Guest Post: Dr. Adrienne Chan, School of Social Work and Human Services

Our role as a university in addressing racism —

We have been shaken by the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Within a space of a few weeks. the media has confronted us with two deaths by design: the asphyxiation of George Floyd and the shooting of Ahmaud Aubrey. Both occurred in urban cities in the United States. There is a long history of anti-Black racism in the US and Canada, and protests have occurred throughout North America as a result of these overt racist acts. Record numbers have turned out in Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary to protest the senseless death of Mr. Floyd. These protests are part of activism, and the need to speak out against injustice. They are also a cry of frustration and anger, where no action has been taken towards police violence.

Black lives matter. We must acknowledge that systemic racism towards Black people, people of colour, and Indigenous people exists in Canada. Every day, we see micro-aggressions that are racialized or racially motivated. We see unfair treatment occur that is based on racism and racial differences – whether this is a security officer following someone in a retail outlet because they are Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour or people told to “go back home” because of racialized conceptions of national identity. Racism exists in Canada, and I believe that universities have a part to play in speaking out, educating, and seeking anti-racism strategies. If we do not speak out, we are complicit in the racism and injustice that is occurring. Neutrality has never been the lifeblood of universities and academic thought. Anti-racism movements are a necessity to stop the silencing, stop the denial of racism, and to take action.

In 2017, Statistics Canada documented an all-time high in hate crimes reported to the police. Racial groups were among the highest target of hate crimes — Blacks, Arab-West Asians, and South Asians. (Note: These terms are used by Statistics Canada). In 2018, the Ontario Human Rights Commission stated that Black people in Toronto were 20 times more likely to be shot dead by the police. The practice of carding, or police street checks, is one of the ways in which police officers have targeted Black people for decades. Racial profiling has been documented in numerous studies in Canada and the United States. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has further documented the adverse impact of racial profiling on Indigenous peoples. The Commission report suggested that dialogue was necessary to create a broader understanding of racial profiling of Indigenous peoples, the importance of increasing racial diversity in policing, and the need to stop the internalized racial oppression people feel when they are repeatedly treated without dignity or respect.

Universities are a part of these communities where hate crimes and racial profiling exist, and where racism leads to violence and death. Universities are a microcosm of society and I believe that the role of universities in contemporary society is to have a social and political space to interrogate and challenge injustice. In her book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed examines diversity in institutions of higher education. Ahmed argues that members of a university carefully consider our language in equality and diversity, and that we must not be satisfied with what the institution is, or what it has already done. There is a place for universities to take a stand on issues, as we hold a role of moral and ethical leadership in our communities. Juliet Millican’s recent book, Universities and Conflict: The Role of Higher Education in Peacebuilding and Resistance, further notes that the changing nature of universities means that institutions have to consider what they mean by educating the next generation of community citizens.

The university is a place of citizenship education, as well as skills for work, and learning for life. To achieve the goal of citizenship education, we play an active role in teaching about life and society. In our document Vision 2025, UFV declared a commitment to “engaged global citizenship”.  This means our education is intended to contribute to the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of the region. This can only occur when the university, as a whole, is aware and engaged with our society and the issues that face us and our families.

Research has shown that unfair treatment and exclusion occurs in institutions on the basis of genders, sexual orientation, ability, language, class, and many other characteristics. At UFV, we take discrimination, hate, unfair treatment and exclusion seriously. We consider ourselves to be welcoming and inclusive, but individual behaviours do not always measure up. Formal processes and structures may exist, but they are not enough to address the social and personal components of exclusion. That is why at UFV, we have a growing number of networks and collectives (e.g., Race and Anti-racism Network, Pride Network) who are active in the community and in the institution. That is why at UFV, the President has established a Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

The challenge of equity, diversity, and inclusion is that these words can become symbolic rather than enacted. These three terms can also become moderating language that avoids the necessity to call out racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. Ahmed argues that changing institutions requires collective action, and this includes ensuring that individuals take responsibility for what results in collective forms of racism and discrimination. In order for change to occur, there is a need to document, measure performance, educate, and address the culture of the institution. Commitments to change must be followed by action.

The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Aubrey point to the need for educated policing, understanding conflict resolution, and peace-keeping. They also highlight the extent to which violence against Black people is racism. What made it possible for these police officers to believe they could use the physical force or guns that they chose, to address and restrain Mr. Floyd and Mr. Aubrey? Would the police officers have known that their actions were unacceptable if they were educated citizens?

Canada prides itself as a peace-keeping nation. Furthermore, UFV has a role in teaching and learning peace-keeping and mediation skills. UFV has a role in anti-racism education, anti-homophobia education, and disseminating a wider understanding of discrimination and oppression. UFV can be a leader in demonstrating what it means to be an active agent in addressing racism and discrimination through education.

Universities have an active role to play in change, addressing injustice through activism and by taking a stand. The President’s Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is committed to change. The President’s Task Force is preparing an action plan with measures and timelines. Research has shown that any institutional change cannot be left to a task force, committee, or an equity officer; the change comes when there is institution wide commitment. We all have a role to play.

Dr. Adrienne Chan
Co-Chair, President’s Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Founding Co-Chair, Race and Anti-racism Network (RAN)
Professor, School of Social Work and Human Services