Canada’s largest school board is phasing out the word “chief” from senior staff job titles, saying the move is being made out of respect for Indigenous peoples.
The Toronto District School Board’s decision raised eyebrows in some quarters, but a spokesman said the action was taken “in the spirit” of recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
However, Ryan Bird said that to his knowledge no Indigenous people had reached out to ask the board to remove the phrase from its job titles.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent years documenting the long-standing impacts of Canada’s residential school system and made many recommendations to further reconciliation with Indigenous people.
For the TDSB, tackling the word “chief” was a proactive move, Bird said, explaining that the term has come under fire in certain contexts in recent years.
“It may not have originated as an Indigenous word, but the fact is that it is used as a slur in some cases, or in a negative way to describe Indigenous people,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “With that in mind, as it has become a slur in some cases, that’s the decision the administration has made to be proactive on that.”
The board’s effort has been underway for a few years and is close to completion, Bird said.
From here on out, the word is being replaced with terms like “manager” and “executive officer” within the school board. For instance, Bird said, the person once called the chief of social work is now the manager of social work.
Word of the TDSB’s efforts drew questions from observers online who wondered if the board may have gone too far. Some questioned the need for the move while others pointed out that the word “chief” is widespread in job titles across the world.
Mark Morton, who works at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence and studies the origin of words, said the root of the word “chief” is believed to predate Latin, and also spawned words such as “captain.”
The word “chief” in its modern sense was first used to describe leaders of Irish and Scottish clans in the 1570s, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that it was applied to the leaders of First Nations, he said.
The TDSB’s effort was the first time Morton had heard of the word being thought of as offensive to First Nations people, but if it was considered truly hurtful, it was fair to phase it out, he said.
“If that usage is going to genuinely hurt a group of people, then I would say yes, by all means, let’s see if we can find an alternative,” he said. “On the other hand, the word originated outside of the context of First Nations cultures … and the First Nations associations that it has, I don’t think are negative.”
Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, the director of the teacher education program at the University of Ottawa, wasn’t familiar with the TDSB’s efforts but noted that in a broader context where sports teams, for example, use derogatory images of Indigenous people alongside the term “chief,” disassociating from the word makes sense.
“Even though the etymology and history of chief in terms of administrative positions wasn’t necessarily linked to the appropriation of … the tribal chief appointed, the fact that there might be a connection in light of sports teams being named ‘The Chiefs’ and having as a mascot a chief, that they would want to disassociate themselves from the possibility.”
Ontario’s education minister said boards were allowed to have their own discussions over such matters.
“School boards have the flexibility to engage in their own conversations around the steps that should be taken to reflect the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” a spokesman for Mitzie Hunter said in a statement.