In early October, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) announced they will phase out the word “chief” from employee titles, out of respect for First Nations communities.

The change is inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) report, and its recommendations. These recommendations reflect the general principle of urging government to work together across multiple levels to repair the damage caused by residential schools.

Clearly, this decision was made with good intentions.  It showcases willingness of the TDSB to be proactive in its support for the movement to recognize the harm inflicted on First Nations people in the past and promote reconciliation between the First Nations peoples and Canada.

A picture from the Canadian website for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission acknowledges the continuous suffering residential schools have caused in Indigenous communities. (Photo by Neeta Lind)

Some may say that this decision is an unnecessary one, and an act of appeasement to the slippery slope of political correctness (“What are the next words I will not be able to say?”).

I disagree.  While this change will not bring any direct help to today’s First Nations, the attention brought to the process of reconciliation is an important effect.

This change was not requested by any First Nations representatives, as stated by the schoolboard’s spokesperson, Ryan Bird.  Duke Redbird, curator of Indigenous art and culture at the TDSB explicitly states the word “chief” is a word that belongs to the English language. Redbird said he appreciates the effort the TDSB has made to be proactive, and has no qualms with its use – outside of a pejorative one.

The word “chief” is not claimed to be generally harmful, offensive, or an instance of appropriation. This development does not implicitly infringe on anyone’s ability to use ordinary words.  This decision was not motivated by a band of crazy leftists trying to remove arbitrary words from common vocabulary – like the Académie Française, which has worked to prevent the Anglicization of French by condoning French use of modern English words like “e-mail.”

No one is making any outrageous claims here.  No one is parading around warning people of the detrimental societal impact that the proliferation of the word “chief” is going to bring.  Had the TDSB decided to do this without any explanation, there would be no reaction. But the TDSB released a statement explaining they were inspired by, and wanted to support, the TRC’s mission to promote reconciliation.

“While this change will not bring any direct help to today’s First Nations, the attention brought to the process of reconciliation is an important effect.”

Suddenly, we have another tragic case of a word being outlawed, due to isolated instances of misguided and overzealous social justice warriors finding offence everywhere they go.

That interpretation of the TDSB’s decision is, quite simply, a scalding hot take. No one is pushing to eradicate the membership of “chief” from the common vernacular. Redbird openly acknowledges the etymology of the word “chief” and makes no statements about its use, except in a disparaging context.

Bird tells us that the move is proactive, not reactionary.  To view this decision by the TDSB as anything more than (harmless!) support for the movement of reconciliation is a reach.

At the same time, I am not going to proclaim this move to be a significant contributor to improving quality of life for the First Nations community. The TDSB changing the titles of its employees does not change the disastrous living conditions that First Nations communities face, including: unsafe drinking water; higher levels of unemployment, and that one in 10 First Nations’ children live in foster care.

With the literacy and numeracy scores of First Nations children lower than their counterparts, it is hard to imagine that the overrepresentation of First Nations citizens in correction services, or underrepresentation in the working force, will be rectified.

“That interpretation of the TDSB’s decision is, quite simply, a scalding hot take.”

However, that is not to say the TDSB has not done much other than this to support the TRC.

Before the TRC had even completed its interim report in 2012, which outlined its recommendations for emphasizing education on the history of First Nations communities, the TDSB’s elementary-level social studies curriculum  included a large unit on First Nations history.  As Grade 3 student of the TDSB,  I remember learning about the origins of the name “Canada,” and other aspects of First Nations life, including the Iroquoian longhouse, and a brief history on the damage of residential schools.

Why do we focus on the misinterpretation that the TDSB is claiming the word “chief” carries deep-seated racism? Why do we not focus on its inspiration from the TRC, and the effort it makes to show solidarity? Why do we not congratulate the TDSB on their longstanding effort to educate their students on what the First Nations people meant to the development of Canada, not only in a standard history class, but in contextualizing the problems they currently face in other curricula – such as economics, and social sciences?  Why do we not encourage the same sentiment across other school boards as well?

Instead of misdirecting the discussion, we must seek to congratulate and promote activity that works towards reconciliation.

By Thomas Nguyen

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.