Blackface photo from Chilliwack yearbook prompts apology, promises to change
VANCOUVER -- A yearbook photo showing a Chilliwack high school student wearing blackface in class has prompted an apology from the principal and promises to address complaints of racism in the district at large.
Former students began sharing the image on social media after G.W. Graham Secondary School participated in #BlackOutTuesday, a campaign in support of ongoing anti-racism protests in the U.S. and Canada.
For Makena Lejeune, the gesture brought back memories of the racism she faced growing up in the city as a Black teenager.
"I experienced a lot of racism within our schools, from the teachers and the students," she said. "I don't know what it is about Chilliwack – I don't know if it's the water – but it's not OK and it's time for things to change."
Lejeune didn't go to G.W. Graham, but had friends there and remembers seeing the blackface picture when the yearbook came out in 2017. She said students complained to teachers, but nothing happened.
Now, in light of the massive movement to address systemic racism across North America, things seem different.
"With everything going on, I feel like minorities have extra support for speaking about their racist experiences," said Lejeune, who is now a political science student at the University of Victoria.
Her own post about the blackface incident garnered huge attention this week, and resulted in administrators contacting her for a face-to-face conversation about how to move forward.
She told CTV News she believes they're making an earnest effort to improve and take the concerns coming from students of colour seriously. She even decided to remove her social media post, believing that the conversation she hoped to spark is now happening.
"I'm putting a lot of trust into the administration to do what's right, but I feel good about the conversation that we had," she said.
A letter from the principal to G.W. Graham families this week apologized for the every aspect of the blackface incident, which apparently happened during a mock trial in a classroom. Chuck Lawson expressed remorse that not only was the offensive display not stopped by a teacher, it was somehow deemed appropriate for the yearbook.
"I apologize to the students who cherish our yearbooks and fondly look through them for bringing back special memories from high school. It is extremely unfortunate that the inappropriate picture will stay as a memory and reflection of our school," Lawson wrote, along with a promise to work to ensure the school is an inclusive, caring environment.
The district's interim superintendent, Rohan Arul-pragasam, also released a statement in light of the blackface incident, as well as another involving a mock slave auction that occurred at a different Chilliwack high school.
"I thank those who have brought forward these events," Arul-pragasam said. "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."
Lejeune said her hope is that the district will speak with the people directly involved in these incidents, students and teachers alike, and put resources into anti-racism lessons and training to help teachers deal with the often uncomfortable topic of race when it arises.
"I think that's why a lot of them were silent in the first place, because it's uncomfortable," she said. "But now's the time to be uncomfortable. Now's the time to put yourself in uncomfortable situations and speak up."