Trustees for western Manitoba school board under review accuse province of intimidation

Two trustees of a western Manitoba school board embroiled in controversy and under provincial review are accusing the province of intimidation.

Their accusations came Monday during a meeting of the Mountain View School Division board, which has been under scrutiny in recent months after a trustee’s comments about residential schools and inclusivity at an April meeting.

A motion was put forward at Monday’s meeting by a trustee asking the board to allow deputy education minister Brian O’Leary to speak — something not typically allowed without 10 days notice.

“We’re under duress from the minister,” trustee Jason Gryba said during the meeting, a recording of which CBC News watched via the division’s website.

“[We’re] under threat, actually, that if we don’t allow [the deputy minister to speak], he’s going to dissolve us.” 

Gryba went on to say he wasn’t sure “if this is a threat — that that’s what he’s going to do — or if this is a test to see if we’re going to adhere to our own governance.”

He suggested it was “a crucial test of ‘are these guys actually going to uphold their own governance,’ because if they can threaten us and get in, then anyone can threaten us and get in.”

The motion was eventually passed after some pushback and lengthy debate, which included a threat by the chair to resign.

‘No use for bullies’: trustee

Trustee Kerri Wieler also alleged a threat was made to dissolve the board during a meeting in Winnipeg between trustees and the education minister. That, coupled with the communications about Monday’s meeting, felt like “more an intimidation tactic than an effort to help our board,” she said.

Gryba said he found it disrespectful for the government to “keep notifying the board that this is what we’re doing and if you don’t do it, we’re gonna dissolve.” 

“I have no use for bullies,” he said. 

The province ordered a governance review of the board in April, and earlier this month appointed a panel to oversee the board, after trustee Paul Coffey gave a presentation at a board meeting where he said the residential school system began as a good thing. He also questioned the level of abuse at the schools and said the term “white privilege” is “racist.” 

The comments were condemned by Indigenous leaders, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society and now former Mountain View superintendent Stephen Jaddock, who was removed from his position earlier this month. Three longtime trustees also resigned. 

In a statement to CBC News Friday, the province wouldn’t confirm� if Education Minister Nello Altomare threatened to dissolve the board, but said at a meeting with trustees on June 11, he took a “balanced” approach and offered to work with the board.

Chair threatens to resign

During Monday’s meeting, board chair Gabe Mercier said the province’s education department “has a role to play in the governance of schools,” and that he said he didn’t appreciate Gryba’s comments.

“We have to follow the directives of the department of education,” said Mercier.

As debate continued, the chair said he would resign if the motion to allow O’Leary to speak didn’t pass. 

“If we don’t get the votes as required … I’m going to resign,” said Mercier. “I’m just going to put my cards on the table regarding this.”

The board, which currently has five trustees, needed two-thirds support in order to suspend the 10-day advance notice rule.

Mercier voted in favour. When asked if he is allowed to vote as chair, he said that is permitted when breaking a tie or, as in this case, to pass a resolution.

A man stands outside in front of flowers and a building with a green entranceway that called Seven Oaks School Division.
Deputy education minister Brian O’Leary, who was previously the superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division, is shown in a file photo. He says the province’s oversight panel has demonstrated a ‘commitment to work with the board.’ (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

When O’Leary finally got to speak, he said efforts were made, without success, to schedule a separate meeting to discuss the governance review and the appointment of the oversight panel. 

That panel currently consists of Manitoba Métis Federation vice-president Frances Chartrand, Brandon School Division trustee Jim Murray and Manitoba Teachers’ Society staff officer Andrea Zaroda. All three were at Monday’s meeting, O’Leary said. 

He also said discussions are ongoing with chiefs of First Nations in the division to appoint a fourth member to the panel. 

Oversight panel members will function like trustees without a vote, said O’Leary. 

The panel has been given full access to all board meetings and will help the board navigate recent turnover, ensure community concerns are addressed, and oversee decision making, the province said in a statement.

Trustee Wieler asked how members of the panel were chosen and if they’d be able to “set aside their biases,” after the Manitoba Métis Federation and Manitoba Teachers’ Society spoke out against Coffey following his April presentation. 

“I would say the simple fact that they’ve agreed to serve in this capacity attests to their commitment to work with the board,” said O’Leary.

“Prior statements regarding calls for dissolution underline some of the seriousness of concerns, but everyone is here with good reason to work positive.”

O’Leary said as far as he knows, this is the fourth time in the last 20 years a full governance review has been done of a school board.

In two of those cases, the governance review was resolved with the board implementing changes, he said. 

But in 2001, the Manitoba government dissolved the board of the Morris-Macdonald School Division, south of Winnipeg, after a provincial auditor’s report found the division had received millions of extra dollars as a result of overstated enrolment numbers. In that case, the province appointed a trustee to manage the division until regularly scheduled elections were held the following year.

The Winnipeg School Division and Sunrise School Division were both under review in 2016, according to a provincial spokesperson.