Seth Drost was flooded with bad memories of high school when he saw photos of Fredericton students dressed in culturally insensitive outfits for their graduation photo day.
The most disturbing memory was of the time he was auctioned off for a school fundraiser.
In 2002, Drost attended Harvey High School, a school in the rural community of Harvey, about 35 kilometres southwest of Fredericton.
It was his turn to go on the annual Grade 8 field trip to Ottawa. To raise money for the trip, eighth graders were auctioned off to other students in the school.
These “slaves” were expected to take care of tasks for the people who purchased them, such as grabbing their lunch or carrying their books to class.
Mock slave auctions to raise money were not uncommon in those days at Maritime schools.
But Drost, who is Black, was disturbed by the Harvey auction and wanted no part of it.
“I had severe trepidations about it,” he said. “You’re going to auction me off, a Black student, in a slave auction?”
Drost said he explained to a teacher that he wouldn’t be comfortable participating in the auction and asked to be excused. He was given this ultimatum: Participate or don’t go on the trip. He said he reluctantly agreed to take part.
“They made me do it,” said Drost. “I will never be able to live that down — just that I was auctioned.”
Media attempted to talk to Crysta Collicott, the principal of Harvey High now and a teacher at the school in 2002, to confirm whether such a fundraiser had taken place.
Jennifer Read, a spokesperson for the Anglophone West School District, responded on behalf of Collicott, saying the auction happened two years in a row, but no student was forced to participate.
“Student participation in fundraisers was voluntary and was therefore not a requirement to go on the trip,” Read said in an email. “No one was turned away from attending the trip.”
David MacMullin, who was principal of Harvey High at the time and is a councillor in Harvey, said he has a vague recollection of such an auction taking place.
“There’s a slight recollection that maybe there was an auction of some type, obviously not having thought through the connection someone might make to slavery and what had happened in the South,” he said. “There’s a lot of people these days [who] have rethought things that were pretty normal in the past that certainly wouldn’t be now.”
The 2002 auction at Harvey High took place around the same time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau donned brownface as part of a costume under the theme of “Arabian Nights.” Almost two decades later, Trudeau faced a reckoning with his past, coinciding with the growing Black Lives Matter movement, which made conversations about race, cultural appropriation, and blackface more prominent in public discourse.
However, whether it’s the recent incident at Fredericton High or a mock slave auction from 19 years ago, these events are still contemporary, said Carl James, a professor at York University’s faculty of education.
“You’re not talking about 50 years ago,” he said. “An immediate question is what has the school system not done to provide the education necessary to teachers?”
James said a lack of racial awareness and representation at school can have a serious negative impact on students of colour.
“If you’re not present in the curriculum, if the books you’re exposed to in school do not give you counter images of [stereotypes], and if you’re not getting it from the media, and if society at large is not giving you experiences that reassure you that you’re a human being that is valued, then it’s going to have a detrimental effect on you of questioning your humanity,” he said.
James, who researches inclusive education, said schools like Fredericton High need to educate teachers on issues of race and re-evaluate school policies that uphold racism. The other piece of the puzzle, he said, is providing students with a robust education on Canadian history.
“If the history that students were learning positioned Canada as a society in which Black people came and were enslaved here [and] Indigenous people were put on reserves, they would understand their place of whiteness.”