The problem with workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training is that it can involve the berating of staff so bad that it leads to workers’ compensation claims — and even lawsuits.
It’s a lesson that’s currently being learned by Toronto District School Board (TDSB). In April, principal Richard Bilkszto sued TDSB for its failure to defend him in an allegedly hostile DEI training session that took place in 2021, where it was insinuated that he was a white supremacist for defending Canada as a less-racist place than the United States. TDSB has since sued the company that gave the DEI training, the KOJO Institute, for negligence and for breaching contract — asking for damages in the amount it will need to pay Bilkszto if he wins. Late Thursday afternoon, TDSB told the National Post that it plans to discontinue its lawsuit, though the claim is still active.
The National Post has obtained both statements of claim, which were filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in April. While the allegations within haven’t been proven in court, they provide an outline of what supposedly happened. Audio recordings of the training sessions obtained by the Post are consistent with the dialogue quoted in the court filings.
It all began with a DEI course for TDSB administrators that started in April 2021. DEI trainer Kike Ojo-Thompson (the CEO of the KOJO Institute) led a series of sessions for TDSB higher-ups in which she made a number of familiar progressive arguments, according to Bilkszto’s court filing: Canada is a more racist place than the U.S., Canada is a “bastion of white supremacy and colonialism,” capitalism and the patriarchy are killing people, etc. (The KOJO Institute did not respond to requests for comment for this story by deadline.)
For context, the KOJO Institute has many clients in public institutions. Listed clients include the RCMP, the Ontario government, the CBC, various universities and the federal government (the official records database shows that about $100,000 in federal dollars have been spent on service contracts with KOJO). It’s likely that the public has paid for many of these training sessions.
As support for the claim that Canada is more racist than its southern counterpart, Ojo-Thompson allegedly pointed to her own experience of living in both places and a Maclean’s article that “showed how we were more racist on a number of critical indicators than the U.S.” (Such an argument was made in a 2015 Maclean’s article that compared Canadian Indigenous statistics on unemployment, income, homicide and such to those of Black Americans.)
Ojo-Thompson taught the class that Canada’s status as a monarchy was a marker of racism, according to the court documents: “At least (the U.S.) had a fighting posture against at least the monarchy, here we celebrate the monarchy, the very heart and soul and origins of the colonial structure.” National attitudes of politeness further made Canadians less likely to speak up against racism, she said later on.
For the record, the British monarchy was actually pretty good at fighting the scourge of slavery, having outlawed the trade in 1807. It dedicated a good chunk of public resources to dismantling the international slave trade that was driven by Americans (and some African kingdoms). The Brits weren’t perfect, but they were miles ahead of the Americans on the slavery file.
Bilkszto, who had a 24-year career as a principal and previously taught at an inner-city Buffalo school — and witnessed serious differences in how Black and white students were treated there — didn’t think it was fair to call Canada the greater harbourer of racism, according to his court filing. Citing public health care and a more equal funding system for education, he spoke up.
“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 told the class.
Ojo-Thompson is described to have reacted with vitriol: “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?” Bilkszto replied that racism is very real, and that there’s plenty of room for improvement — but that the facts still show Canada is a fairer place. Another KOJO training facilitator jumped in, telling Bilkszto that “if you want to be an apologist for the U.S. or Canada, this is really not the forum for that.” Ojo-Thompson concluded the exchange by telling the class that “your job in this work as white people is to believe” — not to question claims of racism.
Nobody from TDSB interjected at any point to defend Bilkszto and stop the DEI trainers from berating a staff member, according to the court filing. After the class, a TDSB superintendent even thanked the KOJO Institute in a tweet for “modelling the discomfort administrators may need to experience in order to disrupt (anti-Black racism).” The day after, Bilkszto was given a talking-to by his higher-ups about his “male white privilege” and the “fallout” from the training. Instead of defending him, they berated him further.
In the next session, Ojo-Thompson is said to have referred to Bilkszto’s comments as an example of “resistance” that upholds white supremacy. She explained that his reference to “facts” was an attempt to derail the conversation and discredit her words, and encouraged everyone to push back when they see others being “accosted by white supremacy.”
After this, Bilkszto went on sick leave for workplace harassment. While TDSB wasn’t helpful, Toronto School Administrators’ Association and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) supported his claim, the association calling for an investigation into what happened (no investigation was initiated). The worker’s compensation board awarded loss of earnings benefits between May 11 and July 1 of 2021 for chronic mental stress.
“Based on the information on file, I am satisfied that the conduct of the speaker … was abusive, egregious and vexatious, and rises to the level of workplace harassment and bullying,” wrote the worker’s compensation decision, which was also obtained by the National Post. WSIB’s view was that the DEI trainer intended to “cause reputational damage and to ‘make an example’” of the principal. TDSB didn’t dispute Bilkszto’s recollection of events to the compensation board, nor did it appeal the compensation board’s award (the deadline for disputing the claim has passed).
Despite the school board’s lack of support for its longtime principal, TDSB’s statement of claim against the KOJO Institute seems to take Bilkszto’s side. The school board alleges that the DEI consulting firm was negligent and in breach of contract by making Bilkszto feel harassed, humiliated and defamed.
Bilkszto, a contract principal for the board, returned to work after six weeks of sick leave, but wasn’t reinstated to the position he had been in prior. An additional contract for a principal term was revoked. At the time his statement of claim was filed, he’d only been able to obtain eight weeks of contract work with the school board. Between the alleged defamation and contract breaches, he’s seeking $785,000 in damages.
These lawsuits are in the early stages of the court process, so it’s possible they could settle long before they make it to trial. (Lisa Bildy, Bilkszto’s lawyer, told the National Post that the TDSB has yet to be served with the statement of claim, so the TDSB has not had to file a statement of defence in return.)
Still, the court filings launching these lawsuits paint a picture of how workplace DEI training relies on coercion and ridicule to force employees to bend the knee to a certain set of racialist, sometimes ahistorical, beliefs. Those who don’t comply just might end up in a struggle session.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect TDSB’s legal plans.