More than 200 educators, friends and family came out Sunday to honour Richard Bilkszto, described as a principal with a “generous nature” who had a “genuine desire to see his students succeed.”
“Richard believed teaching was a privilege and to deserve such a privilege required ongoing personal and professional development,” said his niece Kaitlin MacKay through tears at the Celebration of Life in a Hamilton event centre.
But sadly and ironically, it was ultimately that “professional development” — in this case by a Black Lives Matter (BLM)-supporting Diverity, Equity, Inclusive (DEI) trainer — that his family alleges ultimately led to his untimely death.
The 60-year-old Toronto District School Board principal took his own life in mid-July.
His lawyer Lisa Bildy and his family have said it was the stress and ongoing harassment from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) that contributed to the suicide.
In a court claim against the TDSB, filed in April, Bilkszto alleged he was treated abusively, bullied and harassed by DEI trainer Kike Ojo-Thompson, hired by black activist education director Colleen Russell-Rawlins and her acolytes.
Subsequent audio recordings of the April and May 2021 sessions, during which Ojo-Thompson called out his “white supremacy” repeatedly and said he should be removed as an employee, point to the accuracy of his claims.
Even after the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) found the treatment “egregious” and abusive, the black activists on the board’s senior management team cancelled a series of contracts they had with the popular principal and refuse to hire him for other jobs, as if he’d been branded a racist.
It is interesting to note that not one trustee, except for Weidong Pei, or member of the executive team from the TDSB — where Bilkszto worked for 24 years — turned up on Sunday to express their regrets.
It would have been a classy gesture by a board that is now dealing with a public relations mess of their own making as more and more principals and teachers come out of the woodwork to speak about the abuse they, too are, enduring under Russell-Rawlins.
Education minister Stephen Lecce has been silent since he announced a review of the circumstances leading to Bilkszto’s death in late July.
MacKay, who spoke for her two brothers, said her uncle always believed in them and believed in his students.
He loved his family and acted like a “second father” to her and her brothers.
He was also a politician in his early 20s.
“Uncle Richard meant everything to me and my brothers,” she said. ”Without Richard’s love and guidance, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
His lifelong friend Robert McManus said Richard could always find fun in an everyday event, make one forget about their troubles on a difficult day and help change your life by finding a path not ever considered.
“These qualities helped to make him a successful politician … but more these talents made him a gifted educator,” he said. “Richard changed so many lives for the better.
“We have a lot of reasons to cry but if you gave Richard the choice to cry or celebrate, he’d tell us to focus on the wonderful memories,” added McManus.
A vice principal wrote a rhyming ode to him indicating, quite rightly, that he was “taken by hatred aimed at him” and his “heart must have broken losing faith” in his life’s mission.
“All of those years of dedication and saving souls of your own volition,” she said. “Please know that those of us who loved you will continue to question omissions.”
She got tremendous applause.
Lawyer Lisa Bildy said she doesn’t yet know whether the family intends to carry on with Bilkszto’s lawsuit — that they needed time to grieve.
Nonetheless, Pei said he’s bringing a motion to the next TDSB board meeting to cancel any further dealings with Ojo-Thompson.
It remains to be seen whether Russell-Rawlins and her acolytes will allow that to happen.