Former Ontario student trustees say their 21-year-old governance system is broken

In Ontario, the position of student trustee—high school students who serve on their school boards alongside elected adult counterparts—is coming under fire after being a fixture of the province’s education landscape for 21 years.

Former student trustees, many of whom are just finishing their terms in office, are taking to social media to call out racism, sexism, and elitism in their school boards. Others are calling out inequities in the Ontario Student Trustees Association (OSTA-AECO), the organization to which all student trustees belong, which provides high school students a path to engage with the provincial government in education advocacy.

This flood of criticism is striking a chord with the experiences of past and present student trustees across the province. Many feel that the position does not fulfill its mandate of representing student voices in policy decisions, and that the out-of-touch and often outright discriminatory environment that exists at the school board level has long evaded scrutiny.

On Aug. 1, Sally Meseret, the outgoing president of OSTA-AECO who graduated from Durham District School Board in June, published a Twitter thread titled “How to Stand against the Corruption of the Ontario Student Trustees Association.”

In it, she sharply criticized OSTA-AECO as unsafe for racialized, Indigenous, and female-identified students, and strongly urged students to boycott the organization.

That same day, a Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) student trustee, Ahona Mehdi, went viral for her own Twitter thread about racism among HWDSB trustees, calling her time as a student trustee “the most patronizing experience of [her] life.”

She described “being silenced, lectured, [and] called aggressive” by white trustees when she brought up anti-racism topics, and alleged that a white trustee claimed HWDSB had “too much Black leadership.”

Following Meseret and Mehdi’s tweets, a flood of student trustees released similar stories, sharing experiences of racism and sexism in their school boards.

The controversy culminated in a press conference in Hamilton, where Mehdi, in partnership with the advocacy organization HWDSB Kids Need Help, demanded transparency and accountability from the school board.

Meseret also launched an anonymous survey for student trustees to serve as a safe space where they could share their experiences.

This dialogue is prompting a larger discourse about the operations of OSTA-AECO, and whether the position of student trustee—as it has existed for two decades—has been effective in empowering students at the school board level.

This summer, Matthew Richards graduated from Bishop Macdonnell Catholic High School in Guelph, Ont., wrapping up his term as student trustee for the Wellington Catholic District School Board.

Like many student trustees, he had previously held a position on his student senate before running for the trustee position. The senate is a committee of students from each school within a school board that elect the board’s student trustees from their ranks each year.

After completing a year on senate, Richards ran for student trustee before his Grade 12 year, wanting a chance to raise his peers’ concerns at the board level.  

But the position wasn’t all that he expected.

“I felt like a figurehead,” he said in an interview with The Pigeon. “I felt I did more in Grade 11 when I wasn’t going to meetings versus when I was going to the trustee meetings, which was weird.”

The responsibilities of student trustees are focused around their school board’s monthly meetings, where they inform their counterparts, the publicly-elected school trustees—or “adult trustees” as they’re often called by OSTA-AECO—about what is going on in schools, propose ideas based on student concerns, and present reports of surveys they’ve conducted among their peers at the board’s request.

They are the primary link between trustees and students—the board’s only reference for the opinions of the people they legislate for.

While Richards, like many other trustees, volunteered around eight hours a week to his role alongside his co-trustee—maintaining constant lines of communication with his peers, meeting with his school’s student council, the student senate, and the board, as well as compiling 10- to 20-page reports of their findings each month—he often felt dismissed by his board’s trustees.

“I felt like our actions were definitely guided by what the adult trustee counterparts wanted to happen,” Richards said. “In my opinion, [school trustees] prioritize stuff that makes good press, [that] makes the school board look good. Or at least, that’s very much what it seemed like.”

“There [were] a lot of times when me and my other trustee would be presenting stuff that we knew people were really proud of, and the response that we would get was, ‘Oh, that’s nice! Moving on,’” he said.

“I just felt like I was being used as the face of something without much input into what was going on.”

While student trustees provide the board with information on what students in their district want, the final decision doesn’t need to take students’ opinions into account. Student trustees cannot propose nor second motions in school board meetings, and their vote is not officially counted.

For Richards, this reality was often on display.  

While presenting the results of a survey on school uniforms to the board, he remembers feeling like he had to fight for what the survey already stated. In it, students and parents had requested shorts for the warmer months and pullovers for the winter to accommodate poor heating and cooling in schools. Richards remembers trustees disregarding both results.

“[Trustees] were like, ‘Okay, but do students really want that?’ and we had to be like, ‘Yes, they do. It says so right here in the survey that you conducted.’ What more confirmation do you need? If you’re going for cost-efficiency, then why bother doing a survey?”

Another initiative Richards proposed was to develop a mental health resource for the students in his board. Initially unsure of what the resource should be, he first discussed the idea with school trustees, planning to survey students on the most effective form the resource could take.

The following board meeting, Richards and his co-trustee were informed that the adult trustees had finalized a plan without student input.

They were told to make a pamphlet listing local resources and phone numbers, and had no more say on the project.

“If the intention of the student trustee is to make a genuine impact, and change things in schools based on the needs of students, I feel like that isn’t what ended up happening,” said Richards.

“I know I’m a student and I’m not a big mature adult who has a big mature job, right? But I feel like my opinion should at least be worth something. […] Schools are about students.”

In the last two months, three adult school board trustees in Ontario have been asked to resign in connection to incidents of racism and homophobia, underscoring the trend reported by many student trustees of discrimination within school boards.

In July, Donna Blackburn, a three-term trustee, was censured by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and asked to resign by Minister of Education Stephen Lecce for what the board deemed “anti-Black racism.”

While she received the strictest penalty the school board could impose for a breach of the code of conduct—a bar from attending one meeting and a ban from sitting on committees for six months—Blackburn has refused to step down.

There is currently no tougher penalty for trustees under Ontario’s Education Act.

A Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) trustee, Michael Del Grande, has been facing calls for resignation since November when, in an attempt to convince the board not to amend their code of conduct to include gender expression and identity, he likened LGBTQ2S+ identities to necrophilia and cannibalism, calling the motion “a slippery slope.”

Del Grande had already been accused of harassing one of the school board’s student trustees, Taylor Dallin. Despite condemnation from Toronto Mayor John Tory and the Ministry of Education, the TCDSB determined that Del Grande didn’t breach the code of conduct. He faced no penalty.

In the Wellington Catholic District School Board, where Richards served, the board chair for the past 17 years, Marino Gazzola, resigned from his position in August after the board became aware of racist social media posts he had made online.

“I wasn’t even surprised, which I don’t think is a good thing,” Richards said of the incident.

“I guess that made me think, if he’s just happening to post stuff like this now, I guarantee you that this isn’t the first time that he’s thought about these things.”

While he’s no longer the chair, Gazzola will remain on the school board as an adult trustee.

For Brandon Rhéal Amyot, who was a student trustee in 2012 for the Simcoe County District School Board, experiences of inequity weren’t limited to the school board, but extended to interactions with OSTA-AECO.

“Being a low income, queer, Two-Spirit, Indigenous student, […] I got this sense, particularly at the OSTA-AECO conferences, that I didn’t fit in,” they said in an interview with The Pigeon.

Amyot looks back on their time as a student trustee with mixed feelings. They believe the role is important in the educational framework but feel it needs change to be truly effective.

“I think that some serious effort needs to go into […] creating a more equitable space [in OSTA-AECO] that recognizes the different lived experiences and backgrounds people come from,” they said. “It should be mandated that on the very first day of a conference, you should have to go through anti-oppression training including anti-racism, Indigenous issues, pronouns, and so on.”

“That should be setting the groundwork […] so that you can have the basic understanding to be respectful of one another.”

The inaccessibility built into the role of student trustee is acknowledged by OSTA-AECO’s Chair of the Board of Directors Arjun Dhanjal, who told The Pigeon that the organization recognizes not every student can afford to dedicate so much unpaid labour to the position of student trustee, or to positions at OSTA-AECO.

“There is that kind of inaccessibility in terms of being able to have the resources to hold the office of student trustee […] I think that’s built into the role unintentionally,” he said.

This past month, complaints of racism, bullying, and sexual harassment are putting OSTA-AECO under fire.

Former OSTA-AECO president Sally Meseret says she was shocked by the way the organization operated when she stepped into her role last year.

She describes how, when raising concerns, her privilege to talk to media was revoked.

“I would have people coming to me telling me how at conferences, they’d be called racial slurs, [and] girls would come and tell me people were touching them inappropriately,” she told The Pigeon.

“The Board of Directors [and] the CEO, instead of putting a stop to it when problems would arise, they would just shut it down even more.”

In a public statement on Aug. 2, OSTA-AECO addressed their commitment to combatting systemic racism, but stated that the allegations made were tied to unrelated conduct issues and could not be publicly addressed.

As an organization, OSTA-AECO is entirely volunteer run. The Board of Directors is made up of former student trustees—Dhanjal, for example, served in the 2012-2013 school year—and its Executive Council, who direct the organization’s advocacy work.

It’s largely made up of current student trustees, with the exception of the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer, who are recent graduates from the role of student trustee and who must be 18 years of age to hold the position.

For the past 21 years, members have been brought into positions through an internal process. “The board [would] reach out to [student trustee] alumni who might be interested,” Dhanjal explained. “That’s one of the reasons we’re committed to making a more transparent policy.”

“We recognize that built into our process is the potential for it to seem like things are cliquey.” 

Dhanjal claimed that a new, transparent hiring process for board members is in the works. As members are up for review every two years, he said he’s confident that changes made last year to the leadership will create a unified front to address inequalities in the organization.

One of Meseret’s core allegations against the organization was that it functioned as an “old boy’s club.” She felt the close-knit nature of the Board of Directors and the unelected members of the Executive Council made speaking out difficult.

“Even though I was the president, they could control the media, control the funding, control how the team operated. So, if you don’t have any control of those resources, then what can you do [as president]?”

Recent criticism is also prompting OSTA-AECO to develop a framework for respectful workplace behaviour, a code of conduct, and equity training for its volunteers—systems that did not exist prior to this year.

Meseret said that the organization’s perception as a “pillar of goodness” means it has long avoided criticism, and Dhanjal himself made a similar statement when addressing why the organization didn’t already have a code of conduct or equity training in place.

“I think for a long time, we operated under the assumption that student trustees are good people,” he said. “And that good people don’t need that kind of guidance. We’re realizing that as a growing organization, it’s our responsibility to create that framework.”

This also extends to OSTA-AECO-led conferences, which are planned, operated, and attended by student trustees. In the future, the organization plans to improve their messaging around safety and supervision, include a mental health worker on site, and clarify the rules about who is allowed to be in conference spaces, or a guest of a conference attendee.

While OSTA’s Board of Directors addresses issues of discrimination, this year’s Executive Council is focusing on addressing the issues with the role itself, raised by Richards and others. 

The Council is familiar with students stating that they’re often overlooked or ignored in board meetings—where they technically hold equal standing to adult school board trustees. This year, they are working with the Ministry of Education to attempt to give student trustees the ability to move and second motions, as well as potentially make a binding vote.

OSTA-AECO’s Public Affairs Coordinator and a new student trustee with the Halton Catholic District School Board, Kirsten Kelly, thinks it’s about time these changes are implemented. Her first several trustee meetings were far from what she expected.

“Of course, I could speak up on my opinion, but having an opinion doesn’t really mean anything when your vote is not binding,” she told The Pigeon.

“It’s just a reminder [that] your voice doesn’t really matter.”

As criticism of the operations of OSTA-AECO and Ontario schools boards continues to emerge, Meseret is encouraging students to find other ways to speak for themselves and ensure accountability in their institutions.

“If you’re an advocate, then you’re an advocate,” she said. “I think there are many different ways to make sure students have a voice.”

“If we want to be effective changemakers, we need to stand by our word and make sure that we are honest with ourselves, and the people we serve […] even when it’s difficult.”

With files from Amelia Rankine

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