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Kelden Formosa: Why you should pay attention to school board elections

Commentary

Trustee Mike Ramsay of the Waterloo Regional District School Board served on that board for almost 30 years. Carolyn Burjoski, a teacher and librarian, worked for the board for 20 years. This past year, they were both cancelled by the school board’s leadership, who were furious when they raised concerns about Critical Race Theory-inspired teaching in the classroom and youth gender transition literature in elementary school libraries.

Ramsay, who happens to be the only black member of the school board, was censured and barred from board meetings. Burjoski was not allowed to finish reading from the book to which she objected. Apparently, it was inappropriate to read from that book in a public school board meeting, but appropriate to keep it in libraries directed at children. She was later suspended from her job and bullied into an early retirement by the school board. Rather than just apologizing to her, the school board will now spend tens of thousands of dollars on lawsuits, money taken away from classrooms and students in need. 

There is a tendency in Canadian political debates to treat these kinds of episodes as sideshows, mere imports from the United States that are not really relevant north of the border. The story set out above may be bad, sure, but ultimately it’s an isolated incident, and we are sure that everything else is okay. In our country, the thinking goes, the adults are in charge, and any problems we hear about should be dismissed as isolated incidents that will be resolved by them.

I’m an elementary school teacher and a keen observer of news about education systems across the country. I think this complacent attitude is misplaced. In many places, there are not many adults left in the room. Many publicly funded school boards are run by progressive activists who are disconnected from the real needs of kids, parents, and teachers. Things really are as bad as the growing number of explicitly anti-woke candidates for school board trustee say they are. If anything, most parents and voters should be more concerned, and they should be more active in overseeing and directing the activities of local school boards across the country. 

Let’s discuss some of the most concerning examples. Oakville Trafalgar High School in Oakville drew international attention after students leaked photos of their shop teacher wearing massive prosthetic breasts in class. I think most people assumed the teacher would be reprimanded or even fired. After all, it’s obviously unprofessional and a clear distraction from learning, and may even be unsafe given all the dangerous equipment in a shop class. However, as far as we know, this teacher was neither reprimanded nor told to dress more professionally by their employer. Instead, the school board claimed this behaviour was protected gender expression under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Stephen Lecce, the provincial education minister, eventually wrote a mildly concerned note to the Ontario College of Teachers, but it appears the local school board thinks the teacher did nothing wrong. 

That’s one example, but it reflects the approach to gender embraced by many school boards. At a more systemic level, many schools instruct their teachers not to tell parents if their children socially transition into another gender while at school, including by not informing parents if teachers are calling their children by a different name than the one their parents gave them. This is despite the fact that (a) teachers’ authority to teach children is simply delegated to us by their parents, (b) we are not trained to diagnose gender dysphoria in young people or to suggest appropriate ways to treat it, and (c) we simply do not know or love our students the same way their parents do.

The question of the right way to help children with gender concerns is controversial and unsettled, and teachers are much less likely to be around to help kids pick up the pieces if something goes wrong than their parents are. Except in clear cases of abuse, teachers should support child-parent relationships, not undermine them, but many school boards’ policies discourage that. 

On race, many educators are encouraged to use lessons that, while not quoting the work of Critical Race Theory scholars like Ibram X. Kendi and Peggy McIntosh, reflect their ideas. These lessons often include quizzes and long discussions on privilege, where children and teens are told to compare which students are better—or worse—off than their peers through an explicitly racial lens. Academic studies of such lessons suggest that they either have no effect on reducing racial animus, or, in some cases, that they may even increase racial animus, but they are still widely recommended to teachers by unions and various school officials boards.

Speaking as a teacher of a diverse group of children, I cannot imagine why I would spend valuable class time teaching my students that they need to spend more time focused on their racial differences. Insofar as race comes into my classroom, it comes in the celebration of diversity and in teaching about how racism—making judgements based on racial differences—is harmful, wrong, and should be avoided.  

If these are some examples of what is going wrong in Canadian public schools, then a more heartening sign comes out of Vancouver, where a progressive school board was recently replaced by a more centrist one. In the wake of the Defund the Police movement, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) voted to end the School Liaison Officer program on the theory that policing was perceived as racist and harmful, despite increased concerns about violent crime across the region and in VSB schools. The VSB also voted to eliminate honours classes on the theory that providing bright public school students with selective instruction was bad for equity. The new school board majority was elected on a promise to reverse these policies, showing that many voters reject the excesses of progressive politics in education, even in large cities like Vancouver.

Across the country, parents and voters are increasingly expressing concerns about how race and gender are being addressed in our publicly-funded schools. This is a positive development. These schools are funded by taxpayers, so they should reflect broadly-shared values rather than the most cutting-edge views of the progressive movement. 

As a teacher in a publicly-funded school, what I really want is for school leaders to focus less on these hot topics and more on the everyday issues in education. How do we help kids recover from the learning loss and physical and mental health damage caused by COVID restrictions? How do we use the cognitive science of learning, especially the Science of Reading, to improve students’ literacy and numeracy skills? How do we support new teachers in developing warm, caring, and effective classroom management techniques?

But to turn our attention to these real issues, we need to first clear away the distractions, including the attempts of activist progressive school boards to focus education on fundamentally adult debates on race and gender. If we can move on from those issues, then we return our focus to helping all our students learn and meet their potential. 

Richard Shimooka: America moves to block chips to China: What Biden’s semiconductor controls mean for Canada

Commentary

Two weeks ago, the Biden administration announced a sweeping expansion of its export controls on semiconductor chips to China. This decision marks a major escalation in the growing competition between the U.S.-led West and a rising China, and it would behoove Canada to follow in its ally’s footsteps by supporting the American initiative.

Technology, industry, and innovation are key features of the emerging geopolitical competition between the West and China. To understand the situation, it might be useful to look back to the Cold War, when the United States last faced a near-peer competitor that sought to catch up and surpass the West economically. While the popular image of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies was as an autarky, a closed economic bloc that only traded within itself, the reality was much more complex.  

The Soviet Union, for instance, still engaged with the West to acquire cutting-edge technologies. Much was legally obtained from the West, only to be applied later for military uses. Other technologies were obtained under illicit means, either by circumventing controls or outright theft. Ironically, according to the Washington Post journalist Catherine Belton, this was likely one of the first jobs Vladimir Putin oversaw as a KGB agent in Dresden, Germany. 

A recently declassified document in the Moscow archives shows that Soviet production in 1964 was still highly reliant on Western tooling, particularly hydraulic presses. While the Soviet Union could potentially source domestic equivalents, this would result in some serious consequences. For instance, the Kremlin would need to divert resources within its domestic industry to develop alternatives, rather than subsidizing them using Western technology and know-how. Moreover, those systems would likely be less capable than their Western counterparts and be at a higher cost due to a smaller production scale. 

Export controls, largely, were weak and very mixed in their effectiveness during the Cold War. However, the 1990s saw the development of sanctions and controls as an increasingly effective policy tool, which only improved in the aftermath of 9/11. Efforts surrounding Huawei and Russian sanctions are recent implementations.

The Biden administration has made it clear that semiconductors are seen as a foundation for future economic prosperity. This reflects the new geopolitical game, in which great powers compete not only in terms of their military capabilities, energy/mineral supplies, or territorial blocs, but also in complex supply chains, networks, and ideological groups. The U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made this clear in his July 2021 remarks, where he listed how these technologies can be directly used to undermine fundamental freedoms in Western states. Possible applications include global networked surveillance, mass autonomous disinformation systems, the dominance of critical supply chains to leverage coercion, and expanding their access to sensitive data through infiltration using privileged supply chain positions.

The liberal idealism of the post-war era, which believed that greater economic openness would result in liberalization of their societies, has reached its decisive end. State capitalism has become a critical tool for maintaining state control, which can be even further exploited by combining it with artificial intelligence (AI). In short, the Biden administration has sought to recast its relations with China in great power terms—a struggle between not just major economies but the broad ideological systems of freedom and authoritarianism. 

This explains the immense breadth and depth of the announced U.S. export controls. Semiconductors possess some of the most complex supply chains in the world. Their production entails thousands of firms, many of which exist in specific niches with only one or two suppliers. The U.S.’s effort attempts to impose controls in as many places as possible, placing onerous reporting requirements for American firms operating in these countries. Consequently, a number of key firms, like Applied Materials and LAM have already decided to pull up their stakes and leave the Chinese market. 

Like with the Soviet example, China will now need to spend more of its resources to develop alternatives to Western goods. It seems the current measures alone will likely cripple China’s ability to continue catching up with the semiconductor state-of-the-art, slowing progress and limiting them to chips several generations behind cutting-edge Western technologies.

As with the Cold War, allies play a key role in this new struggle. A large proportion of the critical supply chain infrastructure exists outside of China and United States, among allies like the Netherlands, Taiwan, and Japan. Some foreign firms, like the Dutch giant ASML, have expressed reticence toward implementing all of the U.S. measures. Getting them on-side is critical to ensuring that the administration’s measures have permanence and the West maintains a technological dominance over this area. Moreover, China will likely utilize every method to circumvent these measures, including the espionage of technologies. 

Canada is not a major player in the semiconductor space, but it does have a role in it. Several firms play an important part in the supply chain. For instance, AMD is one of the big two for high-performance hardware accelerators and the firm has a major subsidiary in Markham, Ontario after its acquisition of ATI. And the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) has established a design centre in Ottawa that focuses on “creating foundation intellectual property on TSMC’s next-generation processes.” Furthermore, the country can become a major supplier of critical minerals that are essential for production, if the resources are properly developed. Shoring up these manufacturing chains will also insulate domestic markets from price shocks due to potential supply interruptions.

Finally, Canada may also be a target of authoritarian states’ efforts in trying to circumvent U.S. export controls—either through illicit acquisition or availing themselves of Western cloud-based systems in the country.

The Biden administration’s controls have added relevance considering Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s speech to the Brookings Institution two weeks ago. In her remarks, she forcefully emphasized the need for democracies to work together on trade in what she referred to as “friend-shoring”, or essentially prioritizing trade flows among states that possess similar values. 

Minister Freeland’s speech clearly aligns well with the export controls policy, but the government of Canada’s track record so far has been mediocre to poor at best. The decision to ban Huawei 5G equipment from Canada’s telecommunications system took over five years to be rendered, while it has constantly dragged its heels on a number of different policies in regard to China. One can also add the recent revelations of Chinese government police stations operating within Canada and CSIS warnings about infiltration by mainland intelligence services. 

The US’s announced export control measures are an opportunity to overturn this instinct and chart a new course in line with Minister Freeland’s policy. Canada can be one of the first countries to endorse this effort and work constructively to work alongside the United States in its implementation—even as we build up Canadian industry to fortify Western semiconductor supply chains. We can seek to close up any potential vulnerability in the country that can be exploited by China and rebuild our diplomatic capital with Washington that has been exhausted over the past decade. Of course, this requires the leadership to announce such a change, and the effort to see it through; doing so will only strengthen and bring greater prosperity to Canada and its allies.