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Rights + Justice

Canadian Universities Have a Racism Problem. We Went Deep into One

And what we found were myriad ways that people of colour struggle to find inclusion and justice. A special report.

Katie Hyslop 26 Mar

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Babakayode Fatoba just wanted to buy something to eat on Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus on Dec. 11. But he ended up pepper-sprayed, tazed and arrested by RCMP officers called by campus security.

The case — described by SFU president Joy Johnson as an “unsettling event” — brought new calls for Simon Fraser to address what some students and faculty say are persistent problems with racism, and problems shared with universities across Canada.

Fatoba, a Black alumnus of SFU, was on campus and wanted to buy food in the cafeteria. But campus access has been restricted to students, staff and faculty because of the pandemic.

Campus security demanded he produce his ID. And then things escalated.

Cellphone video shot by Fatoba shows a security guard telling him to buy his food and leave. Fatoba asks the guard why he’s being singled out, and the guard radios a request to call the RCMP. Another video shot by a bystander shows an RCMP officer grappling with Fatoba, who repeatedly calls out for help and a lawyer.

An RCMP statement says the arresting officer initially used “crisis intervention and verbal de-escalation techniques” and asked Fatoba to leave before attempting to arrest him. The officer then pepper sprayed Fatoba after Fatoba touched him. Fatoba then put the officer into a chokehold, say RCMP, and the officer responded by using the tazer. A student witness, however, told Global News the officer did not try to de-escalate the situation before physically subduing Fatoba.

Fatoba, who declined to be interviewed, was subsequently charged with creating a disturbance, obstructing and assaulting a peace officer with intent to resist arrest. His most recent court appearance was Wednesday.

Osob Mohamed, president of the Simon Fraser Student Society, condemned Fatoba’s arrest as evidence of racial profiling on campus and called SFU “a sick institution” on social media. The Tyee asked Mohamed for an interview but didn’t receive a response.

She told News1130 in December she was frustrated with, and felt ignored by, the university administration.

“I had a conversation with the director of campus health and safety just the day before this event happened, particularly around de-escalation and the dangers of calling the police on Black folks on campus,” said Mohamed, who is also Black. “This is not a one-time event. It’s happened to people within my circle and outside of it.”

In a public letter, the undergraduate students’ union condemned the arrest and called on SFU to apologize, review how campus security and the school interact with police, and provide de-escalation and anti-racism training to security.

An external review conducted by lawyer Andi MacKay at SFU’s request concluded no racial profiling or lack of training in de-escalation techniques were factors in the conflict.

A report summary released on March 9 said Fatoba knew campus access was restricted and his interaction with a person on campus on Dec. 11 led them to request a “safe walk” from security. Security couldn’t permit Fatoba to remain on campus after the safe walk request, MacKay wrote.

The review found security workers called the RCMP after Fatoba “became aggressive and refused to leave campus.”

However MacKay recommended that SFU begin posting its COVID-19 campus access policies at every building entrance; review its communications policy with an equity, diversity and inclusion lens; and consider “access controlling” the Burnaby campus with student cards that include digital information to avoid bias against Black, Indigenous and students of colour on campus.

SFU spokesperson Angela Wilson said via email that card access to all three campus’ buildings has increased since the pandemic began to help with physical distancing.

“Though this has had a place in our pandemic operations, we believe an ongoing practice of carding may impact our feeling of community on campus and may decrease inclusion,” Wilson wrote.

“We are discussing this recommendation with internal experts and anticipate this conversation will be part of the consultation on campus safety, which will launch in the coming months.”

The students’ union and a caucus of Black faculty, staff, students and alumni rejected the report summary, saying Fatoba was only told COVID protocols, not a Safe Walk complaint, was the reason he was asked to leave campus. They said there is no SFU policy requiring subjects of Safe Walk complaints to be removed from campus and noted Fatoba was not interviewed for the review.

And the review itself overlooks systemic bias against Indigenous, Black and students of colour, they said.

Both the union and a new Black caucus have demanded to see the full report. The union wants a full review of all university policies disproportionately impacting all marginalized people. Johnson has said such a review is coming. The caucus wants a full public inquiry into the arrest and for SFU to provide financial reparations, healing support and legal help to Fatoba, should he request it.

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Reporting racism

‘People just say what they want’

The events of Dec. 11 could be dismissed as just one incident. But over the past two years, The Tyee has talked to students, faculty and administrators at Simon Fraser about racism on campus and heard a wide range of complaints.

And we’ve learned universities across Canada are dealing with similar issues — and not well, according to critics.

That doesn’t surprise Malinda Smith, vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Calgary and co-author of The Equity Myth, a groundbreaking study on racism experienced by Canadian university faculty published in 2017.

There is a belief — and criticism — that post-secondary institutions are liberal and progressive.

Not true, Smith says. They are simply “a microcosm of the larger society.”

“Universities, like any institution, are relatively conservative insofar as we have established practices and policies to maintain the status quo, whether in hiring, around discipline,” she said.

“These tendencies have made universities ill-equipped to deal with the diversity and complexity of the social moment that we are in.”

And they can affect how a school handles student experiences or complaints about racism, Smith said.

Over the last 23 months, The Tyee has spoken to eight current and former students about their experiences with racism at SFU. Two students asked that their full names not be used, citing fear of harassment.

The students had either experienced or witnessed racist incidents on campus. Some talked about overt racism, like seeing a Nazi flag and a swastika drawn on a whiteboard, or hearing or seeing the "n-word" in campus buildings.

Others pointed to what they saw as examples of systemic racism, like the undergraduate student union’s move to deny permanent space to First Nations and Black student organizations in the new student union building.

Giovanni HoSang, a former president of the Simon Fraser Student Society who is Black, said complaints about racism are too easily dismissed or ignored. When Black students complain about the use of the "n-word," others point to rap lyrics or say that no racist intent is meant.

It doesn’t feel that way to Black students, said HoSang, adding he heard it a lot during his five years on the Burnaby campus.

“People don’t think it’s harmful — and then it becomes really harmful,” he said.

Timothy’s awakening came on his first day at SFU in September 2018. He heard another student make a racist comment about Indigenous people while hanging out in a student union lounge.

“I’m First Nations,” said Timothy, who had just transferred to the Lower Mainland school from a northern B.C. college.

To his shock, he said, the other student doubled down, saying all Indigenous people should be killed.

“He tells me that his father owns a company, and one time his company lost money when they dealt with Indigenous people,” recalled Timothy. “That’s his reason.”

Timothy said he never experienced similar racism at his old school or when he worked construction.

But calling out racism brings its own complications. Some students reported that when they raised issues, they were criticized for suppressing free speech or “reverse racism.”

“We’re often labelled as ‘the complainers,’ really minimizing and dismissive of these issues,” said Vivian, an SFU student of Chinese heritage. “The people who are supposed to be advocating for our needs are the ones saying our needs aren’t important.”

Some students said they didn’t even report racist incidents because they assumed nothing would be done. And when they did, their assumptions were confirmed, they said.

Rummana Khan Hemani, an SFU associate vice-president, said students can report racism to the university ombudsperson, the Human Rights Office and the Office of Student Support, which is where she recommends students start.

“The student conduct officer would sit down and really meet with them to discuss options to find out more about what’s gone on. If necessary, they would proceed to investigate the matter,” she said.

Khan Hemani said she advises students who haven’t received a satisfactory resolution to keep reporting to different offices.

“We’re really concerned about any racist behaviour that’s being experienced by our students or anyone else at the university,” she said. “I feel it’s really unfortunate when individuals say that they don’t feel they found the support they were seeking.”

But SFU spokesperson Wilson said via email that once a Student Code of Conduct complaint is made and dealt with, students can’t lodge a complaint with the Human Rights Office. Instead, they can appeal the decision to the Student Conduct Appeals Committee.

And only the Office of Student Support has the power to conduct investigations that lead to student discipline, while the university’s human resources department deals with faculty and staff discipline.

Timothy said he reported the racist comments about Indigenous people to the Office of Student Support. Four months later, Timothy said, campus security told him that witnesses reported “nothing out of the ordinary” had happened. There was no followup from the Office of Student Support, he said.

No one in a position of authority said to the offending student and witnesses, “‘Hey, this is not acceptable,’” Timothy added. “As it is people just do what they want, say what they want, because they can.”

The Tyee asked Wilson for a response to Timothy’s allegations, but she would not comment on his case, citing privacy concerns.

No student has been suspended for racism after a student conduct investigation. Wilson said in a statement that the Office of Student Support dealt with 71 cases between 2017/18 and 2019/20 and only five involved “behaviour that could be defined as discrimination towards a race, culture or religion.”

SFU’s ombudsperson’s office began counting the number of racism/discrimination-related concerns it receives in January 2019. Of the 1,263 visitors to the office since that time, only eight raised concerns around discrimination.

Staff, faculty and students can also go to the Human Rights Office, which responded to 48 alleged racist incidents from 2013 to 2019. The office dealt with over 1,000 harassment or discrimination issues in that time period, in consultation with unions if their members were involved. The Human Rights Office on the campus was closed in 2017 and for the first four months of 2018 due to a staffing shortage.

The ombudsperson is limited to offering advice, while the Human Rights Office offers advice, consultation or mediation between parties.

Wilson noted even if no one is disciplined, the university will still try to help the person who made the complaint. “The nature of the remedy depends on the individual circumstances of each case. Remedies can include (but are not limited to) a letter of apology, financial compensation, funds for counselling services, grade reconsideration, etc.,” she said.

But the number of reported incidents isn’t likely a good indicator of the prevalence of racist incidents, critics say.

A 2017 CBC investigation found the vast majority of 47 universities who responded to a survey reported fewer than 10 incidents of on-campus racism from 2011 to 2015.

The numbers were met with incredulity by Girish Parekh, a former complaint resolution adviser at Ryerson University and former investigator with the Canadian Human Rights Commission: “Over five years? To me, hard to believe that,” he told the CBC. “Even for one year I wouldn’t believe that.”

University of Calgary’s Smith says Canadian universities are typically poorly equipped to deal with racism. If offices dealing with complaints exist at all, they are usually staffed by people with no knowledge of racism, she said.

“So then the people who are dealing with these issues are more likely to be covering it up or dismiss it, because they don’t understand the nature of the problem they’re dealing with,” she said. The same problems exist in dealing with sexism, homophobia and transphobia on campus, Smith added.

“They have not invested adequately in the people who can help them resolve these issues. I can’t think of anyone who’s ever had to make a complaint around racism or harassment who has ever felt satisfied. And that’s an indictment.”

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In 2019, the campus group Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry presented a video to the Simon Fraser Student Society showing a student sitting in a lecture with the n-word in large letters on his laptop screen.

“You’re there at university to be educated,” said Sebastian Barreto, a Black SFU student who was SOCA’s vice-president at the time. “And in this pinnacle of an educational environment, lecturing in a lecture hall, you’re faced with such blatant racism.”

A Black student reported the incident to SFU’s Human Rights Office, where she alleges a white staff member said the “n-word” back to her while repeating what the student had seen on the laptop screen. The student left, distraught, without filing a complaint.

“She just couldn’t believe it,” said Afia Poku, who was SOCA’s president and a Black SFU student in 2019. Some members of SOCA no longer felt safe in classrooms, she said.

University spokesperson Wilson refused to comment on the incident, citing privacy concerns. She said the student should contact the university secretary’s office, which oversees the Human Rights Office, to report the incident.

A SOCA members' survey this spring found half of the 45 respondents did not think SFU makes Black people feel heard or empowered on campus. Nearly 80 per cent did not believe the university was equipped to respond to anti-Black racism in classes or on campus.

In an emailed statement, SFU president Johnson wouldn’t comment directly on specific student experiences but said she was “saddened and disappointed” to hear any experiences of racism at the university.

“Overcoming systemic racism is a community-wide responsibility, and something that we are working on throughout the university, from the leadership team to our faculties and administrative departments. This is a process that takes time, but we are committed to making progress every day,” she wrote.

Johnson added the university’s priorities include increasing the reach of equity, diversity and inclusion training, improving inclusion for “equity-deserving” populations, and stronger efforts to improve the equitability of recruitment, retention and job progression for faculty and staff.

Seeking support

‘Faculty have not thrived’

It’s not just students who are affected by racism on campus. A late 2019 Diversity Meter survey sent to SFU faculty and staff, for example, found only 35 per cent of Black respondents felt included and valued at the university, compared to over 60 per cent of respondents overall.

The Tyee spoke with six faculty members — three on background — about their experiences as Black or people of colour at SFU, as well as with one white academic who’s researched women faculty’s experiences on campus.

All pointed out the university’s nearly all-white leadership and said that needs to change. However, two faculty members of colour who spoke off the record indicated overall positive experiences at SFU, where they felt welcome and valued.

Three of the faculty members, including political science professor Genevieve Fuji Johnson and June Francis, an associate professor at SFU’s Beedie School of Business, said SFU has a problem with systemic racism.

“It has been a big struggle to get the university to recognize the ways in which it only valorizes white scholarship, white administrators and white spaces and places. And that those things have meant therefore that faculty have not thrived,” said Francis, who is Black.

Francis, who’s been at SFU for over 25 years, said her own research shows faculty across B.C. who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour are more likely to be sessional instructors or newer faculty members and are less likely to progress up the academic ladder to full professorship than their white colleagues.

She points to her own associate professor position as an example.

“If we really want to stay authentic and true to our voice at this point, we’ve had to publish in less prestigious journals that don’t get valued by a white academy,” she said. That limits chances for promotion.

Francis, who is part of the new Black caucus at SFU composed of about 40 students, faculty, alumni and staff, said Black faculty are also overburdened by support work that falls outside their job descriptions.

This could include being an unofficial advisor for a Black graduate student whose official advisors are all white, advocating for physical space for Black faculty and students to gather, or supporting students experiencing racism on campus.

For example, Francis said, she became involved in the aftermath of Fatoba’s arrest in the cafeteria on Dec. 11.

“My entire Saturday was taken up trying to make sure how to deal with things, how to get legal help, how to make sure the students aren’t traumatized,” she said, adding other Black caucus members were trying to help.

“We all know already that there’s not enough capacity, so we jump in.”

It’s work that white faculty don’t have to do, Francis says, freeing up their schedule for research and publishing.

Research by Calgary’s Smith and her colleagues found just five to 17 per cent of faculty members in public universities across Canada were Indigenous and racialized and white professors were more likely to receive tenure than racialized and Indigenous faculty.

Fuji Johnson said many faculty are too afraid to speak up about racism, even when they have tenure. People who speak out are perceived as challenging the status quo.

“And the status quo involves maintaining an organizational structure in which one particular demographic is dominant,” said Fuji Johnson. “And when you express concern with that status quo, the responses can be very uncomfortable, because in some cases, they’re coming from a position — drawing from the work of Robin DiAngelo — of fragility.” DiAngelo argues white people are uncomfortable even discussing racism and respond with anger and defensiveness.

The 2019 Diversity Meter survey was voluntary and sent to 5,490 faculty and staff at the university; 39 per cent responded.

Fuji Johnson, who served on the advisory group for the university’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion initiative until her term ended in April 2019, was not impressed by the effort. The initiative is part of a national effort to address racism and other issues in universities.

“If you really want to address a problem, you have to understand a problem. And in order to understand a problem, you need good data — quantitative, as well as qualitative,” she said, adding a lack of commitment to collecting data is a lack of commitment to addressing the problem.

SFU president Johnson disagrees. She was the university’s vice-president of research and international prior to becoming president in September and was in charge of the Diversity Meter. The participation rate was good, she said.

“It doesn’t allow us to generalize and say that the data is representative of the entire faculty and staff. But that said, I think we got some valuable data from that survey,” she said in October, adding data collection must continue to understand SFU’s equity, diversity and inclusion issues.

El Chenier is president of Academic Women, which represents all women and some non-binary faculty, librarians and lecturers at SFU. The organization conducted its own equity, diversity and inclusion consultations in spring 2019, including a session for Black, Indigenous and other racialized members.

Consultations were funded by the university’s equity, diversity and inclusion initiative but held independently. The results were released in 2020.

The sessions were eye-opening, Chenier said.

“As a white non-binary person, I understood on a basic everyday level that racism exists everywhere, so of course it exists at Simon Fraser University,” they said. “But I didn’t understand, and I didn’t appreciate how deeply entrenched, how widespread it is, and how much pain it’s causing. That was new to me.”

Participants in the Academic Women session on race spoke about the large and small aggressions they encounter on a daily basis at SFU because of their race.

One faculty member spoke about receiving the largest research grant her department unit had ever received, which would require her to be excused from teaching for travel. But she was only permitted leave from one course, while a younger, less experienced white male teacher who received a grant worth 20 per cent of hers was given leave from teaching six courses during the same period.

“I have come to the point of view that this is a deeply troubled university. I was on the Senate. Equity, starting with gender equity, was difficult initially, but at least the administration was willing to talk about gender equity,” said another academic identified as Speaker M. “I thought the principles of gender equity would translate in racial equity.”

“However, while they were willing to consider gender equity, they ran in the other direction at the very suggestion of racial equity. Whenever I brought it up, I was given a lecture that I was wrong, that I must have been misreading the situation and similar minimizing strategies.”

While participants did not believe SFU was genuinely committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, they did suggest changes to help achieve those goals.

They included anti-racism training for faculty and staff, creating a senior administrative position in charge of equity, diversity and inclusion, and even changing the name of the university, which honours white colonizer and fur trader Simon Fraser.

Only eight racialized faculty members participated in the discussion on racism. Participants said that showed the fatigue people feel about sharing their stories when it rarely ever results in change.

“Many of my colleagues are like, ‘What’s the point?’” said one participant.

Critics point to an explanation for the performance of SFU — and most Canadian universities — on racism.

While SFU doesn’t have full data on the race of employees, a look at its board of governors shows the 14 members are overwhelmingly white. The same is true for the ranks of senior managers.

The University of Calgary’s Smith said that’s common and could help explain why racism can be overlooked. “How many university presidents or provosts and vice-president academics have you actually seen speak to issues of racial equity?”

Responsibility is often shifted to the offices in charge of equity on campus, which are often led by racialized women, she said.

“And then we don’t ask questions about the rest of institutions. What’s happening at that senior level? Why are we outsourcing equity and anti-racism to one individual? Why isn’t this seen as important to address for the institution as a whole?”

President Johnson said the university’s equity, diversity and inclusion initiative is one of her top priorities and a frequent topic of discussion on the job. “I have a better purview now on some of the structures that we need to put in place to really move forward in relation to being an inclusive campus.”

One of those structures is creating a vice-president for an equity, diversity and inclusion office at SFU. In a recent university news post Johnson said the vice-president would oversee faculty relations, human resources and an equity, diversity and inclusion support unit and implement an equity, diversity and inclusion strategy.

The successful candidate will also work with other administrators to ensure students’ experiences and services are based on equity, diversity and inclusion. A search for the new senior hire is currently underway.

Fighting for space

‘If Black students don’t do it, no one else will’

Some SFU students noted the concern isn’t just about university administration.

For 22 years, the Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry had space on campus provided by the Simon Fraser Student Society, including a library and a meeting room that doubled as a safe space for Black students. SOCA estimates its membership at 360 people.

Balqees Jama, just finishing her fourth-year as a Black SFU student, found SOCA in her second year. Having a physical place to create Black community with other students was a game changer for her.

“My health has been significantly better, my mental health and my sense of belonging. I feel very validated in my experiences because I can relate to others,” said Jama, who was elected SOCA president for 2021/22.

“Just reassuring each other as we deal with the daily gaslighting has been such a big support for me. And, of course, just celebrating Black joy and going through everything together, it’s definitely not all doom and gloom.”

But as the undergraduate students’ society consolidated its operations in a new building that has yet to open due to the pandemic, it refused to provide permanent space to SOCA, the campus radio station CJSF 90.1 FM and other groups.

The First Nations Student Association was also originally denied space in the new building.*

Facing pressure from students, the student society eventually relented, but not before the First Nations Student Association released an open letter accusing it of “outright racism” regarding the space issue and other interactions.

In an email exchange with The Tyee in 2019, Sylvia Ceacero, the student union’s then-executive director, denied SOCA’s institutional racism charge. The wider student body told the society they wanted to “maximize the usage of the building for all students and student groups,” she said, by creating flex spaces that could be reserved by students on an hourly basis.

However, last fall former student society president Samar Rihani, who served on the 2018/19 board, posted an open letter apologizing to SFU’s Black community and acknowledging his dealings with SOCA over the space issue “added to the disparities that Black individuals deal with, and this all proves evident that my actions were unacceptable.”

HoSang, who was SOCA president in the 2018/19 school year, said the group tried appealing to SFU’s administration for help in securing a permanent space in the new building. But the university said it was a student union issue, he said, which made him feel “ignored” and “disposable.”

HoSang was elected president of the Simon Fraser Student Society for the 2019/20 school year. Securing space for Black students in the new building was one of his top priorities.

But HoSang says only four other directors on the society’s 16-member union board backed him up. He credits Black and Indigenous student activists for finally getting the union to change its position on a space for SOCA.

In February 2020, two years after initially denying the student organizations space, the Simon Fraser Student Society announced a compromise: the displaced organizations, including SOCA, would have guaranteed space carved out for them in the new student union building.

But they’d have to share their space with another group, and it would not be as large as the spaces other student organizations will receive.

“There were a lot of students who supported what we believed in, and it took a lot of emotional labour of Black and Indigenous organizers on campus, as well as a lot of allies who stepped it up and attempted to push the board in the right direction, which they resisted for over two years,” said HoSang.

Some of the Black and Indigenous students fighting for space in the student union building ended up running for the Simon Fraser Student Society board last spring, campaigning to bring more racial diversity and accountability.

Balqees Jama was elected as one of three Black students on the board for the 2020/21 school year.

“Those space issues were resolved, because we literally had to come in and fix it ourselves,” said Jama, whose executive board term ends in April. “If Black students don’t do it, no one else will.”

Jama and her board colleagues created a Black, Indigenous and people of colour committee within the student society.

Even when space and recognition is granted to Black, Indigenous or racialized people, things can go wrong.

The First Nations Student Association has criticized university administrators for not inviting First Nations’ staff, students and faculty to consult on the planned First Peoples' Gathering House, set to open in 2023.

In an open letter to the university, the association criticized administrators for not inviting them to consultations and failing to properly consult the host nations’ whose land Simon Fraser University sits on, which are the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), S’ólh Téméxw (Stó:lō), qiqéyt (Qayqayt), səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem) and Stz'uminus.

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Playing for the Clan

‘I felt like I didn’t belong’

For over 50 years, SFU’s sports teams have been called the Clan. And despite its intended association with the Scottish heritage of the university’s namesake, the name has been criticized for echoing the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist organization.

Othniel Spence, a former guard with the SFU men’s basketball team, published an essay last June describing the humiliation and alienation he experienced just hearing the name and telling players on opposing American teams — and his own family — the name of his team.

“I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt uncomfortable with everyone joyfully chanting the name ‘Clan.’ I was confused and wondering how others felt about the name. I assumed they didn’t feel the same way as me,” Spence wrote in the Park Journal.

Black student athletes and their allies have called for a name change since 2017.

SFU began a review of the name in January 2020, and in August then-president Andrew Petter announced he had decided to change it.

Petter’s statement credited student activism with changing his mind about the team name, but didn’t mention racism.

The student union’s Black, Indigenous and people of colour committee has launched an initiative, #OurDecisionSFU calling on the university to explicitly acknowledge the racist association of the former name and the harm caused to Black student athletes. It wants SFU to create a Black student support office and provide culturally relevant and racially aware mental health supports to racialized students.

“We want public acknowledgement of the harm inflicted and unpaid labour forced on Black athletes and students,” Jama said.

In an email to The Tyee in October, SFU spokesperson Wilson said Black students are now able to request appointments with Black counsellors in the community through the university’s My SSP health app.

The university’s student services and on-campus counselling service has “committed to reviewing systems and procedures to understand how systemic racism limits mental health accessibility for Black students at SFU,” Wilson said.

There is no database of racist incidents on Canadian post-secondary campuses. But there’s no reason to believe what’s happened at Simon Fraser University is an outlier.

Smith of the University of Calgary said public post-secondary institutions across Canada have been slow to adapt to the needs of racialized and marginalized people.

“Universities have not invested in this enough and, again, most have offices that are inadequate to the challenges that they face,” she said, adding most Canadian universities don’t collect data on students’ racial backgrounds unless they are Indigenous.

“If they don’t study themselves, they aren’t able to identify or address the needs or experiences of these students. So they can’t enhance students’ experience because they don’t even know what they’re dealing with.”

Canada’s population continues to diversify, and post-secondary institutions increasingly rely on international students for revenue.

But universities still operate much as they did when the overwhelming majority of students and faculty were white and Canadian-born.

What SFU is doing

‘The jury’s out’

Change could finally be on the horizon. In 2017, the members of Universities Canada, an organization representing 96 universities, including SFU, pledged to develop school-wide equity, diversity and inclusion plans.

The pledge is part of a non-binding commitment to implement seven “Inclusive Excellence Principles” at member institutions. Universities Canada also committed to creating and implementing its own five-year equality, diversity and inclusion action plan to track its progress and assist members in reaching their goals.

“Equity, diversity and inclusion are societal priorities as well as priorities for university leadership. While progress has been made over the last few decades, there is more that Canadian universities can — and must — do to integrate equality, diversity and inclusion principles and values in their pursuit of excellence in teaching, research, community engagement and governance,” read an emailed statement from Wendy Therrien, director of external relations and research at Universities Canada.

“Members’ feedback led to a principle committing universities to developing and/or maintaining an EDI action plan; actions to support training for Boards and Senates to remedy inequities in senior administration and faculty appointments; as well actions to support federal investments for EDI geared to student aid and student mobility.”

That led to SFU’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, steered by a group including faculty, staff and student representatives. The federal government now also requires data on diversity with any applications for research funding.

SFU’s EDI group started work in 2018, and an interim report was released in 2019.

Summarizing feedback received from students, faculty and staff, the report noted the community felt “cynicism about SFU’s institutional commitment to EDI and its willingness to make change” and noted the university’s “failure to be proactive about racism,” “lack of data for evidence-based decision-making” and “insufficient attention to EDI in recruitment practices for executive, senior leadership, faculty, and staff.”

Former student union president HoSang said the initiative is doomed to fail because it sees racism as an individual failing and refuses to get into specifics like “anti-Black” or “anti-Indigenous” racism. Without highlighting the specific kinds of racism plaguing the university, as well as its systematic nature, the initiative won’t challenge racism on campus, he said.

Student union board member Jama noted the university has created an equity, diversity and inclusion executive committee to help lead the process, but it doesn’t include any Black or Indigenous people.

“It’s not Black and Indigenous-led, so it can’t be effective if it’s not run by the people it’s supposed to be serving,” Jama said.

“It’s quite racist and colonial, and very much asks to consult us and basically expect us to pour out our pain and free emotional labour, without meaningful followup action.”

Until he stepped down as SFU’s vice-president academic and provost in mid-2019, Peter Keller’s portfolio included the campus equity, diversity and inclusion initiative. He acknowledged real change will take time.

“Change often starts at the top. As Provost, I paid close attention to EDI when overseeing recruitment into vacant senior leadership positions,” he said via email.

“We made good progress on addressing gender imbalances. We were less successful with attracting and securing Indigenous candidates. We also didn’t make the progress on diversity I had hoped for, in part because of the realities of the applicant pools.”

He also took issue with the description of student consultations on racism as “colonial.”

“I would argue that inclusive, honest and respectful dialogue and listening, sharing of lived experience, and a genuine joint search for solutions is not just a colonial process,” Keller said.

University spokesperson Wilson said the EDI initiative has included small group discussions and a speakers’ series for faculty, students and staff. More than 8,000 students responded to an online survey in the fall of 2019, which included questions about their sense of belonging at SFU and what racialized group they belong to.

The Tyee requested this data from the university, but Wilson said there were issues with the survey that brought its validity and reliability into question.

“SFU data experts in our Big Data Hub are now reviewing the data collected. We are awaiting a report from these experts to ascertain what data will be usable,” she said, adding the pandemic has slowed the review.

Nevertheless, the university is looking into gathering disaggregated demographic data about students, Wilson said.

“SFU has been looking into how other universities and organizations across Canada collect this type of demographic information. As there are system and policy implications to making this change, it will take time, but work towards this is underway,” she said.

“Students also continue to provide feedback and calls to action to the university about their experiences, and we use this feedback to inform our work on a continual basis.”

The EDI initiative will conclude with a final report and recommendations, said associate vice-president Rummana Khan Hemani in 2019.

“The plan is to embed those principles right into everything that we do,” she said. “The university is very committed to this.”

There is no implementation timeline, she added.

Others are less optimistic, pointing to the university’s 2016 report on the gender-based faculty wage gap. Critics say some recommendations from that report have yet to be implemented.

The EDI interim report included references to the Salary Equity Final Report, highlighting which recommendations have and have not been implemented. The issue is part of the ongoing equity, diversity and inclusion consultations.

Keller disputed the allegation that recommendations from the 2016 report were ignored.

“We addressed pay equity as per the 2016 Pay Equity Report. We made progress, and SFU continues to make progress, on many of the other recommendations, proceeding with due diligence,” he wrote.

SFU business professor Francis says the EDI initiative has a long way to go.

“Joy Johnson has shown an interest, she has said it’s a priority for her. She’s new, so the jury’s out,” said Francis. “I want to give her the benefit of the doubt at this point, but we are certainly not hanging our hats on anyone.”

Francis said the newly formed Black caucus is an opportunity to gather a “critical mass” of Black people at SFU to think about what they want from the university and what “we should be coalescing around in terms of ensuring the next generation of faculty and staff and students can be nourished and can thrive.”

Smith, the University of Calgary’s vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion, said universities have produced equity action plans of one kind or another since the 1980s, and yet women, racialized, Indigenous, queer and trans and disabled people are still underrepresented in faculties and administrations.

“Are these plans today going to be more effective?” she asked. “What have they learned from the fact that their previous plans have obviously not succeeded?”

If Canadian universities don’t change their approach to racism, they will soon face a crisis, she said.

“They end up in human rights tribunals, they end up in lawsuits,” she said. “It’s a crisis that creates instability, bad feelings, undermines goodwill in the university and makes university feel as though it’s an unwelcoming place — which is the exact opposite of what universities need to be.”

*Story updated on March 26 at 3:04 p.m. The article previously stated SFU Women's Centre and Out on Campus were denied space in the new student union building, which was incorrect.
*Story updated on April 1 at 11:01 a.m. to include additional information on the summary report of the Fatoba incident.  [Tyee]

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