Why teachers’ collective silence on racism, reconciliation, and COVID-19 equals death.

“Silence = Death” was a clarion call to action made by AIDS activists in the early days of that pandemic. At a time of willful government neglect, because of who the HIV virus killed, we knew that our survival depended on our voices being heard. What I learned then, when I came out as an AIDS activist in the early 1990s, is that silence always equals death, even now.

British Columbia currently faces more than one crisis; the COVID-19 crisis is one amongst many. We face opioid addiction, child and adult poverty, racism, colonialism, violence against women, and the climate crisis. Each crisis connects to all the others. And all are made worse by the pandemic.

COVID-19 also brings to light long hidden emergencies – made worse by the pandemic. For example, the societal neglect of nursing homes, causing deplorable conditions at some facilities – with low standards of care, overworked staff, and lost lives – is now visible for all to see.

Teaching is the practice of justice.

Teaching is inherently a profession of justice, as justice is why the profession exists. The promise of public education is equal access to the production of knowledge, a means by which everyone is empowered. Without public education democracy is not possible.

As teachers, we see how our individual students need us to act for justice. And we witness how unfairness hurts the children and youth who are our students. Because of what we see through our relationships with students, we want to tear down all of these barriers, to stand with our students, and to keep making a difference in the lives of our students. That is why we are teachers.

Silence in a pandemic affects us all, but most of all it affects those already in the margins: The poor, the disabled, the racialized, the colonized, the oppressed. It affects the working class, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, women, LGBTQ+ people, trans people, and everyone else. We are all affected by injustice and inequality. All of us, together.

Moreover, the legacy of cultural genocide against First Nations was carried out in schools. Teachers taught in residential schools. We, therefore, have a special responsibility to live by the words “never again”. Whenever we are called upon, as professionals, to act to prevent harm to our students, or to ensure that all students have equal access to education, then we must act. We must listen. And we must respond.

The BCTF is the only democratic body of teachers and the teaching profession in this province. The BCTF is our professional voice. Any issues relating to what we do as teachers (our professional standards of practice) and what we know as teachers (the professional body of knowledge) are collectively held, in trust, by the BCTF. Because of this, only the BCTF speaks on behalf of all teachers.

Last week’s AGM was historic.

Last week was historic for teachers in British Columbia, not just because we held the annual general meeting remotely due to COVID-19, but because of the historic inaction we set forth as the BCTF’s new vision on racism, reconciliation, and COVID-19. In the face of crisis, our vision is not only inaction, but also to silence those who seek action.

Over 600 teachers joined the meeting by conference call, representing all teachers in the province. We, and I include myself in this, collectively acted to not listen, to not debate, to not discuss, and to not act on the most pressing issues of the day: Racism, reconciliation, and COVID-19.

The original agenda included no items related to any of these issues. We planned only to set the fee charged to members and to do several other fiscal items that must be done every year by the AGM. In other words, the bare minimum.

Thanks to an early amendment to the agenda, the leadership report was added to our deliberations. This report states the priorities for the year, which were drafted before COVID-19. Given this, there was not any mention of the pandemic in the original version of the report.

Thankfully, the leadership report was amended to include supporting locals and engaging members on COVID-19 protections for teachers and other related priorities. (Full disclosure: I was the seconder on this amendment to the report.) The amendment and the report passed.

But then we moved back to the original agenda. Not until the closing moments of the AGM were other measures able to be considered, including measures to address racism, reconciliation, or COVID-19. And then, at the very end of the meeting, the one motion on COVID-19 was abruptly tabled. This was not for lack of trying or for lack of time. Delegates attempted to make motions on all three pressing issues. None succeeded. And there was plenty of time, with the meeting ending about an hour early.

Why does professional inaction matter?

Why does this matter? First, we are in the waning years of a cultural genocide directed at First Nations. Thankfully, the resilience of First Nations proved too strong a force for the residential school and colonial agenda, and the attempt at genocide was not completed. But we can all see the damage that these attempts created, evidenced in the harm caused for First Nation people, families, and communities.

Standing on the right side of history includes listening to racialized voices, Indigenous voices, all voices. We must remember that COVID-19 is not at all unprecedented. There have been other pandemics in our history, including Small Pox in First Nations communities. That is one reason why the duty of teachers to protect young people from harm must be our first priority.

As I listened to the debate on whether or not to debate or discuss any of the major issues of the day, I wrote in my notepad the words “silence equals death” and then each time that a voice in the debate was silenced, by a floor tactic or other procedural move (as the silencing was bureaucratic and always polite), I circled those words. Again and again, I circled the phrase that I hoped to express: Silence Equals Death.

We should listen to each other on the issues of racism, reconciliation, and COVID-19.

I wanted to speak up, to say what was written and what was circled on my notepad – about how silence does equal death and that’s why we should be listening to each other more, rather than shutting down each other’s voices. I wanted to say: Let’s at least listen to these ideas and consider some kind of action.

But the best I could do was join the speakers’ list by hitting *3 on my phone. I kept pressing it, since the floor tactics kept clearing the list, and never made it to the floor. Collectively, we did all our in our power, by using all tactics available to us, to avoid opening up more than a skirmish over whether or not to raise the issues at all.

If I had been able to speak, I would had shared two things. First, this is what I learned from my first pandemic (AIDS): What saved me from that crisis (not from HIV/AIDS itself but from the overall crisis of neglect around AIDS) was being heard. Not vaccines. Not treatments. Not even condoms. No, what actually saved me from the crisis of neglect and indifference by government and society was my voice (and the voices of others around me).

The straight and LGBTQ+ nurses, doctors, carers, journalists, and researchers who heard our voices and who responded, that is what saved me. It was the LGBTQ+ community joining together in direct action, with the broader community joining with us too, in order to care for each other and to mourn our losses together. It was being heard, having a voice, and knowing that others cared to listen. That is what saved me.

Having a voice is knowing that your life matters.

Having a voice is knowing that your life matters. The leaders of my community screamed out, took to the streets, chanted down politicians and functionaries (those who speak in lip service, not with meaning). Having a voice from speaking up in these ways is why I am alive today.

I am alive against the odds, a gay man who came out in the early 1990s, lived on the streets, got lost in anger and rage and despair, and who suffered deep and chronic depression for years. Thankfully I found myself in all of this. I kept hold of myself and it is thanks to the love of my family and my community that I am alive. But at times I was so enveloped by so much despair that I nothing to hold onto and nowhere to stand, but love was always there and love eventually pulled me up. That love was expressed in being heard, seen, valued, cared about, and in being responded to.

Justice is not an abstract thing. It is not a sound bite, not a slogan, and it is not a bullet point on a list of priorities. Justice is life and death – especially for all those to whom justice is denied. We see this now in the streets of America in the protests against the murder of George Floyd. This is happening in the nation of my birth, from where I immigrated before settling in Canada over a decade ago. The cries for justice in America’s streets reach deep into my heart, cries that connect and bind me to both the power of Americans’ love for justice and the oppression of America’s past and present against justice. Justice is also never alone, it cannot be dismembered or pulled apart. A single injustice in one place is an infinite injustice in every other place as well.

When we decided as a profession, last week at our AGM, to not discuss reconciliation, racial justice, or how to protect teachers and students during COVID-19, we made an historic choice. The most powerful moment in the story of our choice was the penultimate moment, just before the motion to adjourn. With about an hour to spare, a motion was made on protecting members’ rights to accommodation during the pandemic.

But rather than seriously discuss this matter – in the hour of remaining time – the motion was tabled. Our last action at the annual general meeting of the sole body representing the teaching profession in British Columbia, held the week before schools were to reopen, during a pandemic, and at an AGM that decided to do almost nothing on racism, reconciliation, or COVID-19, was to table a motion on defending the right of teachers to alternative supports, in case they could not return to the classroom during this pandemic. Rather than debate, discuss, amend, consider, and reflect on the importance of the motion, we simply tabled it and then ended the meeting.

A union of professionals responds in times of crisis.

A union of professionals stands up not only for professional pay, good working conditions, and professional autonomy. It also stands up for the body of knowledge and the standards of practice that make its workforce a profession.

Professions set high standards and stand on the high ground of strong ethics and public benefits through or work and knowledge. Indeed, there is no reason for a profession to stand at all, other than for it to stand for the public interest.

As the BCTF made its choice to not listen to voices during a pandemic, to not move forward on racial justice, and to not prioritize specific and meaningful acts of reconciliation, the world was screaming out for justice in other places as well.

The death of George Floyd was a lynching, another public killing of a Black man in the light of day. The shouts of pain and anguish from his murder were heard all throughout the world. Racism is everywhere, even in Canada. It cannot go unnoticed. Nor can we not notice that as the BCTF choose to not discuss or debate any action on racial justice at this year’s AGM, the world was screaming for racial justice.

I believe that the BCTF is more than a union. It is even more than a union of professionals. As the only democratic body of the teaching profession in the province, the BCTF is the embodiment of the public education teaching profession in British Columbia. We animate public education. We alone can speak with authority on all issues of the profession. And we alone are responsible for the profession’s self-conduct.

Teachers are bound, by the BCTF, to serve the public through ethics and to carry out our paramount duties as teachers. These duties include respect for the dignity of each student, serving the students’ interests and none other, and respecting the human rights of the children and youth in our classrooms and schools.

The public depends on the independence and integrity of professionals, which is why the BCTF is such an important institution in our province. Given that there is no other self-regulating professional body of teachers, the BCTF holds the utmost responsibility in these areas. And that is why I am hopeful that the inaction and indecision of this year’s AGM will soon be reversed, by whatever means the BCTF can muster up in these circumstances.

My hope is that this never happens again, that we can reverse our inaction and do better.

My hope is from our experience of the AGM that we learn to never again silence anyone, especially not in a pandemic, on the most critical issues facing our profession, including the issues of racial justice and reconciliation.

I hope that we learn to listen and to respond, to open up dialogue, to build common ground – based on the ethics of our profession, and to work together to protect teachers and students – during this pandemic, defend the integrity of public education, end racism, and achieve reconciliation in education.

We must listen more. We must work together more. We must never lose hope. And we must put our duties to our students, and to each other, first and foremost, standing together and with all others in solidarity, for justice.

Correction: A correction was made to this post on June 2, 2020 to correctly reflect that the final motion itself was tabled (the motion on the employer’s duty to accommodation). The original version of the post incorrectly stated that it was a motion to amend the agenda that was tabled. (June 2, 2020)

Update: The BCTF Executive Committee has since brought its advisory committees back to their full advisory roles. (June 8, 2020)