday.

Nathan Ip

His predecessor, Bridget Stirling, called for the school division to review its school resource officer program in June 2020. The program saw city police officers stationed in 19 public schools.

While the former board debated the issue, then-Ward A trustee Cheryl Johner made a racist remark, implying refugees were violent. She resigned from the board the next day.

In April, a 14-year-old Black student at Rosslyn School was the victim of a video-recorded beating by students who were calling him racial slurs. The school is in Ward A in north Edmonton.

Edmonton’s Catholic school board also came under scrutiny in 2019 when a school staff member questioned if an 11-year-old boy wearing a do-rag head scarf was affiliated with a gang.

More than a third of Edmontonians identified as a visible minority in the last national census in 2016. The largest cultural groups in the city were South Asian, Chinese, Black and Filipino.

These incidents, and other lesser-known ones, that prompted Belen Samuel to run for trustee in Ward A, she says.

The community organizer came in second place, with school principal Sherri O’Keefe winning the seat.

Born in Zimbabwe with Eritrean roots, Samuel was a refugee who moved to Edmonton in junior high.

He said it was frustrating to see Black candidates for both trustee and city council unsuccessful in the election.

Creating more welcoming schools could mean reviewing the division calendar to make more allowances for major Sikh or Islamic holidays, he said.

They also need a permanent alternative to police in schools that supports, not penalizes students, he said.

After suspending the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in September 2020, the division now uses a “school safety coach” model in five schools.

Sixteen months after the board asked administrators to review the SRO program, which work has yet to begin. The division has issued two calls for proposals and is in the process of choosing a contractor, spokesperson Carrie Rosa said.

Trisha Estabrooks, the public board’s chair, was re-elected as the trustee for Ward D. She said she was encouraged by the number of diverse candidates who ran.

She doesn’t know why that didn’t translate into elected representatives, but says getting more folks onto the ballot is a start.

A pledge to be the first Alberta school board to collect race-based data on students, and efforts to recruit more diverse school staff are commitments the board must follow through on, Estabrooks said.

Ibrahim said his organization will work with whoever is elected. He wonders if vote splitting between candidates was a factor in some wards. The financial barriers of paying for advertising and campaign events are also substantial, he said.

“I think it would be really nice to have people of various backgrounds at the table, because of the experience that they bring to the table.”