Challenging Anti-Black Racism on Canadian Campuses

By Daniel Tseghay

When students and instructors came together at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, on November 27th, they marched through campus and presented a set of demands to a representative of the university president. Addressing the many manifestations of racism at the university, with a focus on the experiences of African/black students and faculty, it was the first event of its kind. That may be because only about one per cent of the student population is black, or maybe the history of inequity and exclusion has been strong enough to dampen the belief that protest matters. But it happened and it looks like there’s much more in store.

Protesters at the November 27 march against racism at UBC. Photo by: Angela Pope
Protesters at the November 27 march against racism at UBC. Photo by: Angela Pope

One of the organizers of the event, Cicely-Belle Blain, a fourth year student, spoke about it last week on Talking Radical Radio. Blain points out that racialized, particularly black and indigenous, people aren’t represented in faculty and representative positions; that the experiences of racialized people aren’t reflected in course material; and that instructors are feeling “underappreciated by the institution, having their worked discredited, or their courses taught by white professors instead of them.”

The event, while inspired by experiences at UBC, was also an effort to amplify the struggles of students and university workers across the globe. There’s the wave of black student protests in the United States. And, In South Africa, students successfully organized across the country to stop tuition fee increases for 2016. It was part of a broader, anti-austerity, movement with many demands still outstanding – demands like free education, a halt to outsourcing low-paid university work (which proved successful at three universities so far), and a commitment to improved wages and labour conditions for those workers. The Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa sprung from the Rhodes Must Fall effort, launched in March to remove from the University of Cape Town the statue of colonizer Cecil Rhodes. It also looked at institutional racism, the shortage of black instructors, and a curriculum which shifted Africa to the periphery and centered western thought and history.

When university students in Toronto conducted a day of action in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri and Yale, among others, it led to continued organizing through the formation of a Canadian chapter of the Black Liberation Collective (BLC). While BLC doesn’t currently include any institutions in BC, it speaks to concerns throughout Canada. The BLC, with its focus on challenging anti-black racism within post-secondary institutions, matters here, according to Yusra K. Ali because “what’s happening in the States is happening here.”

“We started all the way from TYP [Transitional Year Programme], which is a program designed for low-income, black students who may not have formal education who can have a pathway to be eligible to be admitted into the university,” says Ali in an interview with RankandFile. “The university has deliberately starved this program.” Through the BLC, Ali and others have demands regarding financial support because many students, unable to afford post-secondary education, are either opting out or working multiple jobs. “We’re demanding free education,” Ali says. “Education is a right.”

The BLC has demands regarding divesting from prisons and resource extraction. “One of the biggest shares the UofT holds is in Barrick Gold which is a mining company actively killing, and completely exploiting various countries,” Ali says. “The university is not considering the human rights violations of this corporation we’re investing in or the effect this has on students coming from countries affected by it.”

And, when it comes to instructors, the BLC calls for not only more diversity, but for staff which reflects the the national percentage of black people in Canada.  The strikes earlier this year by precarious instructors – sessionals and Teaching Assistants – at York University and UofT, for instance, underscored the importance of diversity. “When you look at who’s tenured, we’re talking about precarious working conditions for mostly black and racialized people that are working with the institution,” Ali says. In addition to faculty, demands include equity training for all university workers, including governors and administrators.

BLC’s call for more black faculty recognizes that it’s likelier to lead to a fuller understanding of critical issues, many of which are rooted in labour relations.

“If you teach European history without Africa, it’s a false history. If you teach the history of the United States without African people’s presence, it’s false. If you teach Caribbean history without it, it’s false,” says Yvonne Brown, an educator who taught at secondary schools in BC, and worked at UBC to bring African history into the curriculum, in an interview with RankandFile. “Africa says a lot about the commodification of the bodies of its people, the plunder of its resources, and the transport of the technology like iron works, rice growing, coffee, and cotton – all these were skills and technologies that were transported with the people who were enslaved.”

One of the few UBC courses covering this, The Presence of Black Women in the Americas, became very precarious, according to Benita Bunjun, a sessional instructor at both UBC and Simon Fraser University, in an interview with RankandFile. “There was a time when they wanted to stop offering the course and it continues to be a sessional instructor who teaches it, which keeps both the instructor and course lacking permanency,” Bunjun says.

Brown relates instances of administration resisting efforts to hire faculty who could teach such courses, instead wanting current instructors, who may not be qualified, to teach them. And Bunjun describes racialized instructors being over-extended responding to and supporting the many students who are engaging with black history; the climate of racism around black history in the classroom; the black faculty who face hostility for raising certain issues and uncomfortable histories in the classroom. For this reason, Bunjun marched with Blain and other UBC students. Bunjun sees her role as an instructor as critical. “Faculty with tenure, however they identify racially, have not been there to keep the struggle. That’s my biggest disappointment,” Bunjun says.

According to Brown, “it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we had two or three black tenure track faculty members.” Today, there are still very few. Both Bunjun and Brown support the BLC demand for more black faculty in principle. But, if anything, they believe that setting it to the population of black people in Canada isn’t enough. “If you’re going to create a massive genocide of people and they remain 0.01 per cent, does that mean that they should only have that representation?” Bunjun asks. “We shouldn’t need to have the physical presence of African bodies in any educational institution to teach about Africa,” Brown adds. Additionally, more than an increase in the number of instructors, black instructors with a commitment to critical pedagogy and curriculum on the history of Africans/black people is of greatest importance to them.

It will be an uphill battle, unfortunately.

Bunjun describes the hurdles potential university workers face and illustrates it with one particularly disturbing incident. Years ago, when Bunjun was a student representative, she saw first-hand the degree of racism gripping our universities.

“I was on a hiring committee many years ago for a university in BC [details left out to protect identities],” Bunjun says, “and we were interviewing a black man. It was a hiring for a position in an office responsible for equity issues. When he exited the room after the interview, the three white women on the hiring committee discussed their concerns about hiring a black man because they feared for their safety.

“As the token racialized student on this hiring committee, I left the interview room, I felt sick to my stomach, came back and removed myself from the committee. Again, history was repeated of reproducing the black man as the rapist, the black woman as loud, angry, and the killjoy.”

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