A former principal who sued the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) after experiencing workplace harassment and bullying during two anti-racism training sessions took his own life last Thursday.
Richard Bilkszto, 60, worked for the TDSB for 24 years and specialized in adult education. Though he retired in 2019, he worked as a contract principal, filling in wherever he was needed. His last post was at Burnhamthorpe Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke.
Bilkszto sued the school board earlier this year alleging that his reputation had been “systematically demolished” during two anti-racism training sessions that took place in the spring of 2021. When he challenged some of the lecturer’s comments, he was accused of supporting white supremacy.
The lecturer in question, founder and CEO of the KOJO Institute Kike Ojo-Thompson, claimed Canada is a haven of “white supremacy and colonialism,” and that Canada was a more racist place than the US due to its monarchist tradition.
Bilkszto, who had worked both in Canada and at an inner-city Buffalo school in the US, was uniquely positioned to comment on Ojo-Thompson’s statements. The court filing noted Bilkszto respectfully questioned Ojo-Thompson’s claims, citing the differences between public health care and equal education funding in Canada and the US.
“To sit here and talk about facts and figures and then walk into the classroom tomorrow and say ‘Canada is just as bad as the United States,’ I think we are doing an incredible disservice to our learners,” he said.
In response, Ojo-Thompson reportedly lashed out at Bilkszto, saying: “We are here to talk about anti-Black racism, but you in your whiteness think that you can tell me what’s really going on for Black people?”
She went on to say that racism is still an issue and that there is room for improvement in Canada. A second KOJO facilitator cut in, telling Bilkszto: “If you want to be an apologist for the US or Canada, this is really not the forum for that.”
Ojo-Thompson apparently ended the exchange by telling the class that their “job” was to “believe” claims of racism rather than question what was being said.
For the remainder of the training session and the one that followed, facilitators effectively suggested Bilkszto was a white supremacist. The school board offered no support to the degraded teacher after the training sessions. One colleague who has since been made an education director in Hamilton, Sheryl Robinson Petrazzini, praised the facilitator for “modelling the discomfort.”
However, the accusations of white supremacy that had been lodged against Bilkszto ran contrary to the emphasis he had placed on equality and anti-discrimination throughout his professional career.
Bilkszto was both an educator and an advocate. He was a Toronto chapter member of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), an advocacy group committed to civil rights and anti-discrimination. In education, he was a member of SOS TDSB, an organization that actively worked to retain the district’s merit-based admissions system for specialty programs. The TDSB had recently moved to a lottery system in admitting students.
Following the second training session, Bilkszto apparently experienced a mental health crisis that kept him away from work for a month. His association of education administrators had requested that the board investigate the bullying incident, but nothing was done. The situation worsened when the TDSB refused to allow Bilkszto to return to the role he had been employed in prior to his mental health leave.
In addition, TDSB revoked a work contract he had secured for the following year and he was disinvited from attending a graduation ceremony he was initially invited to.
In a last-ditch effort to force accountability, Bilkszto filed a lawsuit against TDSB administrators. Consequently, the TDSB launched a lawsuit against the KOJO Institute, but it was later revealed that they planned to terminate the claim.
The KOJO Institute responded to Bilkszto’s death on Friday, saying: “We recently learned of the passing of Mr. Richard Bilkszto. We offer our condolences to his loved ones and colleagues during this difficult time.”
In recent weeks, Bilkszto’s family and friends cited that he was anxious over potential backlash to the legal proceedings.
“Unfortunately, the stress and effects of these incidents continued to plague Richard. Last week he succumbed to this distress,” a statement read, written by the family and released Thursday by his lawyer Lisa Bildy. “His family and friends have been left reeling and wishing they could have had the chance to convince him that he was loved, respected and needed here.”