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Canadian post-secondary institutions unite to take action on anti-Black racism, Black inclusion

Clockwise from top left: The University of Calgary's Malinda S. Smith, U of T's Wisdom Tettey, Dalhousie University's Theresa Rajack-Talley and Brock University's Gervan Fearon (photos supplied)

A one-of-its-kind national dialogue focused on taking action to address anti-Black racism and to advance Black inclusion within Canadian post-secondary education is gathering momentum.

With universities and colleges across the country partnering on the initiative, organizers are making one thing clear – this will go well beyond just talk.

“No question, dialogue is important, but this isn’t going to be a ‘talk shop,’” says Professor Wisdom Tettey, vice-president of the University of Toronto and principal of U of T Scarborough.

“Everyone we’ve spoken to across the country is excited about the opportunity to have this conversation at a national level, but they want to move beyond just expressions of solidarity and are determined to take concrete actions to address inequities for Black people within our institutions.”  

Since it was announced in July, about 40 post-secondary institutions and organizations from across Canada have committed to partner on the two-day event. An inter-institutional advisory committee comprising members from several of the partner institutions has also been formed.

“There is no shortage of policy statements about equity, but there is a gap in political will to truly enact them,” says Professor Malinda S. Smith, vice-provost, equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Calgary and a member of the advisory committee.

“There is also a gap in accountability mechanisms and a gap in developing clear metrics for recognizing success. Unless we take action on these, we can’t enact the type of structural change we need.”

Smith says what’s important about this initiative is that it’s national, multi-institutional and has support from senior leadership, faculty, staff and students, giving it a reach and depth that is largely unprecedented in Canada.  

Smith, who is a nationally recognized leader in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), says building a national committee from participating institutions that are all committed to developing a set of thoughtful, firm and clear objectives and outcomes is also a critical step.

“It’s why we, at the University of Calgary, are a partner. We think the outcomes of this inclusive higher education initiative have the potential to achieve greater things than initiatives that were done in the past.”

The first day of the gathering will focus on barriers and challenges, and will consist of nine interactive concurrent sessions that address access, inclusion and appropriate use of race-based data within post-secondary institutions in order to push forward with change.  

On the second day, participants will co-create the Scarborough National Charter of Principles, Actions and Accountabilities that senior leaders, faculty, staff and students can commit to and can draw on in taking concrete actions to address anti-Black racism and advance Black inclusion at their own institutions and across the sector. It will also provide accountability mechanisms to ensure that individual institutions and the sector are delivering on their commitments.

The charter gets its name from the fact that the dialogues leading to its creation are being virtually organized at the U of T Scarborough campus. Tettey says the name also has symbolic and substantive meaning because Scarborough is home to one of the largest Black communities in Canada and represents the most diverse neighbourhood of the Greater Toronto Area.

Professor Theresa Rajack-Talley, vice-provost, equity and inclusion at Dalhousie University, says the type of structural change needed to ensure greater inclusion and tackle systemic racism will require a sustainable commitment from all partners involved.  

“When we talk about structural or systemic racism, one or a few institutions are not going to make the problem go away. As institutions of higher learning, we have a particular role to play, but we must do it together in order to bring about the structural and cultural transformation needed at the societal level,” says Rajack-Talley.

Brock University President Gervan Fearon says the initiative offers an opportunity to take action now to ensure that future generations are not let down and impeded by the same obstacles and barriers present in the past – and some that still exist today.

“There can be fatigue and disenfranchisement if we continue to identify barriers, but take insufficient action to address them. Without action, it will continue to have an adverse effect on the Black community in Canada and, ultimately, on the prosperity of all Canadians,” he says.

“If we are going to realize the full and effective participation of all members of society, we need to take action by supporting the success of our universities as inclusive and progressive post-secondary institutions. Together, we have an opportunity to build a more inclusive Canada and I am confident that we all aspire to – and want to be part of – that brighter future for all Canadians.”

National Dialogues and Actions for Inclusive Higher Education and Communities will take place Oct. 1 and 2.  Those interested in participating can register here. For more information visit the website or join the mailing list for the latest updates.

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