Justine Bell: “Being active and engaged in my community is in my blood”

by Alayne McGregor

Centretown has a new public school board trustee–who’s deeply concerned that every student gets the education they need to contribute to society.

Justine Bell, working at home with her daughter Shanti. [Guillermo Trejo/The Buzz]

Justine Bell was sworn in as the trustee for Zone 10 (Somerset/Kitchissippi) on February 18.

She replaces Erica Braunovan, who resigned in December. Thirteen candidates were interviewed for the seat, and trustees chose Bell by secret ballot.

Bell is a federal public servant, a senior analyst at Global Affairs Canada on poverty reduction.

Her background is in international development, and she’s led on Canada’s policy for engaging civil society organizations around the world, worked on Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan, and volunteered with refugees.

She’s also deeply attached to this neighbourhood: “when we had our child, we realized this was the best place that we could ever wish to live in Ottawa and probably in Canada if not the world.”

She’s lived in Centretown for 12 years, currently on Cambridge Street North, and her five-year-old daughter is in junior kindergarten at Cambridge Street Public School.

When she talked to The BUZZ, she emphasized how much her own family background made her want to become a trustee.

“Being active and engaged in my community is in my blood.”

She grew up in her grandmother’s house in North Vancouver: “a big, old heritage house. We lived on the main floor, my brother Sean and my mom and my dad. My grandparents lived in the basement and my Aunt Kathleen and my cousin Nathan lived up on the top floor.”

Her grandmother was the founding editor of The Native Voice, the first national indigenous peoples’ newspaper in Canada, and the house was “always open to activists and allies. From a very young age, I learnt about social injustice and inequality within our communities across Canada. My father was also very actively involved as a city councillor, and my mother was a nurses’ assistant at a hospital there.”

Her late brother Sean dropped out of high school, which she said affected him throughout his life.

“I remember the conversations around his disruptive behaviour in the classroom. It wasn’t until many, many years later that he was diagnosed with dyslexia. He did contribute to society–he worked with people with disabilities–but he suffered quite a bit in his life.”

On the other hand, her cousin Nathan, who has Downs Syndrome, thrived at school because, during the 1980s and 90s, the BC school system added special aides and other supports for people with disabilities.

“So that’s one of the reasons as well that I really feel strongly, and I am completely dedicated to, a democratic society where everyone can thrive, and where those that are disadvantaged can actually get the support that they need to thrive.”

Bell has worked in international development and on poverty reduction for the past 15-20 years.

In Mexico City, she worked for Amnesty International and the Food and Agriculture Organization, with refugees and agricultural workers.

When she came back to Ottawa to get her master’s in public policy and administration, she immediately started working on issues concerning how to engage civil society to make democracy work.

In Mexico City, she met her husband, Guillermo Trejo, a visual artist and master printmaker who teaches at the Ottawa School of Art and sits on the board of the Ottawa Art Gallery.

In 2019, Bell was asked to run for the NDP in North Vancouver in the federal election. She and her family moved there for six months, “and I gave it my all. And then I came back to Ottawa and I was honest with people that I really needed a break at that time. My husband said to me, ‘Listen, we have built such a strong community here in Ottawa I think we need to focus on our life here. Why don’t you go find a board to sit on?”

That fall, her daughter Shanti entered junior kindergarten a couple months late.

“She started to come home with stories that were very unnerving, stories of disruptive behaviour in the classroom. Me being the good policy analyst that I am, I started to investigate what are the policies of safe schools? What can the teachers do when you have a number of children that have behavioral issues? I spoke with the teachers. I spoke with the principal.”

Then she reached out to her school trustee to learn “what could be done and what sort of supports could be put in place into this classroom so that all children could be safe.”

Braunovan had already stepped down, but agreed to meet with her. “By the end of the conversation she got me thinking about stepping up into this position as trustee. So it really just fell into place quite organically.

“I found it incredibly challenging to navigate the system–and so I want to help other parents to be able to seek out and know what to seek out in order to get the services they need so that their children can thrive.”

Bell started her term in the middle of several major disruptions: first, the rotating teachers’ strikes, and then the complete school shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s incredibly intense, and I’m very grateful for my background in international development, which has given me a lot of background in the issues of poverty and economic growth and how it all intertwines, and the importance of intersectional analysis. Because I think if I came to this without a relevant background, it would be an uphill battle, because there’s so much to learn and there’s so much going on right now.”

The school board can no longer meet in person, and must conduct its meetings electronically, which makes it difficult, even in four-hour meetings, “to cover all of the issues that everyone around the table is bringing forth.

“And then on top of that, there’s the regular business that–if we don’t get to it–it’s going to have a negative effect on students.

“It’s been a challenge but I’ve been very impressed at how the trustees and the school board have been open to dialogue and to supporting me actually to getting up to speed on what a trustee’s role is, what a superintendent’s role is, what the board’s role is.

“This is a perfect opportunity to jump in and find out exactly what you can and cannot do according to legislation.”

She herself is working from home on reduced hours, “because the public service has permitted parents who need to take care of their children at this time to do what they have to do.

“Right now my husband and I have worked it out so from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., I work on my day job, with my earphones on, and from 1 til 4, I take care of Shanti.

“Then the rest of the night we share when it comes to doing my trustee work and him doing his art work.”

Bell said she’d heard from “a few parents–especially on-line in social media–that this is really tough.

“This is a hard time for a lot of parents. Even if you have the security of having a job and pay, being at home 24/7 with your children and the expectations that you could take on the educator role is a lot for people.

“From my experience as well, I’ve really appreciated how much the board has done to reach out and make this experience not overwhelming for parents, by mentioning five hours of focused study per week as part of the latest initiative.

“I can tell you that even with five hours a week, it’s tough–and a lot of people have reached out, wanting to know what’s next, wanting to know especially with the high school students if they’re going to be able to graduate. I’ve heard quite a bit from parents on that front.”

She said she was making it a personal priority to let parents know about resources and that “your school is there for you to reach out to so you can get those supports that you need.”

While “we’re in unprecedented times,” she praised the school board for “finding out who needs resources when it comes to online support during this time, reaching out to our teachers, and regularly making time to say that, if this is the way we’re moving forward, what do you suggest? In basically a week’s time, they rolled all that information together and came up with a plan. I’ve heard from a number of teachers that they really appreciate what our board has been doing to communicate what their expectations are.”

In the teachers’ labour dispute, she emphasized how much she appreciated how teachers have “advocated for the well-being of students. There’s a fine line that you have to walk as a trustee and being vocal about labour negotiations.

“And so I did my best to hear from the teachers, reach out to the teachers, and to educate myself as best I could about the current reality.”

Talking to teachers, she said, the issue of destructive behaviour in the classroom that she and her daughter encountered “came up time and time again. The types of resources and supports that they need in order to make sure that all children, all students are able to get educated, and the importance of class sizes, and the importance of ensuring your support staff make a livable wage–these are things that I heard right off the bat.”

In the longer term, Bell says the number one school issue “in Centretown and across Ottawa is the issue of equity. How can we ensure that, no matter where you come from, no matter what your socio-economic status is, that you get the education you need to contribute to society in a positive way? I will be working as hard as I can to ensure that there is equity–that students in Centretown no matter where they come from, can really follow their dreams the way I’ve been able to do.”

She’s concerned about perceived and real differences between English-only and French immersion school programs–whether some students are relegated to English programs because they’re considered less talented, and whether the English schools are achieving as much academically as the French immersion schools.

If there is a difference, “there’s something that we need to be doing as a board to improve those statistics.”

She also wants to help parents of children with special education needs: “how do they navigate what can be done to support their child, so that their child can leave the school system and be as best-off as they can?”

Bell emphasized she wants to hear from people, through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, or phone.

“I want to hear the issues that people are facing, because it’s only through hearing from my community that I will be able to represent them at that table with all of the other trustees.”

To contact Justine Bell: justine.bell@ocdsb.ca or 613-858-2275.