North Vancouver school board apologizes for trustee’s ‘insensitive’ comments

Cyndi Gerlach compared the treatment of mentally disabled children in the school system to the treatment experience by Indigenous youth in residential schools

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The North Vancouver school district has issued an apology to First Nations communities along with students, parents and staff for “highly inappropriate and insensitive” remarks made by a trustee at a recent school board meeting.

According to the North Shore News, trustee Cyndi Gerlach, in a discussion about so-called seclusion rooms, compared the treatment of intellectually disabled children in the school system to the treatment experienced by Indigenous youth in former residential schools.

“The comments were unacceptable, highly inappropriate, and insensitive, and are not representative of the collective Board of Education,” SD44 board chair George Tsiakos wrote in a letter to the chiefs, councils and members of the ​Skwxwú7mesh, Tsleil-Waututh and Métis Nations. “I would like to offer my most sincere apology to not only members of the Skwxwú7mesh, Tsleil-Waututh, and Métis Nations but also, specifically, the Indigenous students, educators, and staff who contribute so much to our school district community.”

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Seclusion rooms are spaces where students with behavioural or developmental issues are involuntarily confined to prevent them from harming themselves and others.

“There is reconciliation that also needs to happen within the disability world when it comes to education,” Gerlach said during the meeting.

She said many of the schools where children with intellectual disabilities were historically sent were “actually residential schools.”

“They went to secluded schools where they were educated only amongst themselves,” she said, adding that what happened to them in those schools was “the same that happened to Indigenous students” in residential schools.

Tsiakos said Gerlach, who he didn’t identify in the letter, was deeply remorseful for her choice of words and would offer a public apology at the next board meeting on June 22.

North Vancouver school district Supt. Mark Pearmain said Gerlach’s comments left those in attendance at the May 18 board meeting feeling “hurt and troubled.”

“We are proud of the relationship we have developed with Indigenous rights holders and community members, and we highly value and rely on this relationship as we continue on our journey of truth and reconciliation. We also acknowledge we have much work to do,” Pearmain said in a letter to students, staff and parents.

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