(Lynne Courchene and Jean-Paul Allard are behind an Ontario human rights complaint. Photo courtesy of the family)
APTN National News
Ontario’s Ministry of Education is battling an Ottawa family before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal who filed a complaint aimed at banning the use of clothing depicting Indigenous stereotypes in schools across the province.
The complaint was filed this past December by Jean-Paul Allard on behalf of his eight year-old daughter Isabela Courchene. The case is headed for mediation on September 7. The complaint alleges the Ministry of Education is discriminating against Indigenous students by allowing the use of clothing that stereotypes their culture or displays racial slurs.
Allard, an educational assistant with the Catholic School Board in Ottawa whose wife Lynne Courchene is from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, said allowing the use of clothing depicting Indigenous stereotypes or slurs contravenes the province’s Safe Schools Act, which guarantees a safe learning environment for all students.
“What is there to mediate? There is Bill 81, the Safe Schools Act, which clearly states that all members of the school community are supposed to be treated with respect and dignity,” said Allard. “I don’t see how allowing students to wear clothing that has the stereotypical images of First Nations or a slur on it like ‘Redmen’ or ‘Redskins’ is in line with that policy…. Either you are offering First Nations students equal protection under these laws or you’re not.”
Ontario has asked the tribunal to dismiss the complaint arguing it is up to individual school boards to set policies around clothing.
“The ministry is not liable for the operational decisions of individual school boards or schools. School boards, not the ministry, are responsible for ensuring their own compliance with the (Human Rights Code),” said Ontario’s submission before the tribunal. “Including imposing any limits on wearing clothing displaying Indigenous themed team mascots, logos or names in their schools that are required to comply with the Code.”
Ontario’s submission also stated Education Minister Mitzie Hunter wrote the chairs of Ontario’s school boards on Jan. 18 requesting they review potentially offensive team logos and mascots with local Indigenous “partners.” That same day, the ministry’s deputy minister wrote the province’s directors of education to do the same, according to the submission filed in March.
Courchene said it is up to the provincial ministry to set the standard and the issue is one of fundamental human rights.
“We want to be treated equally as any other minority group. Our kids deserve that and they deserve to go to a school where there is no disrespect and they’ll feel welcomed going in,” said Courchene. “We want a ruling that…says we are going to ban all the clothing accessories and the names of teams that are offensive to people…. The only way that actual reconciliation can truly happen is through children and teaching them from a young age that it is not acceptable.”
(Isabela Courchene, 8. Photo courtesy of the family.)
Courchene said she decided to act on the issue in November 2015 when she was out shopping with three of her four children in an Ottawa suburb and crossed paths with a children’s hockey team from Sudbury, Ont. The players were all wearing their red team tracksuits with a TD Bank trademark, a logo resembling the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks along with their team name: Copper Cliff Redmen.
“It was so normal, so ingrained in people that no one took a second glance at what was said on their shirts. It is so ingrained in society that there is nothing wrong with this,” said Courchene. “There is no problem with Aboriginal people being used a mascot or a stereotype and that sort of proves it right there.”
Courchene said she has written support from several First Nations in Ontario, but is waiting for permission to release their names.
The band council from the Iroquois community of Six Nations, which has the largest population of any reserve in Canada, passed a motion last September supporting the human rights complaint.
Courchene said she is still working on building more support.
“We want to raise enough awareness so (Ontario) can’t turn around at mediation and say it’s only us,” she said. “We are trying to overwhelmingly show them that this is not the case. If we are armed with other First Nations saying that they don’t agree with this and they don’t think that it is okay and they want this to be changed, then we are hoping when (Ontario gets) there they will see that and they won’t be able to wiggle out of it.”