Transcript: Rupa Subramanya
An interview with the staff writer for The Free Press
This week, the friends and family of a school principal in Toronto gathered to celebrate his life. Richard Bilkszto, sadly, took his life last month, at the age of 60, and much of the reporting on his death has focused on a DEI training and the lawsuit that he launched about it.
A reminder to readers that the claims below have not been proven in court.
My guest on this episode is a reporter whose story on Richard Bilkszto has gained international attention — and our conversation grapples with a number of difficult issues, including suicide and how it’s covered in the media.
Rupa Subramanya is a staff writer at The Free Press.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the episode for free here.
Lean Out reached out to Kike Ojo-Thompson to request comment, and to invite her on the program. We have not yet heard back. But Kike Ojo-Thompson did release a statement to the media, which reads, in part: “The death of Richard Bilkszto is a tragedy and all of us at KOJO Institute offer our condolences to his loved ones.” It adds: “The allegations made against me and KOJO Institute within Mr. Bilkszto’s lawsuit against the Toronto District School Board are false, and we are not a party to the lawsuit.” You can read the full statement here.
We also reached out to Education Minister Stephen Lecce and his office for comment — but did not hear back.
In addition, we contacted the Toronto District School Board for comment. It referred us to its two previous press statements, the first of which reads, in part: “The Board would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the family, friends, and colleagues of Richard Bilkszto. Richard was a strong advocate for students, particularly for those in adult and alternative education. Throughout his over 24 years in education, he worked hard to create an environment that fostered student success for students of all ages.” The second statement reads, in part: “Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the tragic passing of Richard Bilkszto, retaining King International Advisory Group, an experienced and well-respected investigative firm with multi-disciplinary expertise in conducting thorough investigations. Our intention is for this investigation to be conducted in a professional, sensitive and respectful manner.” You can read those statements in full here and here.
RS: Thank you, Tara. Thanks for inviting me back on your show.
TH: We have an incredibly sad story to discuss today, which deals with suicide. Your story on the death of Toronto educator, Richard Bilkszto, has garnered international attention, and his death has in fact been a major topic in the Canadian legacy press for the past several weeks. Sadly, Richard took his own life on July 13th at the age of 60. How did his story first come to your attention, Rupa?
RS: His story first came to my attention when the reports of his death were circulating. Richard had actually reached out to me in February of this year, via email, but we never got an opportunity to talk. I didn't know him, but I learned about his story after his passing. I read coverage in The National Post and a couple of other places, and then I realized he had actually reached out to me back in February. And that just never ended up happening — our conversation.
I was very pained by what I had heard had happened to him. I've said this a few times: It struck a personal chord with me, for a range of different reasons. One of them being the fact that he stood up for something that he believed in. He was pushing against — politely — a claim that was being made in this DEI training session. And he was bullied and belittled for doing that. Ultimately, nobody in his profession really stood up for him, in the end. No one came to his defence. I was reading his story and what was being said, and I realized what a horrific tragedy this whole thing was.
Then I subsequently reached out to his lawyer, Lisa Bildy, and went through the statement of claim, his lawsuit that was filed a few months ago, prior to his death. That made for a really painful reading. The lawsuit — the statement of claim — has excerpted texts from the audio recordings of the DEI session. You just can't believe that this was being said at the session. But actually listening to the audio, which I managed to get, most of the recordings — when you hear it, it just takes that to another level altogether, from the mocking tone of the DEI instructor, all of that just makes it sound all the more horrific and traumatizing, to be honest.
TH: As you say, you have published the audio, so people are able to listen to that and decide for themselves about the content and about the tone. The reporter who shares a byline in the story, Ari Blaff, counted Richard as a friend. I should say, for full disclosure, that Richard played a part in setting up a local chapter of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism. I'm a fan of that organization's work, and I was asked to speak to FAIR Ontario on Zoom earlier this year, which I did. But getting back to the audio here, I'd like to just go through some of the basic facts of your reporting. Your story for The Free Press goes through a sequence of events. It starts with this Toronto District School Board training seminar, for some 200 or so public administrators, in the spring of 2021. That training was conducted by Kike Ojo-Thompson of the KOJO Institute in Toronto. During that training, Ms. Ojo-Thompson made a statement about Canada that Richard Bilkszto, then the principal of Burnhamthorpe Collegiate Institute and Adult Learning Center, took issue with. Can you quote for us the exchange that took place?
RS: Kike Ojo-Thompson, CEO of KOJO Institute, was running this training session. The TDSB had hired her to preside over this training session. And she was making these claims, during the session, that Canada is a bastion of white supremacy. She said, “The racism we experience is far worse here than there.” That's an exact quote from Kike Ojo-Thompson. She said that it might be hard for Canadians to accept this, but at least in the U.S., Americans “have a fighting posture against, at least, the monarchy. Here we celebrate the monarchy, the very heart and soul and origins of the colonial structure.”
At this point, Richard Bilkszto raises his hand. His exact quote is, “I just wanted to make a comment about the Canada–U.S. thing, a little bit of a challenge to it.” He's citing our tax system, our public education system, our healthcare system, and also his own experience of teaching in some teaching some of the most underprivileged and marginalized students on both sides of the border. To quote him, “We’re a far more just society.”
And, at this point, Kike Ojo-Thompson jumps in. She says, “What I’m finding interesting is that, in the middle of this Covid disaster, where the inequities in this fair and equal healthcare system have been properly shown to all of us. . . you and your whiteness think that you can tell me what’s really going on with Black people — like, is that what you’re doing, because I think that’s what you’re doing, but I’m not sure, so I’m going to leave you space to tell me what you’re doing right now.”
Then Richard pushes a little bit more. Then a colleague of Kike Ojo-Thompson, a man by the name of Andrew — I believe he works for the KOJO Institute — jumps in to defend Kike, and says that this is not the place for Canada/U.S. comparisons. He's terse and essentially tells him off. And that was the end of this interaction. This interaction, all told, lasted maybe for six or seven minutes, based on the audio recording. But that tiny interaction had a devastating effect on Richard Bilkszto.
What happened after is equally important, if not more. Kike Ojo-Thompson spent the rest of the session essentially trying to make an example out of Richard Bilkszto. She's actually just laughing at the fact that he presented himself as an example. She says, “One of the ways that white supremacy is upheld, protected, reproduced, upkept, defended is through resistance.” And she said: “I’m so lucky that we got perfect evidence, a wonderful example of resistance that you all got to bear witness to, so we’re going to talk about it, because, I mean, it doesn’t get better than this.”
So, she continued to use this small little exchange that she had with Richard Bilkszto for the rest of the session and the following session that took place the following week. She kept referring to him as a resistor and what he did was an act of resistance. And that this was a teachable moment for the session.
There was a woman called Sheryl Robinson Petrazzini, who was a senior official at the TDSB at that time, on the day this happened. She takes to Twitter, and she is praising Kike Ojo-Thompson. And thanks her for modelling discomfort. This tweet was something that really affected Richard, from all the conversations I've had with his family and close friends — because this was essentially a senior official at the TDSB saying that it was okay for Kike Ojo-Thompson to behave this way, and that he was somehow guilty of doing something bad. He tried to get Petrazzini to remove this tweet. He kept making several requests. But that tweet remained there for like eight months, until Richard's lawyer sent a legal notice to Petrazzini requesting her to remove it. And it's only then that the tweet was removed.
The audio recordings make it all the more powerful. It takes it to a different level than just reading the text from the recordings. She uses some very dehumanizing language to refer to him. At one point she says, “I just want to thank everybody for a proper, thorough session today. We got into the weeds and got the weed whacker out apparently. It was hot today. It was good. It was really good.” You can hear her laughing in the background.
In the last session that Richard attended, she invites the audience to comment on last week's session, particularly the interaction that that she had with Richard. And so you have all of these educators joining in piling on him, and calling him a resistor, calling him “whiteness.” They continue using this dehumanizing language.
He's there. They can't even bring themselves to refer to him by his name. There was a fourth session that Richard did not chose not to attend, because he went on sick leave the following day. He applied for sick leave. He was just too emotionally distraught by the whole experience. He filed a workplace harassment complaint with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario. He went on sick leave for three months.
TH: In your reporting, you speak to a friend, Michael Teper, who describes the emotional impact of these zoom training incidents on Richard Bilkszto. You have interviews with another friend, Robert McManus, who has a lot to say about his character. This is a man who, by all accounts, was a lifelong progressive. A gay man, as it turned out, who cared a lot about discrimination, and who felt these incidents quite deeply. As you say, he went on sick leave in May of 2021, and subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Toronto District School Board. You quote from that lawsuit in your story. We have asked the TDSB for comment on your story. It has directed us to two previous press statements on this matter, both of which we'll link to on my Substack. I want to quote one of these now: “Richard was a strong advocate for students, particularly for those in adult and alternative education. Throughout his over 24 years in education, he worked hard to create an environment that fostered student success for students of all ages.” The TDSB has launched an investigation into the events that transpired.
As you mentioned, Richard also made a complaint with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. It did found that Ms. Thompson's behavior was “abusive” and constituted workplace harassment. We have reached out as well to Ms. Thompson, and we have invited her to come on the program. We've invited her to make a statement. We have also reached out to Stephen Lecce, Ontario's education minister, and invited that ministry to make a statement.
He has called the allegations raised by Richard Bilkszto “serious and disturbing,” and has asked his staff to review what happened. Rupa, I want to turn our attention now from the facts that you have reported to the conversation around the story in the Canadian press.
It has been covered everywhere from the CBC, my former employer, to The National Post, where you wrote a column. I want to ask you about a few threads of discussion. Ms. Thompson, in her statement to the media, said, “This incident is being weaponized to discredit and suppress the work of everyone committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” There are a contingent of people who agree with this assessment, including University of Toronto professor Nicole Bernhardt, who published a piece in The Conversation titled, “Why a Toronto High School Principal's Death is Wrongly Linked to Anti-Racism Training.” What do you make of that claim? That this incident — this tragedy, as Ms. Thompson herself put it in her statement — has been weaponized?