Toronto District School Board teacher Natasha Mansouri said Sunday that well-respected educator Richard Bilkzsto’s untimely passing is a “significant loss” to everyone who knew him.
In a touching and eloquent tribute, Mansouri told a group gathered at Mel Lastman Square that Bilkszto had a “compassionate and unshakeable commitment to enhancing the quality of public education” – that he was a rare commodity.
Despite the chill and rainy skies, about 100 friends and former colleagues came out to pay tribute to the 60-year-old principal, who took his life in mid-July.
He was an educator who promoted “strength rather than victimhood,” who “dared to question” and who viewed “obstacles as opportunities,” said Mansouri, one of a half a dozen trustees, teachers and community members who gave touching tributes to him.
“I am troubled by the scarcity of people like Richard who confront bullies whether they’re in the schoolyard or the bullies who stand in front of the class,” she said. “I wish there were more individuals like him, brave and tireless who take a stance and speak up.
“If you’re out there, please speak up, you are not alone.”
It was clear she was speaking about the circumstances that led Bilkszto to take his own life in mid-July.
His lawyer Lisa Bildy and his family have both said it was the bullying by a Black Lives Matter-supporting Diversity, Equity, Inclusive (DEI) trainer in the spring of 2021 and the ongoing harassment by TDSB anti-racism executives that led to his death.
I have requested financial information under FOI legislation on the cost to the TDSB of the DEI trainer – Kike Ojo-Thomson of the KOJO Institute – but have yet to receive it.
In late July, both Education Minister Steven Lecce and TDSB education director Colleen Russell-Rawlins announced reviews of the situation leading up to his unfortunate death. But, after almost three months. we’ve heard nothing from either.
In my view, the TDSB review – being conducted by the King Advisory Group – is the furthest thing from independent and merely an attempt to sweep the harassment by TDSB executives and their preferred contractors under the rug.
The two teachers who spoke announced an award and scholarship in Bilkszto’s name.
The award will recognize an educator who exemplifies the qualities the principal embodied, said TDSB trustee Weidong Pei.
“(He embodied) a dedication to excellence in education and devotion to his students and their well-being,” he said.
The scholarship will be awarded to an undergraduate accepted at a teachers college in Ontario who embraces the same qualities, the teachers said.
Teacher Jon Roberts, who was involved with Bilkszto in a chapter of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), said as a gay man who came of age in the 80s, Bilkszto knew about bigotry and hatred.
But he never insisted the intolerant get with the program or else, said Roberts.
“He was calm and caring…a beacon of positive change,” he said.
Pei said he was a teacher who insisted everyone have equality of opportunity no matter “what they look like.”
After Bilkszto helped Pei win the trustee election in 2022, he told him with a smile he better keep his promise to fight for children.
“Richard, I know you now look from the sky…I hope I made you proud fighting for the children you love,” the Willowdale trustee said, getting emotional.
“We are all better for knowing you and we are poorer for your loss.”
Ragini Sharma of the Toronto Asian Parents Association said Bilkszto was an ally for Asian students – “sensitive and sympathetic” to such students “being sidelined” in the TDSB system.
She said he appreciated that Asian students were considered “privileged” and labelled “white adjacent” by the anti-black racism focus of the board.
“He understood that Asian students do well because their parents value education and work hard to help the children succeed in school,” she said.
“We shared his concern about school boards becoming more divisive in how they handled diversity and equity.”
She added that she knows Bilkszto would have liked the board to do more to bring more belongingness and compassion among students and staff.
“May his soul rest in peace,” she said.
“May his legacy never be forgotten,” added Mansouri.
The tribute ended with a moment of silence in his honour.