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RIP, Richard Bilkszto, a Toronto Educator Who Stood up to Woke Bullying—and Paid the Price

Two years after being falsely smeared as a white supremacist by a diversity trainer, a longtime school principal committed suicide

· 10 min read
RIP, Richard Bilkszto, a Toronto Educator Who Stood up to Woke Bullying—and Paid the Price
Social-media photo of Richard Bilkszto (1963-2023).

In late April, 2021, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) trainer named Kike Ojo-Thompson presented a lecture to senior Toronto public-school administrators, instructing them on the virulent racism that (Ojo-Thompson believes) afflicts Canadian society. Canada, she said, is a bastion of “white supremacy and colonialism,” in which the horrors unleashed by capitalism and sexism regularly lay waste to the lives of non-white and female Canadians.

Anyone who lives in Canada knows this to be a preposterous claim. But in the wake of the George Floyd protests, which opportunistic DEI entrepreneurs in Canada treated as a gold rush, such lies have been treated as unfalsifiable. The same is true of the (equally preposterous) claim that Canada’s experience with anti-black racism directly mirrors that of the United States. And so it was expected that Ojo-Thompson’s audience would simply nod politely and keep their mouths shut until her jeremiad had concluded.

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But one audience member refused to submit: Richard Bilkszto, a long-time principal at the Toronto District School Board who’d also once taught at an inner-city school in upstate New York. Having worked on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, he told Ojo-Thompson that her generalizations about the two countries seemed misguided; and that denouncing Canada in such a vicious manner would do “an incredible disservice to our learners.”

Bilkszto’s descriptions of Ojo-Thompson’s presentation (a recording of which was verified by at least one Canadian journalist) suggest that she is indeed quite ignorant of both American and Canadian history. Her claim that Canada’s monarchist tradition marks it as more racist than the United States is particularly absurd, given that the British outlawed slavery decades before both Canada’s creation and the U.S. Civil War.

National Post columnist Jamie Sarkonak describes what happened after Bilkszto began speaking up:

Ojo-Thompson is described to have reacted with vitriol: ‘We are here to talk about anti-Black racism, but you in your whiteness think that you can tell me what’s really going on for Black people?’ Bilkszto replied that racism is very real, and that there’s plenty of room for improvement—but that the facts still show Canada is a fairer place. Another KOJO training facilitator [KOJO Institute is the name of Ojo-Thompson’s company] jumped in, telling Bilkszto that ‘if you want to be an apologist for the U.S. or Canada, this is really not the forum for that.’ Ojo-Thompson concluded the exchange by telling the class that ‘your job in this work as white people is to believe’—not to question—claims of racism.

This is not a unique story. I have reported for Quillette on other instances in which audience members have been smacked down for raising their voices when confronted with this kind of diatribe. It is part of the pattern of hypocrisy that surrounds the DEI industry more generally: While these consciousness-raising sessions are typically conducted on the conceit of teaching participants to be “brave” and ”disruptive,” the well-paid corporate trainers who lead them often demand a climate of craven subservience.

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Ojo-Thompson didn’t confine herself to rebuking Bilkszto in that moment. She also allegedly attacked Bilkszto in a subsequent lecture as exemplifying the forces of white supremacist “resistance.” In Ojo-Thompson’s view, her original treatment of Bilkszto had presented everyone with a valuable template for how they should respond when “accosted by white supremacy.”

For his part, Bilkszto responded by suing the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) for harassment. He also sought a TDSB investigation of Ojo-Thompson’s actions, which the school board refused to conduct. But Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) took the incident more seriously, determining that Bilkszto was owed seven weeks of lost pay due to the mental stress he’d endured.

The WSIB judgment, later obtained by the National Post, concluded that Ojo-Thompson’s behaviour “was abusive, egregious and vexatious, and rises to the level of workplace harassment and bullying,” and that she’d intended to “cause reputational damage and to ‘make an example’” of Bilkszto.

I spoke with Bilkszto several times over the last two years, and he would often email me stories about other Canadians who’d been targeted as heretics. He took a leading role in a group of Toronto educators looking to address the problem of ideological extremism, and brought me in once as a guest speaker in late 2021.

Although Bilkszto and I never met (this was still the COVID era, when almost every meet-up was done over Zoom), we quickly bonded over our shared principles, both of us being traditional urban liberals who’d become concerned by the social-justice fanaticism that now suffused the TDSB.

Yet nothing in my own experience allowed me to fully comprehend the pain that Bilkszto was experiencing. A political progressive who’d devoted more than two decades of his life to the TDSB, Bilkszto never fully recovered from being falsely smeared as a supporter of white supremacy in front of his peers.

This month, Bilkszto, aged 60, committed suicide. I don’t know if he left a note. But according to his family, his suicide related to the false accusations of racism he’d endured in April 2021.

Bilkszto was particularly devastated by the fact that some of his TDSB bosses, whom he’d naively expected to defend him (or at least have the courtesy to say nothing at all), eagerly piled on with the public shaming meted out by their external DEI consultant.

On Twitter, Sheryl Robinson Petrazzini, then the TDSB’s Executive Superintendent, thanked Ojo-Thompson and her KOJO colleague for “modelling the discomfort [that] administrators”—i.e., Bilkszto—“may need to experience in order to disrupt ABR [anti-Black racism].”

For good measure, Robinson Petrazzini also suggested that Bilkszto (whom she did not name, but was the obvious subject of her Tweet) was allied with the forces of “resistance” to anti-racism, and so was abetting “harm to Black students and families.”

Bilkszto personally asked Robinson Petrazzini to delete the Tweet. She did so only eight months later, and only after receiving a letter from Bilkszto’s lawyer warning her that she’d be sued unless she did so.

According to Bilkszto, his other bosses also refused to support him, instead attacking him for his “male white privilege.” And yet, once Bilkszto filed a lawsuit against the TDSB, seeking $785,000 damages for the emotional and reputational harm he’d endured, those same administrators now began claiming that it was Ojo-Thompson who’d gone rogue.

While they’d been perfectly happy to throw Bilkszto under the bus when the stakes were confined to emotional “discomfort,” the TDSB suddenly decided to sue Ojo-Thompson for negligence and breach of contract, demanding that she effectively indemnify the school board for any payout that might become due to Bilkszto. (The TDSB later claimed that it planned to discontinue this suit. But Sakornak reported that it was still a going concern as of June 6.)

I live in Toronto, where my own children have all passed through TDSB schools. Their experience has been a positive one, and I’m happy with the education they’ve received, notwithstanding the sometimes excessive pedagogical focus on race and genderwang. In fact, I have come to sympathize with the teachers—most of them smart hard-working people who find themselves being pressured by their own unions and administrators to adopt militant social-justice postures in their classrooms.

In some school boards, moreover, professional advancement is limited to those who explicitly embrace “anti-racist, high anti-oppressive” leadership principles. So while social-justice puritans comprise a small minority at most schools, they are able to exert disproportionate power in their bid to censure, humiliate, or even oust colleagues, such as Bilkszto, who speak up for the silent majority. In some cases, these ideological enforcers work closely with local race activists and their media allies, so as to harass or censor educators and parents accused of wrongthink.

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While the work of anti-racism careerists such as Ojo-Thompson and TDSB Director of Education Colleen Russell-Rawlins is often justified as a righteous crusade against the forces of privilege, it would be difficult to find a more privileged clique of professionals in the field of Canadian public education.

Prior to getting her $300K-per-year TDSB gig, for instance, Russell-Rawlins served as the anti-racism czar at the (even more dysfunctional) neighboring Peel District School Board. Since coming to the TDSB, she’s presided over a series of embarrassing scandals, including an aborted student census that was discovered to be full of overt social-justice propaganda, a revamping of specialty schooling that was found to have been based on a plagiarized research report, and the cancellation of a speaking event by a Nobel-winning ISIS survivor on the grounds that it might be seen as Islamophobic. She’s blithely sailed through all of this without suffering any career repercussions.

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The same is true of Robinson Petrazzini, the former $200K/year TDSB superintendent who went on Twitter to spike the football when Bilkszto was humiliated by Ojo-Thompson. Shortly after Bilkszto lawyered up, Robinson Petrazzini became Director of Education at the neighbouring Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

As for Ojo-Thompson, she continues to be feted by numerous Canadian organizations and media outlets. In 2022, she served on the board of directors of Parents of Black Children, a Toronto-area lobby group that’s made a name for itself largely by urging school boards to implement the same anti-racism instructional modules that constitute Ojo-Thompson’s own stock-in-trade. (Her partner Rohan served until recently as Workplace Equity Manager with the Peel District School Board, and the two would appear together on stage to talk about “the Impact of Systemic Racism on K-12 Workplace Well-Being.”) The market for the sort of militant anti-racist diatribes that Ojo-Thompson peddles seems inexhaustible within Canada’s corner offices, and I seriously doubt whether even the negative attention resulting from Bilkszto’s death will dent her income.

And in any case, she’s been through this before—for this was not the first time that Ojo-Thompson has encountered “resistance”: A 2021 diversity training session that she delivered to councilors of Sarnia, a small Ontario city on the shores of Lake Huron, reportedly sparked a revolt among some audience members, causing Ojo-Thompson to quit that gig in a huff.

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“The undisputed, uncorrected, and unabated hostility demonstrated by some members of Council toward our Principal Consultant Kike Ojo-Thompson was wholly inappropriate,” declaimed the KOJO Institute’s director of client services, Craig Peters. “There were things that were said in that meeting—that we won’t divulge—that led us to believe that it wasn’t in the organization’s best interest to continue.”

When contacted by The Sarnia Journal, Ojo-Thompson added that the comments she’d heard had made her feel unsafe.

“Safety isn’t always physical,” said Ojo-Thompson. “There is emotional and mental harm that can be done.”

No doubt, Richard Bilkszto (1963-2023) would agree.

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