Ottawa public school board approves a proposal to hire a Jewish equity coach

Ottawa-Carleton District School (OCDSB) Board trustees unanimously voted to hire a Jewish equity coach at a board meeting Jan. 17.

The decision comes after numerous reports of antisemitism in Ottawa schools, including an incident on Dec. 1 that saw two students charged with hate crimes.

Trustee Nili Kaplan-Myrth introduced the proposal. The idea was endorsed by multiple Jewish organizations and a petition signed by 1,000 people.

“Students and staff in Ottawa-Carleton District School Board schools, and in the community, are experiencing a persistent rise in antisemitic attitudes, discourse and behaviour,” states the motion.

This was demonstrated firsthand by delegate speaker David Baker, parent of a child who attends Sir Robert Borden High School.  

In his speech, Baker described an incident where his son and another student were specifically targeted to witness the drawing of a swastika and greeted with the ‘heil Hitler’ salute while entering a school bathroom. 

“I am an angry and upset accidental advocate who did not ask for this. But as a parent, you cannot sit still or stay quiet while your child is in danger,” Baker said. 

He told trustees that Jewish students do not feel safe at Ottawa schools.

“A Jewish equity coach will help rebuild trust with Jewish families and is a necessary action so no other child is victimized like my son,” he concluded. 

Other members of Ottawa’s Jewish community also spoke including Rabbi Idan Scher of Congregation Machzikei Hadas.

Rabbi Sher called on the board to ensure that Jewish voices and lived experiences lead the way for the Jewish equity coach. 

“The cardinal rule we follow is ‘nothing about us without us.’ It’s obvious to anyone fighting prejudice against any specific community that you can’t fight it without being guided by the voices of that marginalized community,” he said. 

Kaplan-Myrth introduced the motion by acknowledging the rise of antisemitism and pointing to examples where Jewish voices have been left out.

One example she cited was OCDSB Cares, an online anonymous reporting tool created for students to share their concerns about safety issues at school.

“It included resources for Black, Muslim, Somali and Arabic-speaking students, for Indigenous students, for LGBTQ students and for families new to Canada. But no resources were included for Jewish students,” she said. 

Trustee Donna Dickson asked if this resource support role would include and address anti-Black racism in addition to hate, trauma and antisemitism.

Michele Giroux, director of education for the OCDSB, said there are already a number of positions in place including support for Black students. She said there are also positions focused on support for Indigenous, trans and gender-diverse students. 

“There is no question that the additional resources with experience in antisemitism will be helpful to our understanding and I think it’s important because we heard a lot from the community not just about antisemitism but hate … that’s an additional area where we have to grow our capacity,” she said. 

Trustee Lynn Scott proposed an amendment to remove the title ‘Jewish Equity Coach’ as to not lock in a specific name for the job. She cited the possibility that staff rename the role after reviewing the position to ensure it addresses the need in schools. 

“I am concerned that the term equity coach as it is being used in this district, and perhaps other districts as well, describes a person who is a teacher and is engaged in work in a particular way,” she said.

Ultimately, the amendment did not pass with only 3 trustees voting in favour and 9 trustees voting against it. 

Moments before the vote, Kaplan-Myrth called on the board not to be silent about antisemitism. 

“It would be unconscionable to allow any form of racism or hatred to exist. We need to hire a Jewish equity coach to significantly advance antisemitism education and ensure we have a safe environment for students and staff,” she said.

Andrea Freedman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, said she applauded the trustees for voting in favour of the motion. 

“The fact that this vote was unanimous is a powerful vote and symbol, after two years of the board not understanding, they now understand how much antisemitism their staff and students have faced,” she said.

Freedman said a Jewish equity coach is a very important step as part of a holistic plan to combat antisemitism.

At its next meeting, the board will vote on this motion again in a binding vote. After this approval, staff will finalize a job description.