Toronto’s snow divide: Why the city might plow your neighbour’s sidewalks, but not yours

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In a new occasional series, the Star delves into 311 data to see what our concerns say about the city. In this third instalment, we look at an issue that’s top of mind as the temperature drops: snow clearing.

In the heart of winter, Gina Stoneham’s sidewalk does not get plowed by the city.

Gina Stoneham lives in Rockcliffe-Smythe, the Toronto neighbourhood with the most 311 complaints about snow and ice removal. The city does not clear Stoneham’s sidewalk — but it does plow the same street a short distance to the east.
Gina Stoneham lives in Rockcliffe-Smythe, the Toronto neighbourhood with the most 311 complaints about snow and ice removal. The city does not clear Stoneham’s sidewalk — but it does plow the same street a short distance to the east.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star)

Less than a five-minute walk away, Abigail Manzano’s does.

Both women live on Pritchard Ave., a quiet mostly residential stretch of the West Toronto neighbourhood Rockcliffe-Smythe, dissected by Jane St.

But when it comes to snow and ice, theirs is a tale of two sidewalks. Only the eastern stretch of Pritchard, where Manzano lives, makes the cut for city sidewalk snow clearing.

Manzano says the city usually shows up to clear the sidewalk in front of her home “within 24 hours.”

Meanwhile, the west side, Stoneham finds, often turns into a treacherous icy pass.

“I am so paranoid that my husband bought me a pair of boots last year for Christmas that, with a special key, flip out these spikes,” says the 64-year-old. “Those things saved my life a few times.”

The neighbourhood’s winter partition hints at a deeper divide in the city.

Across Toronto, the city plows the majority of sidewalks, especially major routes. But in a vast and complicated Toronto “no plow zone” — which includes stretches of sidewalks in the old city of Toronto, York and East York — residents are responsible for clearing the sidewalk in front of their own properties.

The city says it’s because of those sidewalks don’t meet criteria for clearing — that they’re too narrow, or there are other obstacles such as utility poles. Critics says it’s the legacy of a pre-amalgamation inequity that’s been carried on.

The no-plow areas are an issue pedestrian and seniors’ advocates say puts people of all ages at risk.

Stoneham, 64, shows off her winter boots with built-in studs for walking on icy sidewalks.
Stoneham, 64, shows off her winter boots with built-in studs for walking on icy sidewalks.  (Andrew Francis Wallace)

A Star analysis of 2018 snow and ice-related calls to 311, the city’s non-emergency hotline, broken down by the first three postal code digits, found the most (165) came from the west Toronto area that includes Rockcliffe-Smythe. Those stats cover complaints in 19 categories, including general snow removal, icy sidewalks, road plowing and sidewalk snow clearing.

Nestled between Weston Rd. and Lambton Woods, just north of the Junction and south of Mount Dennis, Rockcliffe-Smythe is part of zone where some, but not all, sidewalks are plowed. In between the downtown core (where most sidewalks can’t be plowed) and suburban Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York (where most sidewalks can be plowed), according to the city.

Dylan Reid spokesperson for pedestrian advocacy group Walk Toronto calls this approach “perverse.”

“The places where we have the most people using sidewalks and where we have the greatest density of people, are the places where we don’t actually clear snow and ice from the sidewalk.”

The snow divide, Reid says, is a legacy from before amalgamation.

“The old city of Toronto didn’t plow its sidewalks and the suburbs did, and when they amalgamated they didn’t want to spend the extra money to actually expand sidewalk clearing through the old city of Toronto,” he says.

The city’s 311 complaints show fewer calls about snow removal in the downtown core closer to the waterfront.

There’s a concentration of snow complaints in the west-end neighbourhoods around Rockcliffe-Smythe that would fall into the some-sidewalks-cleared-some-not area, as well as the East Beaches/western edge of Scarborough.

Per capita, the western chunk of the old ward of Scarborough Southwest — which also had the most overall noise complaints — topped the list for snow and ice related grumbles.

Stoneham, 64, shows off her winter boots with built-in studs for walking on icy sidewalks.
Stoneham, 64, shows off her winter boots with built-in studs for walking on icy sidewalks.  (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star)

Out of the roughly 7,000 kilometres of sidewalk in the city of Toronto, about 5,900 are plowed mechanically by the city, according to city spokesperson Eric Holmes.

“There are some sidewalks that, unfortunately, equipment cannot safely clear using mechanical means due to encroachments and existing structures (e.g. retaining walls, utility poles, on-street parking, narrow sidewalk etc.),” wrote Holmes in an email. The city offers free sidewalk clearance for seniors and people with disabilities who live in these areas.

The western side of Prichard Ave. does not meet the criteria for sidewalk snow removal, he said, but could not point to which, specifically. The eastern side of Prichard Ave. is cleared because it’s considered a school route, he added.

So far in this relatively mild winter, the city has issued just four notices of inspection in response to complaints across Toronto and they were resolved without fines to homeowners, according to Holmes.

Last winter, the city issued eight fines.

This logic of plowing some areas but not others leaves “a critical piece” of snow clearance missing, says Nancy Smith Lea, director of the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT), who calls on the city to clear all sidewalks, like Ottawa does.

Residents don’t always shovel, even though they can be fined for not clearing their stretches of sidewalk within 12 hours of snowfall. And even one icy patch can be dangerous.

“For many people this is the way that they move around the city,” she said, calling it an equity issue.

“The people who are held prisoner in their homes tend to be the elderly or people with disabilities, people who don’t have cars.”

A 2016 Toronto Public Health report found there were almost 30,000 emergency department visits and 2,800 hospitalizations among Toronto residents due to falls on snow or ice from 2006 to 2015.

This cost the provincial health-care system almost $4 million per year and the city $6.7 million a year in insurance liability claims.

And most falls happen in the areas that the city does not clear, according to the report.

Back in Rockcliffe-Smythe, it’s something Stoneham worries about.

“I can’t afford to fall down and break my hip because I work for myself,” she says, adding it’s unfair there’s sidewalk clearing in some areas and not others.

Aside from sidewalks, she thinks the whole neighbourhood is “neglected,” and often seems to be last on the list when it comes to road plowing.

Rockcliffe-Smythe Community Association co-chair Miriam Hawkins notes it has “wide streets and sidewalks,” sitting up against the western edge of Etobicoke. So there’d “be no issue” with them being too narrow to plow — if that’s why the city isn’t doing it.

“It almost sounds like they’re not committed anywhere in Toronto but if you’re lucky they might do it,” she says.

But as the dual global “mega-trends” of an aging population and climate change intersect, cities need to start paying more attention to snow clearing, said Laura Tamblyn Watts, chief public policy officer at CARP, formerly known as the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

“It’s not going to go away, it’s going to get much more complicated,” she said, with more older adults and more extreme storms.

Even in an average winter, a fall can result in a broken bone or hip and send older adults into a downward spiral, Tamblyn Watts says.

“A safe and clear sidewalk is quite literally the difference between life and death for many older people,” she adds.

“The human cost is real.”

The Star’s 311 Toronto series

Part 1: Toronto is known for dead raccoons and potholes. The city’s 311 nerve centre knows this reputation is well-earned

Part 2: Is this the noisiest neighbourhood in Toronto?

May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11

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Trying to bridge the ‘genomic divide’: Lack of Indigenous data a challenge for researchers

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A prominent U.S. senator turned to genetic testing last month to try to prove her claim that she had Indigenous ancestry.

But in assessing Elizabeth Warren’s DNA, the geneticists were forced to use samples from Mexico, Peru and Colombia because there were no samples from American Indigenous peoples in the reference databases. 

Because the data is missing, Indigenous geneticists Krystal Tsosie of Vanderbilt University and Matthew Anderson of Ohio State University argue that Warren’s test results, which showed Native American ancestry six to 10 generations ago, are a reach.

Many more researchers have joined the discussion regarding Warren’s DNA test results, weighing in on the problems inherent in using genetic databases to unearth Indigenous ancestry.

Indigenous data is missing because « Native American groups within the U.S. have not chosen to participate in recent population genetic studies, » wrote Carlos Bustamante, the geneticist studying Warren’s DNA. That information gap for Indigenous groups exists around the world, including Canada. 

« The Warren news was a distraction from the real work, » said Laura Arbour, one of the lead scientists for the Silent Genome project recently funded by Genome Canada and Genome British Columbia. 

Arbour and her colleagues are trying to develop strategies to better engage Indigenous communities in genomic research.

She describes a growing « genomic divide » that reflects the apparently insatiable appetite among people with a European background to give their DNA to large databases in return for predictions regarding future health and well-being.

Precision medicine

Bridging this « genomic divide » will allow Indigenous people to benefit from a future with precision medicine, says Arbour.

The term precision medicine refers to the use of genomic data to predict which drug will work best for each person.

But precision medicine cannot serve Indigenous people if their reference data is missing.

The lack of representation of Indigenous genomes in large databases reflects a general wariness in that group caused in part by historical cases of genetic research gone wrong. 

One study considered by leading geneticists including Roderick McInnes, former institute director in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, as a game changer involved the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations on Vancouver Island.

The Nuu-chah-nulth have a high frequency of rheumatoid arthritis. The research team collected DNA samples from approximately half of the First Nations members to study the genetic basis for the disorder.

The genetic determinants of rheumatoid arthritis weren’t found, but that wasn’t the big problem. Researchers sent the DNA samples to external facilities for genetic ancestry studies without the knowledge or consent of the participants.

That action created concern around privacy and possible exploitation through the use of the genetic data for commercial gain, Tsosie and Anderson wrote in a piece posted on The Conversation.

Positive relationships

On the other hand, there are examples of positive relationships between Indigenous groups and non-Indigenous genetic researchers. 

Members of the Gitxsan nation in British Columbia, for instance, told Arbour and her colleagues about the high prevalence of sudden cardiac death in their community.

The Gitxsan not only initiated the research into the genetic cause for this disease but also helped supervise the work through advisory and governance committees.

When geneticists were assessing U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s DNA, they had to use samples from Mexico, Peru and Colombia because there were no samples from American Indigenous peoples in the reference databases. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

With that co-operative relationship, the research team found the genetic basis for the prevalence of Long QT syndrome, which can cause sudden cardiac death, in the Gitxsan. A gene mutation was found to be responsible for disrupting normal cardiac rhythm. The Gitxsan could then be effectively treated for Long QT syndrome after that discovery.  

Arbour also sees a need to customize the practices for DNA collection in Indigenous communities so that they maintain control.

One little-known aspect about most genetic testing projects, such as the 1000 Genomes Project or 23andMe, is that they, not the donor, retain ownership of the sample.

Indigenous leaders don’t want this to happen in studies of their people.

DNA obtained from an Indigenous individual should be considered « on loan » to the researcher just for the purpose of the specific research project, says Arbour. Ownership of the sample should be retained by the individual with the future potential to be stored in a « tribal-controlled DNA bank, » she says.

Calls for Indigenous leadership

Indigenous leaders have long recognized the need for Indigenous scientists to take ownership of the research conducted with their DNA.

Writing in the Hill Times last month, Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national, non-profiit organization representing 60,000 Inuit, said that « Inuit are the most researched people in the world — yet with colonial approaches to research … our role is imagined as marginal and of little value. »

He also recently renewed his call for Inuit leadership in the three major Canadian research agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.  

Laura Arbour, one of the lead scientists for the Silent Genome project recently funded by Genome Canada and Genome British Columbia, and her colleagues are trying to develop strategies to better engage Indigenous communities in genomic research. (Brad Lyle, Genome BC)    

Building capacity for Indigenous leadership in genomic research takes time. 

But real change could come through the work of programs like SING, which stands for the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics.

This educational program initiated at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2011 and sponsored by multiple agencies including the National Institutes of Health was geared primarily for Indigenous students in a university undergraduate or graduate degree program in the U.S. but has since spread to Canada and New Zealand. 

The SING workshops aim to give Indigenous students interested in genetic science additional skills and knowledge that would help them move into advisory and leadership roles within genetic research. The workshops of approximately 20 participants have been held annually at multiple U.S. university venues, most recently in Seattle earlier this year.

Katrina Claw, a former SING participant and now a leader of the program in the U.S., says there have been participants from 44 First Nations, including mostly students who are interested in genomic, social and political sciences. 

The SING training workshops include basic scientific methods in DNA sequencing and analysis along with tutorials on the principles of informed consent and ethics relating to DNA data sharing. 

Faculty positions

The Indigenous leader of SING Canada, Kim TallBear, an associate professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, says that genomics research must also be taught with the view of correcting the history of disciplinary mistakes made by scientists.

A significant proportion of SING participants enter the program with a background in genomic science or the social and political sciences and with the intention of learning about Indigenous genomics from a « bioethical and decolonizational perspective, » said TallBear.

The goal of the SING workshops is starting to be realized. According to TallBear, Anderson is another great example of someone of Indigenous descent who started with SING as a graduate student, came up through the ranks to become an assistant professor and is already leading discussions around genomic research in Indigenous communities.

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How a high school brawl exposed an ugly divide on Manitoulin Island

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MANITOULIN ISLAND, ONT.—Before the brawl, there was a breakup. It was typical teenage drama; a boy and girl had parted ways and feelings were hurt. Then one person accused the other of having herpes and soon, ugly rumours of an STD outbreak were spreading through the school and across social media.

Over the next week, tensions mounted at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) and on Sept. 14, they suddenly exploded into a massive lunchtime brawl. Snippets of the violence were captured in videos shared on Snapchat: boys punching girls and girls punching boys; kids being pushed or thrown to the ground; a teenager violently slammed into a parked car.

Avery Byce, a Grade 12 student at Manitoulin Secondary School, believes that issues of racism and bullying need to be addressed at her high school. As a member of the school's student senate, she is now pushing for change.
Avery Byce, a Grade 12 student at Manitoulin Secondary School, believes that issues of racism and bullying need to be addressed at her high school. As a member of the school’s student senate, she is now pushing for change.  (JENNIFER YANG / TORONTO STAR)

The clash lasted for an hour, with as many as 50 students either gawking at the violence or jumping into the fray. Nobody was seriously injured but the brawl left a slew of criminal charges in its wake and exposed deeper divisions that lurk beneath the friendly face of this small island community.

Residents have largely split into two perspectives. For some, this was just a typical case of high school melodrama that spiralled out of control. But others say the fight and its aftermath are symptomatic of a bigger problem that can’t be ignored: anti-Indigenous racism.

Manitoulin Island — a scenic community of 13,255 people located two hours southwest of Sudbury — is a wedge of land bisecting Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. It is considered a sacred place by First Nations people surrounding the Great Lakes. An 1862 treaty opened Manitoulin to white settlement, and self-identified Aboriginal people now make up 41 per cent of islanders who responded to the latest census. At MSS, the island’s only public high school, 30 per cent of students are Indigenous.

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In the eyes of Manitoulin’s First Nations leadership, there were blatant racial overtones to the brawl and the way it was handled by the school and police. They say racism may not have caused the fight but it was the accelerant that ignited an ordinary teenage dispute into a racially charged battle royale — one that now demands an appropriate response from the people entrusted with their children’s education.

For MSS parent Lisa Lanktree, a white woman with adopted children from Wasauksing First Nation, the brawl is a wake-up call — not just for school officials but policy-makers everywhere, from the local Rainbow District School Board to the Ontario legislature.

She says the brawl underscores the stark need for the updated sex-ed and Indigenous curriculums recently cancelled by the provincial government — education that would be particularly impactful in northern schools like MSS, which have limited access to sexual health resources and large Indigenous populations.

“The beginning of the fight started over children having a lack of knowledge about STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and sex and how to have relationships,” Lanktree said. “But the further escalation was due to a lack of understanding between two different cultures and race tensions.

“For it to go from this little fight to this explosion — it’s like there was so much tension already existing. That escalation is a symptom that something needs to be addressed.”


On Sept 14, a flurry of text messages began to light up Linda Debassige’s phone. “Chief, there’s a big fight here!” “Will you come find out what’s going on?”

Debassige is the 36-year-old chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation and the texts were streaming in from students at MSS, a school located on a parcel of land that belongs to a township called Billings but sits on traditional M’Chigeeng territory. Alarmed, she immediately drove one kilometre down the road to MSS, where she discovered the school in chaos.

After a few days investigating what happened, Debassige sat down and typed a sharply worded press release. “M’Chigeeng First Nation has learned that this situation originated between two non-Indigenous students from Little Current and later escalated to involve youth members of M’Chigeeng and other First Nation members in a very demoralizing and demeaning way,” she wrote.

“The M’Chigeeng Chief and Council is concerned that this incident is an indicator of a deeper, more disturbing reality, which is underlying racism that has now reared its ugly head yet again.”

Several students who spoke to the Star confirmed that the initial breakup drama had nothing to do with First Nations students. But when rumours of a herpes outbreak began to circulate, fingers started pointing at Indigenous kids, especially those from M’Chigeeng.

Pierre Debassige is a Grade 12 student at Manitoulin Secondary School and chief of the school's Three Fires Student Confederacy. He says racism played a role in escalating a student brawl that occurred on Sept. 14.
Pierre Debassige is a Grade 12 student at Manitoulin Secondary School and chief of the school’s Three Fires Student Confederacy. He says racism played a role in escalating a student brawl that occurred on Sept. 14.

“People started saying all First Nations have herpes,” according to Debassige’s 17-year-old son, Pierre, a Grade 12 student at MSS. “Like everybody else, we don’t like being accused of things. And I guess some kids just reacted wrong.”

One girl said students started calling out the word “herpes” as they passed her and other M’Chigeeng kids in the hallway and the situation was so upsetting that she failed a math test. This girl, who was charged after the fight and can’t be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, alleges she reported the bullying to school staff but “they did nothing about it.”

When reached by the Star, both the school principal and district board said they were declining interview requests “out of respect for the First Nations communities.” According to a spokesperson, the board is meeting with communities in the upcoming weeks and is “committed to working together to move forward in a positive way.”

On the day of the fight, a crowd gathered on the “happy trail,” a forested garbage-strewn path near the school where students like to smoke. According to witnesses, the teens formed into two rows — one that was mostly Indigenous and one that mostly wasn’t — and began hurling racial insults like “you dirty Indian” and “you white trash.”

“A lot of people were referring to it at the time as ‘cowboys versus Indians,’ ” said Pierre Debassige.

Nobody seems to know who threw the first punch but he said the brawl lasted for roughly an hour, subsiding only when police showed up. One adult who tried to break up the fight, reportedly a school staffer, was captured on video shouting at a boy who threw a large stick — a scene that outraged many on social media, where they accused the adult of calling the boy “brown trash.”

(The video has been viewed by the Star and while the word “trash” is audible, he does not appear to say the word “brown” though his exact words are difficult to hear. School principal Jamie Mohamed did not respond to emailed questions about this incident.)

Concerns of racism further intensified when the Ontario Provincial Police announced initial charges, including assault and uttering threats, against six people — five youth and a 38-year-old woman. Two, including the woman, are related to the girl who allegedly complained to the school about being bullied. All are from M’Chigeeng.

“It’s always the First Nations kids that get charged,” said one MSS parent from M’Chigeeng, who cannot be named because her son, a minor, was charged. “They let this slide for so long and nobody came to help the students. I just feel like our students were backed into a corner.”

Speaking to the Star on Sept. 20, OPP Const. Marie Ford said the only reason these people were the first to be charged is because other suspects — some of them non-Indigenous — couldn’t be arrested until they were located or contacted by police. The OPP has since laid charges against four more youth and a 20-year-old, three of whom live in First Nations communities and two who come from predominantly white townships. No more charges are anticipated, Ford said.

Linda Debassige is upset to see mostly Indigenous people charged when online videos depict plenty of non-Indigenous kids engaged in the violence. The way this was handled, she says, is a “blatant attempt to shift the blame on Indigenous people yet again.”

Others have pushed back against the notion that racism played a role in the fight, or persists at MSS. “While the pundits of social media were quick to spin the incident as racially motivated, there is little evidence from what has so far been revealed that this is in fact the case,” said an editorial in the Manitoulin Expositor.

“Manitoulin Island has largely been something of a poster child for reconciliation and good relations between communities,” the editorial later continued. “This is something that many Islanders, particularly those of previous generations, have taken great pride in.”

On a recent October day, several students who spoke to the Star, some of whom identify as Indigenous, agreed the racism angle was overblown. Many pointed to friendships or romantic relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous classmates as proof of racial harmony amongst the 428 students who attend MSS. One parent, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation against her children, felt the fight was more of a “territorial” dispute between kids from M’Chigeeng and Little Current, which is predominantly white.

But for Pierre Debassige, chief of the school’s Indigenous student confederacy, racism is “alive and well” at MSS. He recalls how during his first week of school, a student complained about Indigenous people not paying taxes. When he grew his hair longer, he was teased for looking like a “squaw,” an offensive term for Indigenous women.

Avery Byce, a Grade 12 student at Manitoulin Secondary School, believes that issues of racism and bullying need to be addressed at her high school. As a member of the school's student senate, she is now pushing for change.
Avery Byce, a Grade 12 student at Manitoulin Secondary School, believes that issues of racism and bullying need to be addressed at her high school. As a member of the school’s student senate, she is now pushing for change.

Avery Byce, a Grade 12 student and member of the student senate, believes important issues are being ignored.

“We push it under the rug, all of the negative things that have happened here, like the racism and bullying,” says Byce, who has Indigenous heritage. “With the fight, it was like having all of those feelings bottled up and then exploding like a time bomb.”

Many parents from M’Chigeeng say racism is a long-standing problem at MSS, stretching back to when they attended the school, which was opened in 1969. Linda Debassige says she experienced it when she attended high school and band manager Sam Manitowabi still remembers bathroom graffiti in the 1980s claiming “Indians are fags.”

Patsy Noakes, a band member who lives off the reserve, says all four of her kids who attended MSS experienced anti-Indigenous discrimination.

Her youngest daughter, Nekiiyaa, left the school after a painful incident in 2015, when she overheard a secretary complaining about “those damn Native kids.” She says she condemned the statement on Facebook and school officials told her they would look into it, but nothing ever came of it.

Meanwhile, students started to harass her for coming forward, even accusing her of lying. She eventually left MSS and enrolled at Kenjgewin Teg, a learning institute on Manitoulin that emphasizes a First Nations approach to education.

“I didn’t feel welcome at that school no more,” said Nekiiyaa, now 20.

Advocates say dropout rates are a pervasive problem for First Nations kids, especially those who live on reserve. According to recent Rainbow school board statistics, only 33 per cent of Indigenous students who live on reserve graduated from high school in its catchment area, compared to 72 per cent of students overall.

At Kenjgewin Teg, which has one classroom dedicated to high school students who struggle in other educational settings, about 75 per cent of the 30 seats are occupied by teenagers who’ve left MSS, according to executive director Stephanie Roy.

The 11 First Nations that send kids to Rainbow District schools are represented by Indigenous trustee Grace Fox. She did not respond to interview requests but during a peaceful rally from M’Chigeeng to MSS shortly after the brawl, she expressed frustrations over the systemic challenges.

“It has been quite difficult to be Anishinaabekwe within this corporation,” she said. “You want Anishinaabe students to succeed, you want them to graduate, you want them to practise their language, their culture, in a setting such as this.

“I literally cry when I go to graduations, when I go to awards nights (and) see the absence of First Nations students at these functions.”

Manitowabi, whose daughter now attends MSS, worries that anti-Indigenous sentiment may have actually worsened compared to when he was in high school, ironically because of the increased attention paid to Indigenous issues in recent years. “More people are becoming aware of Aboriginal treaty rights and inherent rights and freedoms,” he says. “The mainstream (white communities) may feel that they’re not being treated as fairly anymore.”

MSS currently offers 10 courses on Indigenous history and culture, along with two programs in partnership with Kenjgewin Teg.

While several Indigenous students at MSS said they wanted more Indigenous content in classrooms, this sentiment was not shared by a group of students who spoke to the Star on a recent Tuesday. While smoking cigarettes at the happy trail, these students, who were mostly non-Indigenous, complained they were learning “too much” about Indigenous issues.

“Year after year, we’re hearing the same thing about residential schools,” one said. “It’s like, I get it. But it’s not the worst thing to have happened to anyone.”

“Why does every book I read have to do with natives?” asked another. “I might as well be going to Ojibwe class.”

These students felt the racism angle of the brawl was overblown. They said Indigenous communities were exploiting the incident for media attention because “M’Chigeeng’s got nothing going for it.” They also stated as fact that M’Chigeeng students were the source of the herpes outbreak, while arguing it wasn’t racist to point this out.

But how did they know there was actually a herpes outbreak? “We just know,” said one student, who also said he didn’t want to drink from water fountains for fear of catching herpes. (In reality, experts say, the chances of contracting herpes from a water fountain are highly unlikely.)

Linda Debassige sees a lack of understanding over how racism can be manifested. Just because kids of different races mingle or date each other doesn’t mean anti-Indigenous attitudes no longer lurk beneath the surface. She questions why students were so quick to believe M’Chigeeng kids were the source of a herpes outbreak, which may not even have been real.

“It shows and demonstrates the normalization of the old adage of Indians being ‘dirty,’ ” she said.

Debassige agrees this painful incident demonstrates a need for better sexual health education at MSS. The updated curriculum, repealed by the provincial government this summer, would have contained updated information on STDs, as well as information about consent, social media and LGBTQ issues.

She and other advocates also feel strongly that students need more, not less, education on Indigenous culture and history. A revised Indigenous curriculum grounded in truth and reconciliation, which was cancelled by the province, would be particularly helpful in bringing peace to a school like MSS, says Roy.

“I think had that curriculum been in place 10 years ago, the racial undertones would not have resulted. All it would have been is an altercation,” Roy said.

For Debassige, a first and crucial step for Manitoulin Island is to acknowledge and confront systemic racism, something she believes the school and board have yet to do. In a television interview after the brawl, the principal of MSS was asked whether he believed racism was an issue at the school; he responded no. The next day, the school held an “anti-racism assembly,” but many students felt it was superficial and unhelpful.

“There are blatant denials of the actual realities, and an attempt to push the issue once again under the rug so that it doesn’t have to be addressed,” Debassige says. “Racism is a disgusting topic to talk about. But until you talk about it, you can’t create results.”

Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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