Approaches to Inclusive Education in Ontario at OBA Institute

  • May 18, 2018
  • Jean-Frédéric (J-F) Hübsch

On February 7, 2018, the OBA Education Law Section held a panel discussion entitled “Education for All Students: Diversity and Inclusion in Education” as part of OBA Institute 2018. The panel brought together government, education and legal professionals to discuss how education professionals can help ensure schools are inclusive places for all students.

The first part of the program focused on the policy and legal frameworks around equity and inclusive education. The second part of the program built on these frameworks in Indigenous education contexts.

Patrick Case, Assistant Deputy Minister of the Education Equity Secretariat at the Ministry of Education, started the panel off by providing a brief history of equity initiatives in Ontario’s education system. He then highlighted the key elements of the Ministry’s Education Equity Action Plan to support educators to approach their work with an “enhanced equity lens.” Initiatives under the Action Plan include data collection and analysis, strategies for parental engagement, incorporating equity and human rights principles in performance appraisals for principals and supervisory officers, and establishing ongoing equity and human rights training for all education system leaders.

In addition to these initiatives, Chris D’Souza, Equity and Human Rights Strategist and Course Director at Brock University’s Faculty of Education, noted that greater equity and inclusion would also happen by making sure that faculties of education reflect Ontario’s diversity. He also spoke to the importance of ensuring that teacher induction programs specifically include equity training and resources. He noted that such training could, for example, help educators respond to incidents involving students using approaches other than discipline that may ultimately better serve the best interests of all those involved.

From this high-level framework, the discussion moved on to on-the-ground impacts of failing to ensure inclusion, with examples from the work done by Justice for Children and Youth (JFCY), a specialty clinic that represents child and youth interests. As JFCY staff lawyer Andrea Luey explained, the clinic receives over 500 contacts a year related to education matters. She noted that administrative and disciplinary decisions made by school boards do not always consider the complex identities of students, and that a disproportionate number of students who are subject to such action are racialized. Decisions that do not take into account students’ intersectional identities can lead to unintended impacts on their lives over the long term.

The second half of the program focused on what inclusive education means for Indigenous students. Taunya Paquette, Director of the Indigenous Education Office at the Ministry of Education, spoke about the interplay of education systems in Ontario. She provided the example of the 2017 Anishinabek Nation Education Agreement, which provides for self-governance of K-12 education by Anishinabek First Nations across the province. Ms. Paquette also spoke to the types of initiatives the Ministry is undertaking to support Indigenous student self-esteem and well-being, such as programming and transitional supports for students who have to attend school far from their home communities.

Nicole Richmond, Director of Justice with the Chiefs of Ontario, participated on the panel from Thunder Bay. She spoke about the need to understand local environments when developing programming for young people. She noted that Indigenous young people are willing to share their cultural learning, as long as teachers and administrators provide space to do so. Referring to her experience with the Superior Greenstone District School Board, she spoke about the possibilities within the provincial First Nations, Metis and Inuit Education Policy Framework. The policy, among other things, provides funding for each school board to hire a First Nations, Metis and Inuit Education Lead and for the development of board actions plans for Indigenous education. She noted that the success of the policy has varied across the province and suggested that “creative lawyers might look at options for reviewing school board decisions made pursuant to the policy, including respect for treaty rights, the fiduciary duty and/or procedural fairness.”

Throughout the discussions, the panelists provided cases where student voice was made an integral part of education-related decision-making. In one example, a mediator at the Child and Family Services Review Board intentionally made the proceedings student-focused in order to come to a solution that would best meet the student’s needs in the circumstances. One panelist commented that it should not have to take hiring counsel and specialized tribunals to ensure student voices are heard. Another noted adroitly that the panel itself could have benefitted from student voice.

When it comes to working through problems that may arise in schools, all panelists agreed that school boards and their personnel need to listen carefully to the ways in which decisions may impact equity seeking students. This means being open-minded and flexible, and seeking out additional information from parents and students about who the student is and how a pending decision may affect them in their life, inside and outside school. As one panelist put it, the “best interests of students needs to come back into the core of the education system.”

About the author

J-F Hübsch is counsel at Ombudsman Ontario and a member of the OBA Education Section executive. His LLM research focuses on procedural fairness and student voice in education law.