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To Kill a Mockingbird ban exposes culture of fear at Peel school board

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Snap quiz, teachers. Put your hands up.

Which book was just voted America’s best-loved novel?

Answer: To Kill a Mockingbird.

To be clear: The results arose from a PBS documentary series, organized around a Top 100 finalists list – chosen through a “demographically diverse’’ national poll – with 4.3 million votes cast.

Nice sideways smackdown, I’d say, of the Peel District School Board.

Oh, they were in a social media huff last week, the pedants, pedagogues and polemicists, following media reveal of a four-page memo sent to teachers which slammed Harper Lee’s seminal Pulitzer Prize novel for its purported “racist text,” “white supremacist framework,” “white savior trope” – that would be small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch – and the potential harm to racialized students. Because apparently teachers in 2018 can’t be trusted to discuss the novel sensitively, within a modern context, alive to the feelings of racialized students.

One board member told me all literature should be assessed through an “anti-oppression” lens. I countered that the only lens which ought to be pointed should be clear-eyed, rather than distorting, under the guise of identity ideology.

Read more:

Peel school board urges teachers to take ‘anti-oppression lens’ to teaching To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird chosen as America’s best-loved novel on The Great American Read

Peel isn’t paying any mind to parents or students – never mind teachers – who disagree with this premise of presumptive and privileged white bias. Into my mailbox was forwarded a memo from Peel’s director of education, Peter Joshua.

To Kill a Mockingbird may only be taught in Peel secondary schools, beginning this school year, if instruction occurs through a critical, anti-oppression lens.

“When To Kill a Mockingbird is taught outside of this context, the novel has the potential to cause hurt and harm. As educators, we have an obligation to provide learning environments that are safe and inclusive – that honour staff and students’ identities, cultures and lived experiences, including those of the Black community. Of this, there can be no debate.”

Well actually yeah, there is debate, plenty of it, certainly about the means by which this diktat is being applied.

Note, by the way, there’s nothing in that fiat about opening young minds, fostering critical thinking, or merely appreciating the literary qualities of a novel that shone a splendid light on bigotry, inequality and injustice. These are attributes which have been widely applauded by numerous contemporary Black authors.

In practice, what the directive means – many worried Peel educators contacted me about this – is that teachers will be audited in class, will need to have their instruction plans pre-cleared by their principals, and can expect little support should a complaint be lodged.

For the purposes of this column, these teachers asked not to be identified by name or any other particulars that might expose them to professional backlash. That’s the culture of fear that has been engendered in Peel where, I’m told, only seven schools have decided to keep teaching the novel, primarily because they have principals with principles and a backbone.

“John” is a middle school teacher of two decades classroom experience who has regretfully chosen not to fight the jackboots.

“We knew something was up because they’d conducted surveys, at first anonymously, of who was teaching the book. They were trolling. Then they did another survey and many of us were concerned that our names would be put on a list. Part of the deal was that they would provide new culturally appropriate texts to replace To Kill A Mockingbird.

“In my department, we discussed among ourselves, how could we manage to teach it within the guidelines we were given. The book has so many rich teaching aspects to it. But suddenly all the focus was on the N-word and Atticus Finch as this white knight figure. Those who wanted to teach the novel were told that the classes would be monitored, there would be a formal written evaluation, and if we didn’t ‘pass’, it would go to a superintendent.

“There’s a significant amount of pressure to eradicate To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum. No one in my English department was willing to teach it under those terms. I wasn’t prepared to do it on my own. Any teacher who would purposely teach it is rolling the dice on their career. This is unprecedented. What next, The Merchant of Venice because Shylock is a Jewish moneylender without remorse. Maybe they’ll decide Shakespeare isn’t appropriate for this age. Is this the first shot across the bow to see how much pushback they get?’’

“Elizabeth” has taught the novel for a dozen years. But no more.

She attended a recent professional development day where the author of that aforementioned memo – Poleen Grewal, associate director of instructional and equity support services – justified her position and complained about the media’s attention.

“We were told that if we speak to the media about this, that would be quite problematic.’’

Elizabeth has no problem with the “canon” of texts being continually assessed as more contemporary authors are included and some of the classics are dropped. “But the text of To Kill a Mockingbird is so rich. It opens up class discussions to issue of class, prejudice, feminism, justice.

“I have a very diverse group of students. Not one Black student in all these years has objected to the book or said they were hurt by the language. Not one parent has ever approached me. We’ve had fabulously intellectually discussions in class.

“This memo implies that all white writers are white supremacists. That’s what we were told at the PD. I don’t like anybody calling me that. I think someone has a bee in their bonnet about To Kill a Mockingbird and they want to get it out of the schools.”

“Margaret” is new-ish to the teaching profession. She adores To Kill a Mockingbird, enjoys rediscovering it with students, seeing the novel through fresh eyes and teaching it through the prism of current sensibilities and race and inclusion.

“The book is about a specific time and place but its themes are timeless and very much relevant to the world we live in right now. If Harper Lee were to write it today, of course it would read differently. Maybe it wouldn’t be told through the eyes of a white lawyer and his tomboy daughter. But that would make it a different book. And we do teach other books with other voices. It’s not as if students are getting just one viewpoint. But the board doesn’t trust us to do our jobs properly.”

I won’t cite here the tweets and emails from righteous educators who have distilled all the ills of these toxic times into the text of a beloved novel.

But a word to the un-wise: You are what you profess to loathe – blinkered, doctrinaire, devoid of discernment and consumed with racial bigotry.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste by banning books.

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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