(Pictured: Corinne Baker. Photo courtesy of Corinne and Tom Baker)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
An elite British Columbia private school is facing a human rights complaint from an Indian residential school survivor who alleges the institution did little after she faced a racist barrage from a manager who said “all Indians are dirty filthy pigs.”
Corinne Baker, 49, who is originally from Ucluelet First Nation, said she was subject to the racist tirade from her manager during a lunch break last month. Baker said this was the third time she has either faced or witnessed racist acts at Brentwood College, which charges $36,000 in tuition to Canadian students.
Baker said she filed the complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal because she felt Brentwood College had tried to “downplay” the severity of the incident. Baker wanted the school to fire the manager.
The tribunal received the complaint Sept. 5, said Baker. An official with the tribunal said they could neither confirm nor deny whether they had received the complaint. The official said incidents at private schools do fall within the tribunal’s mandate.
An employee since 2002, Baker, works in the school’s kitchen. She said going to work has turned into a stressful situation. She also worries that fighting what she believes to be a serious injustice could cost her the job.
“I just don’t want to be there, but I have to have income and I don’t want to be thrown out of school because I am fending for my rights,” said Baker, who currently lives in Shawnigan Lake, B.C., with her husband Tom Baker. “The problem with that is I have to go to work and see (the manager) every day and it upsets me. Why is that okay? That was a slap in the face. Can anyone call me any awful name they want and get away with it?”
Brentwood College, situated in Mill Bay, B.C., sells itself as an elite boarding school for students in Grades 9 to 12. It boasts an oceanfront campus and a “rigorous curriculum.”
According to the human rights complaint, Baker was working with the Vancouver Island school’s summer cleaning crew when conversation over lunch turned to nationalities and languages.
Her manager, Chris Nelson, asked Baker if she spoke a First Nations language. Baker responded saying that she lost her language after she was taken to Port Alberni Indian Residential School.
Baker attended the school from 1964 to 1973 and said she faced physical abuse from staff and other students.
Baker alleges that Nelson then went on a tirade, first complaining that one of her nieces had gone “all native on her” and that she couldn’t understand why because “Amy” was only one-eighth “native.”
Nelson then allegedly said that “all Indians are dirty filthy pigs,” after ending a tirade about Chemainus First Nation. The First Nation had “pissed her off” because they were involved in the closing of the geoduck fishery.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans ended the fishery for the large clams in mid-August citing safety concerns amid rising tensions between First Nation and non-Native fishers.
Nelson allegedly said that First Nations were “fucking disgusting” people who couldn’t clean up their yards and take their garbage to the curb.
She also allegedly said that the Cowichan Tribes were “disgusting pigs” and called their longhouse a “pig sty” inside.
Baker said that none of her co-workers reacted to the comments.
Baker said she “sat for a few minutes to gain some sort of composure,” but was too upset to continue working. Baker said she left the campus weeping.
“It was more than weeping,” said her husband Tom Baker, a provincial corrections officer, who picked her up that day. “I have never seen her that upset. I would equate it to her grieving for someone that had died, that is how bad she hurt.”
They have been married for 26 years and have two adult children, both who are municipal police officers in B.C.
Corinne Baker said she complained to the school’s administration. Nelson was suspended for four-and-a-half weeks with a week’s holiday during the school’s investigation into the incident. The school administration also held an hour and 15 minute mediation session on Sept. 16 with the co-workers present at the incident, but it achieved little, said Baker.
Nelson returned to work Wednesday
Nelson wrote a hand-written letter of apology to Baker.
“To think of you as a good friend and not a native is why we did not think of your feelings,” wrote Nelson, in her letter.
It went on to say:
“I have always been a very honest person…I have my own opinion which is too honest at times and gets people hurt. This has shown me to keep my opinion to myself so I do not hurt people unintentionally…I cannot write down how bad I feel or how sorry I am for the way I made you feel. I hope that you begin to heal and forgive the ignorance of my actions…Again, nothing was said to you personally, only about a few people in your culture.”
In a postscript, Nelson wrote that she had tried to find Baker after the incident, but was told by management that “I was not allowed to talk to you or contact you in any way.”
Baker said the school’s head, Andrea Pennells, told her the apology was “heartfelt.”
The school appears to consider the matter closed.
In a letter written to Baker, Pennells suggested she move on from the incident.
“Like two of my heroes, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, I also believe in the need for truth and reconciliation, and the capacity for human beings, even those who have been hurt by another, to forgive, learn and move forward together,” wrote Pennells.
Pennells wrote that she would not fire Nelson because the manager was a “long term, dedicated employee.” Pennells wrote that Nelson and the rest fo the staff meant no personal harm.
“All staff present on Aug. 17 have apologized publically to you, Corinne, for their lack of sensitivity and empathy, and for their unacceptable use of language. As Head of School I have apologized to you, as did the Deputy Head of School, John Allpress, on my behalf during my absence on holiday,” wrote Pennells.
She also said the school would take no more action on the previous two alleged incidents. The first being in 2006 when a co-worker allegedly told Baker she was a “dumb fucking Indian.” In her human rights complaint, Baker said Pannell apologized and then told her to “go find your happy place.”
The second incident came in 2008 during the North American Indigenous Games, which the school hosted. The letter, however, does not reveal what the incident involved and Baker said she could not divulge the information because the school had threatened her with legal action if she went public with the allegation.
The college was involved in hosting the games.
Pannells said in a statement emailed to APTN National News that the incident was only brought up in the last month by Baker’s husband.
“Despite an exhaustive investigation and repeated requests to (Baker) and her husband for any evidence they may have had, we cannot obtain any verification at all that their allegation is true,” said the statement.
The statement also said the school had hired a professional mediator with experience in First Nations issues who would be leading a seminar on the “respectful workplace” next month.
“As a school, we have devoted a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources in response to (Baker’s) concerns. She is a valued employee. Certainly, there was thoughtless use of unacceptable language over lunch in August, and appropriate disciplinary action has been taken,” said the statement. “In addition, everyone involved has apologized to (Baker)…The incident was unacceptable and I appreciate (Baker) raising it as a matter of concern.”
APTN National News also reached Nelson at her home. Nelson said she was not allowed to comment.