Ontario student ‘heartbroken’ after yearbook message honouring grandma replaced with racist slur

A young Black man who found that his high school yearbook message paying tribute to his late grandmother had been replaced with a racist slur says he “can’t describe the amount of hurt” he felt after he picked up his copy and looked inside.

“I was hurt, in pain, just sadness,” Joshua Telemaque told CTV News Toronto Tuesday, standing outside his former school, Pickering’s St. Mary Catholic Secondary School. “I felt destroyed and heartbroken. It affected me in a lot of ways, but it’s just something that I don’t want anyone to feel.”

His mother called the incident “horrific.”

“I feel hurt really hurt for him. He didn’t deserve any of this,” Marva Massicot Telemaque said. “He’s a very good son, he’s a good student He’s always been good.”

She added her son “always does the right thing” both inside and outside of school.

Telemaque’s aunt took to Facebook over the weekend to express her anger and frustration after her nephew’s submitted yearbook entry honouring his late grandmother for “guiding me through my four years of high school” was replaced with a racist phrase referencing a gorilla that got shot at the Cincinnati Zoo.

In the post, Mayma Raphael said that her nephew had been “called a monkey and bullied by some of the kids” at the school in the past but she said that she would have “never thought that they would have taken it this far,” noting that the incident underscores for her that “racism is alive in Canada.”  

The school sent a letter home to parents on Sunday apologizing for the “offensive, hurtful and unacceptable nature” of the comments and vowing to conduct a full investigation.

On Tuesday, the Durham Catholic District School Board released its own statement condemning the “hurtful, malicious and racist comments.”

In it, the board said that it is taking the “offensive act of misconduct, disrespect and racism” very seriously and is working with police and school officials “to determine the circumstances that allowed this to happen” as well as the people involved.

The board also apologized directly to the wider Black community.

“In a time where we are taking intentional steps to address systemic discrimination and anti-Black racism, we would like to extend a direct apology to the Black community that we serve,” the statement reads.

“We recognize that words cannot repair the hurt that these comments have caused, and the horrific experience this has been for families and friends within the school community and beyond. This offense is not acceptable in our schools, nor is it a representation of our Catholic values and core commitment to equity.

In her Facebook post, Raphael said that her nephew was “a star athlete at the school, excelling in football, basketball, and track and field.”

But she said that even those accolades “didn’t shield him from racism’s emotional and psychological impact.

“He’s now devastated, embarrassed, hurt, and disappointed,” she said.

Speaking with CTV News Toronto on Tuesday, the superintendent of education at the Durham Catholic District School Board said that it is the board’s policy to contact police whenever there is an incident that may be hate-motivated.

“Anything that is racially motivated, a racist comment I guess in my eyes, I would say that that is a hate crime… which is exactly why we did call in the police at that time,” Superintendant Susie Lee-Fernandes said.

She said that officers have already visited the school and have spoken with staff.

Meanwhile in a statement issued later on Tuesday afternoon, Durham Region Chair John Henry called the incident “horrible.”

“My deepest sympathies go out to this young man and all individuals who have been impacted by the hurtful, malicious and racist comments. I’m sorry this happened to you. This is unacceptable in our community,” he said.

St. Mary Catholic Secondary School

Students at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School were asked to return their yearbooks to the school today. The school’s principal has said that a full inventory will be completed to ensure that every copy is accounted for.

In its statement, the board said that it supports the school’s decision to recall all copies of the yearbook and appreciates the “full cooperation of all recipients.”

Lee-Fernandes said the board is also looking into other changes made to student profiles in the yearbook, but wouldn’t provide specific details.

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