Elizabeth Terrell-Tracey was elected to the York Region District School Board earlier this year despite racially offensive postings that appeared on her Facebook account during the campaign.
But at her swearing in Monday night, the trustee for East Gwillimbury and Whitchurch-Stouffville was the target of protesters who shut down the public proceedings, urging people not to stand “idly by” and let it happen.
People booed as she was introduced, and a row of parents held up signs urging her to step down.
Before recessing the meeting, director of education Louise Sirisko acknowledged that there were people in the audience who attended to show their “hurt and anger.”
“We are committed to listening,” she said.
In an unprecedented step, the board had already scheduled a special meeting after the formal proceedings to give community members a chance to be heard.
Terrell-Tracey’s election came as the board was finally getting past a turbulent few years. The culture at the board had been deemed so toxic that former education minister Mitzie Hunter called in a team to investigate.
Hunter later issued 22 directives to get the board back on track, and Sirisko was brought on as the new director.
“We’re just ironically just wrapping up the 22 directives from the ministry,” board chair Corrie McBain told the Star before Monday night’s meeting.
“There’s been so much good work done from that, and the spirit of them being incorporated into the culture of the organization. So this is really testing to see if all those mechanisms put in place are going to serve the purpose that they were intended,” McBain said.
Two years ago, she added, the board did not have a human rights office or an integrity commissioner, who provides independent oversight of the board and can accept public complaints.
However, McBain explained, complaints must be based on behaviour once trustees have taken office, and that prior incidents cannot be considered.
Attending Monday’s meeting was Charline Grant, largely recognized as the catalyst for change at the board after speaking to the Star about the racism her son endured at high school — and who herself was called a “n—– parent” by former trustee Nancy Elgie after a board meeting.
“Our children deserve better,” Grant told the crowd.
The Star spent months chronicling dysfunction at the board at every level — administration, trustee and school-based — before the province stepped in. Elgie eventually stepped down.
Before the October municipal election, a posting on Terrell-Tracey’s Facebook account took aim at rival Lena Singh, saying: “Just so you know … Ms. Singh was born in Guyana. You are backing someone Not born in Canada … We need a trustee that was born in Canada … you deserve to know the truth.”
Terrell-Tracey told the Star via email on Friday that her Facebook account “was hacked and the profile is deleted. I am very sorry that this has happened to our community.
“Please note that I am of Italian descent and I love All people equally. I believe we are human first! The written Facebook comments are not from me and they do not reflect me as I am a fun loving inclusive person.
“I am working hard at my trustee-elect training. I am also enjoying working for All families that need my assistance as our new trustee. I love All people equally and I will work hard for All the constituents for 4 years and I will make our community proud.
“I won the trustee election; fair and square, with over nine thousand votes.”
After she was elected, the York board booked Monday’s special meeting, and decided that the information from that meeting would be shared with the community. The board also directed staff to devise a way to reach out to candidates about the trustee role and the code of conduct, as well get word out to voters and schedule all-candidates meetings before the 2022 election.
Because Terrell-Tracey was elected, there is no mechanism for the board to force her out, McBain has said.
Protesters on Monday night urged the crowd to reach out to local MPPs including Caroline Mulroney, as well as the education minister and premier.
Some 9,344 voters in the ward supported Terrell-Tracey, while Singh got 5,788 votes.
Shortly after the election, Terrell-Tracey indicated she would resign, but then changed her mind.
“I understand that some of my comments were hurtful and offensive and I am sorry,” she wrote in the resignation letter that was posted on the board’s website, and later removed. “These comments are not reflective of me, my values and beliefs. They are also not reflective of the board’s values and priorities and I do not wish to be a distraction as the new board of trustees begins its work.”
McBain has said that no matter how they were posted, the comments were “xenophobic, racist and hurtful … (the board) works to create safe, equitable and inclusive learning and working environments for all our students, their families and our staff.”
Protester Desmond Cole said protesting Terrell-Tracy “is about protecting kids,” and lambasted the board for not doing more.
“It makes me so angry that the community has to keep saying the same thing over and over and over,” he said after Monday’s meeting.
Former Richmond Hill trustee Carol Chan said she was disappointed by Terrell-Tracey’s election victory.
Half of all people in York Region are immigrants — including herself, she added.
“The board has done a lot of work building trust and accountability with the public,” she said, adding she is worried that will be lost if Terrell-Tracey remains on the board.
McBain began by denouncing “the racist, xenophobic and hurtful comments attributed” to Terrell-Tracey. She urged the public “to hold us accountable. Our students deserve no less.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy