Graphic depicting group of multicultural people holding flags and walking together with raised fists and loudly agitating.


The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies of school boards are increasingly being challenged and called divisive. This, even though they are necessary to meet the needs and ensure the well-being of the students these boards serve.   

DEI policies are a response to the changing demographics of Ontario, a change I witnessed first-hand as an educator and principal. They are a response to research and represent the tangible steps taken to meet the professional obligation of school boards to uphold the Ontario Human Rights Code. They are a response to the moral imperative that public education must serve all students, not just some.   

However, a negative narrative has begun to surround the work of equity and inclusion. This narrative uses misinformation to sow doubt and concern. It is untrue to say that equity programs teach that white students do not work hard or put a lot of effort into being successful. They teach that the challenges these students encounter are not based on the colour of their skin. That is a fact.  

At the same time, it is untrue to say that DEI teaches racialized students that personal effort cannot result in success. It teaches that if they face challenges based on the colour of their skin, gender, ability, religion, sexual identity or orientation, these challenges can be overcome.   

I saw evidence of this work in action at the recent Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) Black Brilliance conference for elementary students. Held at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), professors offered workshops such as Music is Your Pathway, A Career with Computers, and Is Your Future in Business? These workshops spoke to the opportunities and success available to students, not their inability to achieve it.  

As a former principal, I wonder what differences programs and initiatives like this would have made for the students in my school. Would more students have felt welcomed and supported? Would more students have been ready to learn and grow to their full potential each day? What difference would this have made for the wider community, if more students were able to follow their dreams after graduation? I wonder why these possible outcomes are seen as something to be resisted.  

Some critics of DEI policies claim that racialized groups were never in danger of failing in the first place. That’s not what decades of research and evidence says. The evidence that some racialized groups are failing and will continue to fail is overwhelming.   

Focusing specifically on literacy, the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s  Right to Read inquiry report, found that “certain groups, particularly boys, Black students, students from low-income homes, and First Nations, Métis and Inuit students are underperforming.”   

A 2018 study, Learning Skills, System Equity, and Implicit Bias Within Ontario, Canada, found that implicit bias plays a significant role in how students’ learning skills were assessed, but also saw an opportunity for policy to help address the barriers this may place in front of students as they move towards a post-secondary pathway.   

Equity and inclusion policies are built on the research-backed understanding that identity is an integral part of effective governance. This is recognized internationally. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies social determinants of health: the non-medical factors that affect health outcomes. In Canada these have been recognized in policy since the 1990s and are the framework for public health. Race and gender are named social determinants. These are not imagined constructs of political activism.  

I am proud to see that the WRDSB has dared to accept this information, to learn from it, and to move to action in creating a public education system that better supports the academic achievement and well-being of every student it serves. It encourages students and families to speak theirthe truth. What is divisive is to claim that they lie; to claim that their truth is fabricated or the result of a lack of effort.   

The WRDSB is not alone in identifying instances of hate and harm in our community.  

A 2022 report compiled by the Coalition of Muslim Women of KW showed that a total of 104 reports of hate or discrimination were received in a 12-month period. In 2021, the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area had the fifth highest number of police-reported hate crimes among Ontario cities, according to Statistics Canada.   

More recently, the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) reported a disturbing 94% increase in hate-motivated crime in our community in 2023, compared to 2022. This data is especially concerning as incidents and crimes surrounding hate are under-reported, leading to an inaccurate understanding of hate in our community. To address this rise, the City of Waterloo published a guide in 2023 entitled Responding to Hate-Motivated Incidents  

Incidents of hate are not limited to words. In June 2023, a “planned and targeted” attack was carried out against students and faculty in a gender studies class at the University of Waterloo. WRPS confirmed it was “a hate-motivated incident related to gender expression and gender identity.”  

These attitudes and actions in our community impact the students the WRDSB serves.  

The higher suicide rate of students who identify as 2SLGBTQIA+ is also well researched and documented. A summary from the Mental Health Commission of Canada shows that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are five times more likely to consider suicide, and seven times more likely to attempt suicide. Further, a study from 2022 published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found increased risk of suicidal ideation in teens experiencing sexual attraction to the same or multiple genders.  

“[…]n Nearly 50% of transgender respondents said they had seriously thought about suicide in the past 12 months, compared to 10.4% of cisgender heterosexual respondents,” the report said.   

The study also found that transgender adolescents were 7.6 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts.  

The WRDSB would be negligent in not responding to these concerns. It would be negligent to ignore the impact they have on a student’s ability to learn. Response is critical if the school board is to effectively deliver its core product: supporting a student’s ability to achieve academically and improve their well-being.   

Equity and inclusion policies are built on the fundamental understanding that student well-being is a necessary component of improving student academic achievement. The WRDSB’s Board Improvement and Equity Plan results from the 2022-23 school year show that these efforts are having the intended impact. WRDSB results are a demonstration of how DEI policies support the goal outlined by the Ministry of Education in Bill 98, the Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act (2023): tangible, measurable learning and achievement.   

“This 2014 document helped school boards review, develop, implement and monitor equity and inclusive education policies that support student achievement and well-being,” the Ministry of Education states in its Guidelines for equity and inclusive education policy development and implementation.   

Bill 98’s focus on academic achievement does not nullify this existing Ministry policy. The Ministry understands the connection between well-being and achievement.   

The evidence shows that policies that address diversity, equity and inclusion are necessary if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated. As a former principal and educator, I know how necessary this work is to ensure that every student can do their best as they learn and grow. As a parent, I know how important respect and inclusion are to a child’s mental health.  

DEI only becomes a divisive idea if we reject the research and knowledge that informs it. We cannot ask school boards to compromise on the principles of upholding human rights and dignity. Without it, they will not be able to achieve their goal of supporting the academic achievement and well-being of every student that they serve.   

Maedith Radlein is a former educator and school principal with over 30 years of experience. She has taught at the elementary, secondary and tertiary levels and is currently a Trustee for the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB).   

These opinions are my own.