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New Details in the Tragic Case of Toronto Educator Richard Bilkszto

New Details in the Tragic Case of Toronto Educator Richard Bilkszto

A Freedom-of-Information request sheds light on the Toronto District School Board’s ‘abusive, egregious and vexatious’ anti-racism trainer.

· 7 min read

Last July, I told Quillette readers about Richard Bilkszto, a veteran Toronto public-school principal who was denounced and humiliated in front of co-workers by an “anti-racist” training consultant named Kike Ojo-Thompson. An Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) investigation subsequently concluded that Ojo-Thompson’s behaviour had been “abusive, egregious and vexatious, and [rose] to the level of workplace harassment and bullying.”

I came to know Richard in the aftermath of that April 2021 episode. He was a sensitive and politically progressive gay man who’d devoted his life to public education. As a recording of his Zoom interactions with Ojo-Thompson showed, he’d done nothing more than politely ask a good-faith question that challenged her hyperbolic claims about the supposedly white supremacist nature of Canadian society. I was glad to see Richard vindicated, both at the WSIB and in the larger court of Canadian public opinion.

His story ended tragically, however: Last July, he committed suicide, having never fully recovered psychologically from the experience of being falsely denounced as a racist in front of his peers. A statement released by his family members indicated their belief that he’d ended his life due to the distress caused by Ojo-Thompson (who still holds herself out as “an anti-racism and anti-Black racism educator, speaker, and organizational change facilitator”). For many Canadians, the grim episode has come to symbolize the cruel and hectoring tendencies that suffuse many anti-racism struggle sessions.

Adding to the scandal was the disclosure that the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) had paid Ojo-Thompson’s corporate alter-ego (the “KOJO Institute”) no less than $81,000—an eyebrow-raising figure given that her services consisted of leading a handful of Zoom meetings with groups of TDSB educators.

Podcast #219: When DEI ‘Training’ Becomes Harassment—A Tragic Canadian Case Study
Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay speaks with municipal politician Bill Dennis about diversity consultant Kike Ojo-Thompson, whose training methods became infamous following the recent suicide of Toronto educator Richard Bilkszto (1963-2023). RIP, Richard Bilkszto, a Toronto Educator Who Stood up…

All of my children have passed through TDSB schools, which, I can attest, operate under severe budget limitations. I’ve seen administrative and teaching assistants let go because the schools simply couldn’t afford to keep them on the payroll. These were hard-working people whose annual salary is about half of what the TDSB doled out to Ojo-Thompson for a single series of online meetings. How could the school board have justified that expenditure?

Thanks to disclosures recently made under the auspices of Ontario’s Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, we now have a clearer answer to that question. On January 22, I received a set of documents pertaining to Ojo-Thompson’s lucrative dealings with the TDSB. More may be on the way next month.

One surprising fact about her $81,000 deal (formally classified under “Provision of Professional Learning in Anti-Black Racism for System Leaders & Board of Trustees”) is that it was paid out on a sole-sourced basis. Which is to say that there were no competitive bids—the contract was just handed to Ojo-Thompson outright. As TDSB Finance, Budget and Enrolment Committee documents show, this is unusual for such a big-ticket school-board contract.

The TDSB Sole/Single Source form that purports to justify the deal was signed by exactly one person: the board’s then-Associate Director for Equity, Colleen Russell-Rawlins—the same administrator who now serves as the TDSB’s Director of Education for the entire school board. (The document is also annotated with a complaint from the TDSB purchasing department, indicating that its staff had been kept in the dark about the arrangement.)

Since organizing the infamous KOJO seminars, Russell-Rawlins has been ensnared in various other scandals connected to her social-justice agenda, including a botched student census aimed at advancing “Quantitative Critical Race Theory”; a teardown of the merit-based system used to provide access to the TDSB’s popular specialty schools; and a book-club ban of Nobel Prize laureate Nadia Murad’s 2017 memoir, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, on the (bizarre) claim that the Yazidi refugee’s words might promote Islamophobia.

TDSB reviewing nixing of Nobel Prize laureate appearance and book
The Toronto District School Board appears to be reconsidering its nixing of a book by 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad.

Russell-Rawlins wasn’t the only high-level TDSB official who failed upward after the Ojo-Thompson fiasco. Another was then-Education Superintendent Sheryl Robinson Petrazzini, who led a “breakout” session during the KOJO training. Robinson Petrazzini went on Twitter to publicly applaud Ojo-Thompson’s decision to target Richard as a case study in “modelling the discomfort [that] administrators”—i.e., Richard—“may need to experience in order to disrupt ABR [anti-Black racism].” She removed that tweet only after receiving a letter from Richard’s lawyers, shortly before taking a plum job as Education Director of Ontario’s Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

The TDSB is supposed to apply checks and balances that ensure this kind of sole-sourced contract is above-board. Indeed, the applicable documentation states that such non-competitive procurement processes may be used only for “goods or services where there is only one available supplier for the source of the goods.” Which is to say that Russell-Rawlins and her colleagues were required to attest that Ojo-Thompson was supposedly the only “available supplier” for the desired type of anti-racism training.

This seems dubious on its face, and the vague justifications entered in the “Background” and “Justification” boxes on the submitted form raise further questions. The TDSB’s budget committee was informed that implementing anti-racism training had become “more urgent following the murder of George Floyd and the calls to disrupt systemic anti-Black racism”; and that there would be “personal harm to our students, staff and families, as well as both financial and reputational damage to the TDSB” if this sort of anti-racism training weren’t immediately purchased.

As tragic as Floyd’s death was, it took place in another country, and had nothing to do with Toronto, much less its public education system. It’s hard to escape the impression that Russell-Rawlins and her colleagues were simply name-checking Floyd in a bid to pass off an expensive single-source training contract as “urgent”; while ominously raising the spectre of “reputational damage” for anyone who balked.

In explaining why only KOJO could deliver these services, notwithstanding the many other players within Canada’s DEI consulting industry, Russell-Rawlins (or, more likely, one of her subordinates) copied and pasted promotional text from the “About KOJO Institute” section of Ojo-Thompson’s own corporate web site (garbling the grammar in the process): “The experience of the KOJO Institute in [sic] guided dozens of organizations and institutions, both in the public and private sectors, towards social justice and systems change.”

To this plagiarized text was added the vague claim that TDSB staff had given (presumably positive) “feedback” about “recent professional learning facilitated by the KOJO Institute,” and (dubiously) that it was hard to find an anti-racist trainer who could perform online training of “large groups.”

These brief explanations seem to have been written by someone who thought (correctly, it turns out) that getting KOJO’s contract past the TDSB’s oversight structures would be a formality. Amid the racial social panic of mid-2020, it’s doubtful that anyone at the TDSB was eager to ask any questions once the appropriate anti-racist buzz words were trotted out.

Nor could Russell-Rawlins have been too worried about scrutiny from the media, which was embracing the same kind of racial social panic in that post-George Floyd moment. At about the same time that Ojo-Thompson was landing her fat contract with the TDSB, in fact, she was also getting paid out by Toronto’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, to lecture staff with anti-racist bromides such as “uncritical benevolence concretizes superiority.”

We know this because Shree Paradkar, the newspaper’s “social and racial justice columnist” (and, at the time, the publisher’s official in-house anti-racism enforcer), gushed publicly about this fact, and even helpfully supplied a photo of Ojo-Thompson providing “a depth of contextual equity” to the Star newsroom.

Just a week after Richard Bilkszto committed suicide, Paradkar was back on Twitter to promote Ojo-Thompson’s commercial services, while also using her weekly column to denounce the pro-Bilkszto “political opportunists” who dared launch “an attack on anti-racism.”

As for the TDSB, it announced “an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the tragic passing of Richard Bilkszto” back in July, while also pointedly insisting that it wouldn’t stop requiring “equity training sessions for all staff.” The TDSB noted that this investigation would “take time to complete.” That was six months ago. To my knowledge, no one’s heard anything about it since.

And so what we are left with isn’t just the tragic story of a tolerant and liberal-minded educator viciously bullied (at taxpayer expense) in the name of social justice, but also a tale of institutional failure, in which the checks and balances normally applied to hold our public education system accountable proved no match for the talismanic power of social-justice rhetoric. It’s something to remember the next time someone in any organization seeks to justify a program of ideological programming on an “urgent” basis.

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