Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, words come out the wrong way.
But unless you're a racist, the N-bomb is not one of those words. York region school board trustee Nancy Elgie, 82, wants us to believe that's what happened to her, though.
Elgie, an elected official for Georgina, has found herself at the centre of controversy after she was overheard referring to a black parent as a "n****r" after a public meeting last November.
The parent, Charline Grant, has filed a human rights complaint against the school board alleging it discriminated against her son. Grant, who has three kids in the school system, was being interviewed by a TV reporter after a Nov. 22 meeting when Elgie, speaking amongst a group of fellow trustees and members of the school board, described her as a "n****r." Let that digest for a second—a mother who is fighting prejudice against her son was slurred BY A SCHOOL TRUSTEE literally as she was speaking about discrimination in the school system.
Grant didn't overhear the slur, but told the Toronto Star she found out about it later.
At first, Elgie told the Star "there is no merit in the accusation." When pressed, however, she didn't deny having said it, repeating, "I'm just saying there is no merit in the accusation." Er… OK. Her story got even stranger from there.
Following a weeks-long independent investigation into the incident, Elgie, who has been a trustee for 17 years, issued an email apology to Grant. According to the Star, she said "I was clumsily trying to refer to your concerns as reported in the media, not you personally… I felt heartsick and deeply ashamed to have said something so hurtful—even unintentionally—and so foreign to the values I have held throughout my entire life."
She told the Star, "It is clear that by using such a horrible word, even inadvertently, I breached the policy."
Yeah, no. The N-word is not a word that people use "inadvertently." You gotta make an advertent decision to drop that word.
Grant graciously told the Star she accepted the apology but said it's not enough.
"She didn't hurt me privately, she hurt me publicly. She didn't just hurt me, she hurt my family and she hurt my community."
On Tuesday, Elgie followed up with a letter to her colleagues, in which she, incredulously, seemed to blame her hate speech on a head injury.
"On that day in November, still suffering from the after-effects of a head injury earlier in the fall, I struggled for words as I tried to identify Ms. Grant by referring to the concerns she and others had raised. The words came out horribly wrong, in the opposite way from what I had intended," she said. (I shudder to think of her "intended" phrasing.) "While I know that all of us have our words come out wrong way sometimes (particularly as we age), in this case the words were extremely hurtful ones."
In case you've lost track, Elgie's explanations for using the N-word now include: I didn't say that; I said it because I was talking about the concerns the parent mentioned; I used that word because I didn't know the parent's name; I had a head injury; I'm old.
The letter was released in time for a meeting that Elgie skipped due to "medical issues." Which is convenient, because she didn't have to deliver her apology in person, nor own up to a petition that has garnered more than 1,600 signatures calling for her to resign.
Elgie apparently can't be fired because she was elected. But she can be banned from meetings—a step the school board hasn't taken. So far, being required to take equity training—along with fellow trustees—is the only consequence she has faced.
Yesterday, Ontario's education minister Mitzie Hunter ordered a probe into allegations of systemic racism within the York region school board. Hopefully, something constructive will come out of that.
However, in the case of Nancy Elgie, another investigation won't change the fact that she can't keep her story straight or her racism in check. She should quit and spare all us the trouble of deciphering another incoherent apology.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.