For the past few months, a former Toronto District School Board principal named Richard Bilkszto, who in 2021 encountered shocking harassment by a DEI trainer, has been embroiled in a legal dispute over the cancellation and fallout he received from the incident. It’s a story many of us have been following since the lawsuit was filed. 

Last week, that principal committed suicide.

Richard Bilkszto spent 24 years working for the Toronto District School Board, most recently as a principal at Burnhamthorpe Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke. 

In 2021 Richard attended a mandatory DEI session at TDSB. This session was delivered by an instructor who put forward that Canada was more racist than the U.S as Canada has never reckoned with its anti-black history.

When Richard disagreed with this statement and suggested that ‘it would be an incredible disservice to our learners’ to suggest that the United States is a more just society than Canada, the consultant replied, and I quote:

“We are here to talk about anti-Black racism, but you in your whiteness think that you can tell me what’s really going on for Black people?”.

The instructor then brought up this incident in a subsequent session at TDSB and described it as a ‘real life’ example of resistance in support of ‘white supremacy’.

I was advised about Richard’s death by a friend who was quite close to him. It’s taken me a long time to put together a video because this whole tragedy has left me with very few words. I didn’t know Richard well. A little over a month ago I attended an event where he spoke and I made note of how articulately he expressed what a world of equality could, and should, look like.

I wanted to introduce myself to him after his presentation but as it turned out he sought me out before I had the chance. Apparently, he watched my videos and told me he found that the way I softened the rhetoric on transgender matters inspiring. We had a lovely conversation and I took his contact information in the hopes of reaching out for further discussion. I hadn’t yet done that.

As I’ve searched for words in light of Richard’s passing, I’ve landed on one word in particular: Helplessness. That’s what I feel right now with our identity politics divide and from what I’ve been told by those close to him I suspect that’s what Richard felt in his final weeks as well.

Helpless, because this was a man who had dedicated his professional career to the establishment of equality for all learners. This was incredibly important to him, and that’s why he felt compelled to speak up when he observed a drift away from unity amongst differences and towards divisive approaches of understanding race, sexuality and gender. Amid a climate of divisive language.

Richard raised a counter consideration: that it is deleterious to teach—not that Canadian’s, like all civilizations, have blemishes where we can strengthen the fabric of our society—but that by virtue of immutable characteristics of our race, sex, gender or citizenship—some of us are inherently bad, ill-intentioned or shameful.

See, Richard embodied healthy dialogue where disagreement is possible. Richard believed in open conversation and the exchange of ideas from diverse perspectives.

I agree with Richard’s that it’s unhelpful to take an approach to discourse laced in consternation. Educators such as Richard—who have dedicated their lives to the instruction of young minds—know very well that constructive approaches to learning, whereby we positively reinforce the behaviour we wish to see habitualized, are far more effective than creating environments of shame and blame. The latter might create compliance, but it comes with resentment and division that don’t actually solve the problems at hand.

Educators know that praising those who model loving, accepting and inclusive behaviour is the best way to promote positive and inclusive environments. And as someone who believed in the importance of open discourse, when Richard observed an instructor NOT creating an inclusive and positively re-enforced environment, he felt compelled to say something. From what I’ve seen, Richard did so with respect and dignity for the instructor’s perspective.

Let me repeat the wording uttered by the consultant in response:

“We are here to talk about anti-Black racism, but you in your whiteness think that you can tell me what’s really going on for Black people?”.

Two years later, TDSB has stood behind this instructor’s response. That day, TDSB educators were not present to talk about anti-Black racism. They gathered to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Let those words resonate with you for a moment. 

Diversity — the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social backgrounds. Equity – the practice of being fair and impartial. Inclusion — the action or state of being embraced within a group or structure.

I would rally behind any session that truly embodies those definitions of diversity, equity and inclusion. Embracing our differences, being fair and impartial towards all individuals and championing strength through unity. Sign me up.

But we’ve somehow reached a place where it’s considered permissible to utter phrases like ‘you in your whiteness”, in a session about inclusivity. How is this divisive rhetoric tolerated in a professional workplace, in particular a workplace focused on the education and guidance of young minds? And how does this vitriolic response, even if it were justified, create healing from years of racial division?

For the past two years, Richard has been demeaned and cancelled for the stance that he took. Perhaps you agree with the tenets of postmodernistic anti-racist critical theory and disagree with Richard’s position, but even so, is it acceptable to speak so rudely and disparagingly to anyone in any environment, especially in a presentation about inclusivity?

I would have hoped everyone could get behind the message that the bullying and harassment Richard encountered is unacceptable. If you disagree with Richard, this disagreement could and should have been expressed politely with respect towards human dignity.

But apparently, we can’t all get behind that message, as over the past 48 I’ve observed ideologues continue to push forward a narrative of excusing away the startling treatment Richard received, and some have taken to blaming him for how this ordeal has affected his mental health. We know more than some are claiming about the extent to which his suicide was related to this incident—we know that because he had friends and shared his pain with them.

But regardless what else was going on for Richard, I think Jamie Sarkonak summarized it brilliantly in yesterday’s National Post when she wrote: “We can’t know what was on Bilkszto’s mind in the past few weeks. We do know, however, that he was awarded workplace compensation for workplace harassment and bullying. We do know that he was made to feel humiliated before his colleagues. We do know that there is a pattern in education of disciplining staff before a proper investigation into the facts has been completed.”

I agree with Jamie completely. A fellow human who cared deeply about the equality was treated with disrespect and contempt, and after the fallout from two years he decided to take his own life. His personal, lived experience was that life was no longer worth living in light of what he was experiencing. That is tragic, and I hope this moment gives each and every one of us pause and inspires us to look carefully at how we interact with one another, especially those we disagree with. From the short time I knew Richard I know that’s what he would have wanted.

Julia Malott

Julia Malott is a Canadian based transgender individual who advocates for bridging the gap between diverse viewpoints on gender identity and ideology. Julia is the host of Alotta Thoughts Podcast which features bi-weekly long form discussions exploring the complexity of sex and gender.

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Julia Malott

Julia Malott is a Canadian based transgender individual who advocates for bridging the gap between diverse viewpoints on gender identity and ideology. Julia is the host of Alotta Thoughts Podcast which features bi-weekly long form discussions exploring the complexity of sex and gender.