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Historic moment as Indigenous woman elected school board chair first time ever in Ontario

'Here I am as an Indigenous person sitting as a chair for a school board. I’m very touched about it, and it’s of huge significance'

New chairs lead the way at the Near North District School Board.

Tuesday night history was made as Ashley St. Pierre was elected to chair the Near North District School board, marking the first time an Indigenous person in Ontario has filled the position.

“It’s a huge accomplishment for my people,” she said, “considering the residential schools, and here I am as an Indigenous person sitting as a chair for a school board. I’m very touched about it, and it’s of huge significance.”

She reiterated how her taking on the role of chair “is a big deal for the Indigenous community, to have somebody represent them at a table like this” given the country’s history of residential schools. “It’s a big accomplishment to see where we are now.”

After mentioning she was the first Anishinaabekwe to chair in Ontario, some trustees wondered if St. Pierre may be the first in Canada to hold the position. St. Pierre wasn’t aware of being the first in Canada, “I just know Ontario for sure,” she said.

When former chair Erika Lougheed stepped down in April, St. Pierre stepped into the role of interim chair. Lougheed provided no reason for resigning both her chair and trustee roles, which proved to be a surprise to most.

See: School board shocker! Erika Lougheed resigns from NNDSB

St. Pierre was the vice-chair during the Lougheed years so a new vice was needed.

St. Pierre was voted to the board in 2022 to represent the Indigenous Trustee position. She made news early in her term when the NNDSB issued a release on a board meeting, detailing how St. Pierre was against O Canada being played at board meetings, a move suggested by a fellow trustee. The board agreed with St. Pierre.

The board quoted St. Pierre’s reason, as "From an Indigenous perspective, the national anthem represents cultural genocide and the requirement that Indigenous people assimilate to what the settlers wanted."

See: O Canada called 'cultural genocide.' Won't be played at school board meetings

Also Tuesday night, the board elected Trustee Howard Wesley, who represents Zone 4, covering the Parry Sound area, as vice-chair.

“It’s a vibrant community,” Wesley said of Zone 4 residents, “and they want to engage with the board, so it’s great to come here and do the work we do.”

Both St. Pierre and Wesley are ready to work in their new roles. St. Pierre admitted that the decision to run as chair “weighed heavily on me,” given the gravity of the position. She noted that at times while serving as vice chair or interim chair, there was “a lot of distrust” among board members on certain issues, “and that can be very palpable.”

“That can be worrisome,” she continued, “to sit in this position and have to police that in some sense, which was a little nerve-wracking.”

“And I feel at some times that we have lost sight of our focus, and what our job is here for, and that’s student achievement and well-being,” St. Pierre said. In that spirit, she challenged trustees “to bring it back to student well-being” with each motion presented designed to achieve that cause.

Overall, St. Pierre emphasized the importance of focusing on the students. “That’s what we’re here for,” she said, “and I think sometimes we lose sight of that. I’m hoping that moving forward, that’s what we can keep in the forefront of our minds.”

The current term of the Board has been a tumultuous one under former chair Erika Lougheed, when the attempted renaming of Chippewa Secondary School rocked the community. It was so divisive police were called in to protect trustees during meetings.

David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

David Briggs, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: David Briggs, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering civic and diversity issues for BayToday. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
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