Troubling expansion of powers to subject teachers’ conscience to scrutiny

There Is No Such Thing as a Right to Defame

By Enver Villamizar

One of the programs of the different provincial governments in Canada has been to limit educators’ professional judgment in various ways while at the same time increasing the government’s ability to decide what teachers can and cannot say or do in the classroom or outside of the classroom. This comes at a time that governments are attempting to impose retrogressive changes to the content of education such as is the case in Alberta with the new K-6 curriculum or in Ontario with new Health and Physical Education and Math curriculums. A definite direction of these governments is to divert from their anti-social restructuring of the state, and in this case of education, by claiming that the biggest problem in education is educators and their unions in order to justify trying to silence them or ignore their expertise. Thus, alongside the changes to education there has been a campaign to demonize and threaten educators for speaking out in general on matters of concern such as the rights of Indigenous peoples, pipelines or matters of war and peace.

In Ontario a recent move involves an attempt to strengthen the ability of the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), the professional body that oversees the teaching profession, to trigger suspensions and investigate teachers. On November 6, 2020, shortly after the re-start of schools under the conditions of the pandemic, the OCT added “hateful remarks and behaviour” as new criteria for professional misconduct, without public discussion or consultation regarding the significance of such a change. The specific new grounds for an investigation for possible professional misconduct are: “Making remarks or engaging in behaviours that expose any person or class of persons to hatred on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination under Part I of the Ontario Human Rights Code (HRC).” Part 1 of the HRC says, “Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability.”

The change applies to all members of Ontario’s teaching profession, including teachers, consultants, vice-principals, principals, supervisory officers, directors of education, those working in non-school board positions, College members in private and independent schools, and those positions requiring a certificate of qualification.

Of particular note is that the new criteria for professional misconduct explicitly apply to “conduct and/or remarks made to anyone inside or outside the classroom, on duty or off, and via electronic means.” (Emphasis added.) Teachers have always been subject to scrutiny for their actions “off-duty” so one has to ask what is this about, why now and what is the aim?

The OCT, at the time of making this addition to its criteria for misconduct, claims it is to address racism in education and even systemic racism. In this way combating racism in education is made all about sanctioning allegedly racist or hate-filled teachers. Educators, students, parents and the public in general are very concerned about the way that state- organized racism expresses itself in schools. Whether it be opposition to the permanent placement of police in schools through School Resource Officer programs, or opposition to the colonial and empire-building outlook which imbues the curriculum, especially in social studies, educators are in the front ranks of the fight for anti-racist education and often face the active opposition of governments to their demands for change. So it is concerning that in the name of fighting hatred and racism the government and institutions under its control such as the OCT are now making teachers the problem. One has to consider what this is all about.

It is worth noting that the new grounds for investigation by the OCT were made public less than a month after the Ford government slipped in a controversial and highly contested definition of anti-Semitism known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, widely seen as attempting to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.[1] The government made its unilateral move pre-emptively through an Order-in-Council just as public hearings were about to begin on a private Member’s bill that would have required debate and a vote in the legislature to pass the IHRA definition into law. The Trudeau government carried out a similar move a year earlier, slipping the definition in quietly with no discussion or debate in Parliament, simply announcing that it had been made part of its anti-racism strategy.

The Ontario government’s adoption of the definition is very significant, since making it “official” has opened the door for it being used to assert that those who oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine are anti-Semitic and therefore guilty of promoting hatred towards those of the Jewish faith. For educators, this then makes them subject to arbitrary powers which can remove them from their jobs or use other means to silence them for their legitimate political views.

Recent events in Palestine and Israel and the upsurge of resistance to occupation have led many people, including educators, to take stands and speak out. Some are now finding themselves the target of witch hunts by those who have been emboldened by governments’ back-door adoption of the IHRA definition without any public discussion. In this way people are defamed and then criminalized without even knowing what new laws and policies they are subject to, let alone afforded due process.

What kind of a democracy is this in which governments and their institutions deliberately shield serious matters relating to the right to conscience and freedom of speech from public discussion and debate, then put tools in place behind closed doors to criminalize those whose stands and opinions they disagree with, in order to label them as hate-mongers and worse?

This is why changes to the OCT powers for investigation of misconduct are a serious matter. They give the government and other political entities a mechanism to silence educators as private citizens and as professionals and to violate their right to conscience on matters of grave national and international concern. The Ford government already attempted to set up a parent snitch line, encouraging parents to call to report teachers if they felt they were ignoring a new Health and Physical Education curriculum it brought in swiftly right after being elected in 2018. Parents did not bite then. However, the changes to the OCT powers appear to be a new attempt to paint educators as the problem in education, and to go further in providing the government and those emboldened by them the ability to persecute those whose views they disagree with, and who dare to speak out. It is unacceptable and should be opposed by all those who stand for the right to conscience and freedom of speech.

Note

1. “Jewish Voices and Faculty Oppose Adoption of Ill-Conceived Definition,” The Marxist-Leninist Monthly, April 4, 2021. 

Workers Forum, May 26, 2021 – No. 49

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