Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Dismantling racism in Canadian universities: a call to action

The key to dismantling academia’s structural racism is to embed equity at every level

EducationHuman Rights

Canadian universities have invested little effort on racial equity, largely because there is still no acceptance of the existence of racism itself. Photo by John Cameron/Unsplash.

One year ago, protests in response to the killing of George Floyd in the United States triggered a semblance of mainstream awakening to anti-Black racism and police brutality around the world. Around that time in Canada, the deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantal Moore, and D’Andre Campbell marked some of the latest tragedies of the ongoing state-sanctioned violence perpetrated against Black and Indigenous peoples. The attention brought to police violence one year ago prompted many academic communities around the world to evaluate their role and contribution to systemic violence against Black and Indigenous people, and to work to resolutely dismantle oppressive structures. One year later, we have yet to see Canadian universities take any serious measures to addressing violence and racism within their institutions.

When faced with this upsetting reality, the common reaction of many Canadians is to seek solace in the myth that racism in our country does not exist as it does in the United States. Canada’s culture of denialism when it comes to racism only exacerbates the problem. As writer and activist Robyn Maynard writes in her book Policing Black Lives, “[…] the long history of anti-Blackness in Canada has, for the most part, occurred alongside the disavowal of its existence.” Anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism is inherently built into Canadian societal systems, including our police, schools, healthcare, social services, and academic institutions.

Those for whom the racism in our universities is not apparent need look no further than the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag that went viral on social media last year. Accounts of violence, ranging from microaggressions to assault, paint a harsh image of the oppression faced by Black students, staff, and faculty in navigating the academic landscape. Black Canadian scholars and journalists, such as Kristin Moriah, Desmond Cole, and Eternity Martis, have all written of their experience with racial discrimination and aggression on Canadian university campuses.

There is no shortage of Canadian academics who continue to vehemently deny and actively perpetuate racist beliefs, and an abundance of evidence and documentation of everyday racism in higher education. It is difficult to ignore the efforts some prominent individuals have made to actively counter diversity initiatives and have their views confirmed by the professional community at large with published editorials in high-impact journals. The complicity of our fellow colleagues—and the academic structures that empower them—is perpetuating a culture of oppression and discrimination.

Universities act as gatekeepers to our society, and hold immense power to shape our culture, technologies, and political discourse. They should be on the frontline of acculturating equitable, inclusive, and just practices within their systems. Failure to do so at best wreaks havoc on the quality of academic research and, at worst, cultivates a discriminatory and oppressive society. As Professor Imogen R. Coe of Ryerson University puts it, “If you’re not embedding equity, you’re entrenching mediocrity.”

It is well known that existing equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) efforts within Canadian universities tend to fall on the shoulders of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) students and faculty. Such work is rarely acknowledged, rewarded, or compensated, and places an additional burden on those already facing barriers within their departments or institutions. The damage this incurs on students and faculty is best captured by PhD student Mélise Edwards who asks, “What does political turmoil, racism and discrimination do to the cognitive reserve and health of students who are constantly subjected to this additional mental load?” The hierarchical structures, archaic reward systems, and legacy of whiteness under which EDI initiatives currently operate often result in them harming the very people they are intended to support.

University of Toronto. Photo by VV Nincic/Flickr.

The culture of apathy towards EDI in the academy should not be misinterpreted as a slow response to changing times; rather, it has served as a deliberate barrier to long-standing demands for action. Little progress has been made since the 1984 Abella Commission, chaired by Justice Rosalie S. Abella, which investigated conditions for women, visible minorities, Indigenous people, and persons with disabilities, and laid the foundation for the Employment Equity Act of 1986.

Malinda S. Smith, professor of political science and recently appointed vice-provost (equity, diversity, and inclusion) at the University of Calgary, is a long-standing leader in developing next-generation equity policies at Canadian post-secondary institutions. In a recent interview with Higher Education Strategy Associates, Smith explains that, while small attempts have been made towards achieving gender equity, Canadian universities have invested no serious effort on racial equity, largely because there is still no acceptance of the existence of racism itself. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Canada is notoriously lagging in its collection of racial data.

There is no shortage of actions to be taken going forward. The recent awakening of the mainstream to anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism should be a wake-up call to Canadian universities to catch up on their decades of inaction. In June of 2020, institutions across the country issued public statements condemning anti-Black racism. The question now is whether institutions are committed to translating their words into action.

So, what exactly needs to be done? To start, universities can invest, resource, and empower their underfunded EDI offices; create mechanisms to address instances of racism on campuses; harness their research capital to collect data and create policy; defund campus police and redirect these resources to other forms of community service; boost funding to departments harbouring critical race studies; hire and support more Black and Indigenous faculty and administrators to ensure them the resources to succeed in their roles; and hold space for Indigenous elders on campuses to support students.

Faculty can play an especially critical role in addressing racism and supporting Black and Indigenous students in classrooms and in their research groups through their role as instructors, managers, and mentors. In all disciplines (including STEM) course material must not shy away from confronting the field’s whitewashed history by addressing the colonial lens through which many ideas were developed and highlighting the true diversity of scholarly contributors. Faculty should also be encouraged to develop their teaching, management, and leadership skills that will help them foster more inclusive and productive environments for their students. Here, Deans and department Chairs must commit to offering faculty adequate support and training opportunities, valuating EDI scholarship to ensure that “diversity work” is not relegated to service, and strengthening the integrity of recruitment, admission, and hiring processes. Finally, administrators at all levels must lead by example by amplifying the voices and concerns of those made invisible and by advocating to dramatically increase funding and scholarship opportunities for students and early-career researchers of underrepresented groups.

The key to dismantling academia’s structural racism is to embed equity at every level, from the top down. Anti-racism education should be imperative for all teaching assistants, instructors, faculty, administrators, board members, and consultants participating in search committees, as well as for faculty union leadership. Such work is not trivial and will demand long-term commitment to education and work from all members of the university community. EDI initiatives within the academy will only be sustainable if the work is valued, recognized, and rewarded. We need systems to hold accountable those upholding barriers to action.

If Canadian institutions are serious about combating anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, they should be prepared to put their money where their mouth is and commit to dismantling the oppressive structures on which they are built.

The authors are current and former members of Working Towards Inclusivity in Chemistry, a graduate student-led advocacy group at the University of Toronto.


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