Doorstep Postings: Can people in a place like Pickering pay more attention to Jewish issues? Emma Cunningham thinks they should

Durham Region school trustee candidate Emma Cunningham. (Disclosure: The mug was designed by Devon Spier, who’s married to our columnist Josh Lieblein.)

This is the third in a series of opinion columns on Ontario’s 2022 municipal elections, written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN.

Some have compared building relationships among city councillors or trustees to herding cats, which is exactly what Emma Cunningham had to do to manage her high-maintenance feline companion Bella during our conversation. 

It turns out Emma’s had a lot of experience managing difficult and controversial situations. On good days, she’s running a local Caremonger group dedicated to volunteer tasks like groceries to people who can’t leave their homes due to COVID, or running an advertising strategy class at Centennial College.

But also, earlier this year, The CJN profiled her during a messy breakup with the NDP over that party’s repeated failures to live up to its own promises on antisemitism.

Now, as a candidate for one of two trustee seats on the Durham District School Board representing her Ontario city of Pickering, she’ll have to tackle her toughest challenge yet—getting Jewish issues on the radar in a town where there are fewer than 250 Jews (according to the 2016 census) and where people seeking a synagogue must go to nearby Oshawa or Ajax, or to Chabad of Durham Region, which is located in Whitby. (Emma prefers Chabad.) 

To its credit, the area has its own dedicated space for Jewish education, which offers Hanukkah related content for a fun lesson or two. Emma, who volunteers with Shalom Durham, believes a lot more could, and should be possible in Pickering, and becoming a visibly Jewish trustee is a big part of that.

“It seems like they only talk about Hanukkah in  Durham,” she admits, but sees an opportunity for growth by acknowledging Jewish Heritage Month in May. “We don’t talk about the beauty of our culture and all the reasons that we’re proud to be Jewish, and that’s something we could see more of in schools.” 

So, she’s seizing the opportunity of longtime incumbents Paul Crawford and Chris Braney not running again. (At least, that’s how it looks a few days before the candidate registration deadline.)

Crawford is one of several fixtures across Ontario who have been caught up in low-impact cultural struggles over the inclusion of new language or policies into the curriculum.

The pattern is clear: someone objects on the grounds that the controversial item paints with too broad a brush. A complaint or censure is brought forth against the objector by other members of the board. Free speech infringements are alleged. Commentators go ballistic—while the locals, unaccustomed to this level of division, are mostly stunned into confused silence. 

For her part, Emma admits that her Jewish identity means she doesn’t neatly fall on either side of the issue when references to white supremacy enter the conversation.

On the one hand, she argues that the school board was constructed at a time when the population of Pickering was almost entirely caucasian and Christian.

“I do benefit from a system of white supremacy, and that’s something I take note of,” she says, and including a definition of white supremacy in official documents is another way of recognizing who benefits from the system and who doesn’t. (Eventually, the policy was adopted without the definition.) 

But she’s also quick to point out that the current system is perpetuated in the overwhelming majority of cases by ignorance, not malice: “People are open to learning more about Jewish issues, but it does need to be brought up to them.”

It’s all in line with what Emma hopes to accomplish as a trustee—executing strategy in a way that maximizes student success. It means making sure there are enough bus drivers. It means figuring out how to improve virtual education.

And it means greater visibility for Jewish issues—and her fellow Jewish residents of Pickering.

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.