Toronto District School Board apologizes for ‘harm’ caused by talk from activist Desmond Cole

Screenshot of Desmond Cole speaking to TDSB educators Sept. 20, 2021.

The head of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has apologized for “harm” caused by remarks at a recent talk on anti-Black racism that spilled over to the Israeli-Palestinian debate.

Statements by guest speaker Desmond Cole to TDSB educators were a “disturbing anti-Israel tirade,” and some of those in attendance were “traumatized” by his remarks, said Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC).

The Jewish advocacy group demanded “accountability” from the TDSB.

Cole, an author and anti-racism activist, was invited to speak to four “professional learning sessions” for some 600 senior TDSB educators—primarily principals, vice-principals and other school staff. The virtual sessions took place on Sept. 20 and 23.

Cole was supposed to speak about anti-Black racism but went “off-script,” FSWC charged.

In a recording of one session that circulated on social media, Cole said: “Saying ‘Free Palestine” is the beginning of what we need to talk about on this issue. And the reason it relates to our country and to conversations about racism is because the fact that Palestinians do not have sovereignty on their own land is an issue of settler colonialism. And if we’re going to challenge settler colonialism and residential schools and graves near those schools in Canada, we are also going to acknowledge that other people in other parts of the world are not free on their own territories and want to be free. That is what ‘Free Palestine” means.”

In another session, Cole defended Javier Davila, a TDSB Student Equity Program Advisor, who was put on home assignment earlier this year, then reinstated to his job without being disciplined for distributing pro-Palestinian resources to teachers.

In that same talk, Cole said he wanted to refer to “the bogeyman: the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel, which is illegal. I’m a guest here today and I can say, ‘Free Palestine.’ I can say, ‘Free Palestine’ as many times as I want to. And because I’m not a student, a teacher or educator, there’s not much the people who invited me here today can do.”

He said the TDSB has taken “the wrong side” in the debate.

The words “Free Palestine,” said the FSWC, are “a dog whistle for the destruction of Israel.”

Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, the group’s director of policy, said it was “unbelievable that the TDSB provided a platform for Cole to go on an ill-informed and offensive rant, not once, but twice.” She said Cole used his platform “to spread misinformation about Israel, completely erase the Jewish perspective on recent contentious issues and deny the Jewish experience of antisemitism.”

The board’s director, Colleen Russell-Rawlins, issued a statement to staff on Sept. 24 saying, in part, that Cole introduced “a number of unanticipated topics that were not discussed prior to the presentation, and which surprised many in attendance.

“It is clear that we should have done a better job providing space for staff to unpack these complex conversations, and I want to apologize for the harm that may have been caused,” Russell-Rawlins stated.

She said the board is finalizing the secondment of a staff member from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and one from the National Council of Canadian Muslims “to work together to help develop classroom resources to address antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiments.”

In a subsequent statement, Russell-Rawlins said the learning sessions “clearly did not result in the type of experience we wanted participants to have…” She said the board would create “a new process” to guide professional learning and engaging with speakers.

FSWC said it has contacted Ontario’s Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, to express concern about Cole’s appearance and about the “growing number” of antisemitic incidents in Toronto schools.

The group said that according to “a senior TDSB official,” there has been an antisemitic incident in a Toronto school every day since the academic year began.

Cole, whose support on social media extended to one TDSB superintendent, Alison Gaymes, did not return The CJN’s requests for comment.

YouTube video of remarks by Desmond Cole at one of the seminars—followed by Twitter clips featuring interjections by TDSB superintendents Shirley Chan and Lorraine Linton during a different seminar: