An event called Slave Day at a Chilliwack area middle school raised $450.
The money came from students willing to pay for the privilege of having a Leadership student be their slave for the day. This reportedly happened at Rosedale middle school in 2009. Evidence of it surfaced online this week in the wake of other local allegations of school-based racism.
The Slave Day information popped up on Instagram from an account called Black Vancouver. They shared several images, including one of a Rosedale “Student Auction” day page from a yearbook. The caption with the photos says it was the school’s second annual event, involving Grade 8 and 9 students who were auctioned off.
“Rosedale students could buy slaves in the auction and use them the following day,” it reads. “Obedient slaves carried books, wrestled, dressed in crazy costumes and committed outrageous stunts to please their masters and the crowd.”
The post was created on June 9, with many followers of the Instagram account calling for immediate action by the school district. By 8 a.m. the next morning, June 10, the district’s interim superintendent Rohan Arul-pragasam issued a press release (See full press release below this story).
“I thank those who have brought forward these events,” he wrote. “Hearing about them makes us all in the School District reflect on what we did, what we could have done better, and what we can do to prevent these things from happening again.”
He wrote directly of the Rosedale student auction in his letter.
“That is wrong,” he wrote. “And just as it is wrong today, it was wrong then. We take responsibility for that and I unreservedly apologize on behalf of the District for that event.”
Past students of several Chilliwack schools have been speaking out about their experiences over the past few weeks, including a time a student was allowed to wear black face for a mock trial. Many local students and grads of colour also spoke at a Chilliwack Black Lives Matter March, at Central Community Park on June 5.
The originator of the post about the Slave Day, Layla Mohammed, now 24, spoke with The Progress about why she went public. When she saw news coverage of the black face that took place at G.W. Graham, it triggered a memory of what she had experienced more than 10 years ago at Rosedale middle.
She asked her friends if they remembered and had photos, and sure enough, they did.
“It’s awful that as a black person experiencing these pains, that people don’t believe me, that I need proof,” she said.
She wasn’t involved in the Slave Day, as she was not accepted into the elective Leadership class. But she now clearly recalls the day, including a teacher “having a collar and leash on a student and telling them to crawl like a dog.”
“It was a form of entertainment. It was making a mockery of the slave trade, which happened. And that is offensive to my identity,” she said. Mohammed was a Muslim at the time, is half Black and half Asian, and wore a hijab.
Some supporters of the event have said she is overreacting and that it was a learning opportunity.
“Yes, they’re learning racism,” she says in response.
She wants people to know she is not “asking for blood” by bringing this up. She wants an acknowledgement that it happened, apologies, and a better school district. Her younger siblings are still at the school and she hopes that bringing these past events to light will create a better learning environment for them today.
“I want the school to be a safe place for them,” she says. “That’s why I’m being so adamant about this.”
She also wants people to put their love and admiration for the teachers involved aside, and think about the big picture, she said.
As for the black face that took place at G.W. Graham, Arul-pragasam has now spoken to that issue twice.
“Another incident involved a student wearing black face as part of a mock trial classroom exercise,” he wrote. “A picture of that ended up in the yearbook. The school bears responsibility for allowing it to happen. Today we can look back and ask how did we let that happen? But we did, and we need to take responsibility. We do.”
And while he apologized for the events that have come to light, he also asked if those with stories of racism contact him directly instead of through social media.
“There are potentially other incidents and experiences of racism and other discrimination that have taken place in our District. I want to hear from the community about them, preferably directly instead of through social media, which I find difficult to engage authentically in meaningful dialogue. I want to hear ideas about how we can be better,” he said.
The current principal of the school, Paula Jordan, has also issued a statement assuring the public and families that the event no longer takes place and hasn’t for some time.