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North Van school board chair apologizes for 'inappropriate' trustee comments on residential schools

A comment comparing the treatment of intellectually disabled students with the experience of indigenous students in residential schools was 'crushing' and minimizing said district principal Brad Baker
SD44 district principal Brad Baker is pictured in a September 2020 file photo for Orange Shirt Day, recognizing survivors of residential schools. Baker said the comments at a May 19, 2021 board of education meeting left him shocked and upset. | Paul McGrath, North Shore News files

A North Vancouver school trustee says she’s horrified at her own words and the board chair has written a letter of public apology after the trustee made comments comparing the treatment of special needs students in the school system to the experience of indigenous children in residential schools.

“I wish I could take the words back,” said trustee Cyndi Gerlach, who made the comments May 19 during a discussion about so-called “seclusion rooms” for students with severe behavioural challenges during the regular public board meeting for the North Vancouver school board. “I’m extremely disappointed in myself for a poor choice of words and the hurt my words caused.”

During the discussion, which took place during a livestreamed virtual meeting, Gerlach referred to the history of intellectually disabled children being sent to institutions, adding it “was the same that happened to Indigenous students.”

Gerlach said during the meeting that people need to be aware of that history “because I think truth and reconciliation that also needs to happen within the disability world when it comes to education.”

None of the other trustees commented on her choice of words during the meeting, but district principal Brad Baker - a member of the Squamish Nation, who has been instrumental in bringing Indigenous perspectives and curriculum to the North Vancouver school district – said he was shocked and upset by what he heard.

“It was crushing to me,” said Baker, adding Gerlach’s choice of comparisons minimized the residential school experience of Indigenous people in a hurtful way. “As the son of a residential school survivor who was abused in multiple ways, there’s no comparison at all.”

Baker said his work includes raising awareness of Indigenous issues and making sure Indigenous students and their families feel valued in the school system.

Hearing those words from an elected official was “like a punch in the stomach or a punch in the heart,” he said.

Baker later spoke with North Vancouver board of education chair George Tsiakos who on Friday wrote a public apology letter to members of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations as well as Indigenous students and staff in the school district.

Tsiakos wrote that Gerlach’s comments were “unacceptable, highly inappropriate and insensitive” and don’t reflect the views of the board.

“They should never have been spoken,” said Tsiakos in an interview. “You just don’t want to go there in terms of making that comparison. It's just completely unacceptable in terms of trying to compare the two experiences.”

Tsiakos said he’s been thinking about why he didn’t address the issue during the meeting and concluded, “I was shocked and taken aback. I was speechless.”

But he added, “as chair I should have addressed the matter as it occurred.”

Trustees all need to reflect on the issue, he said. “Our words matter. We need to be aware of that.”

Gerlach said she plans to make a public apology at the next public board meeting in June. “I’m committed to doing all I can to rectify this…” she said. “I obviously need to learn more, particularly in how I phrase things.”