Canadian universities, colleges sign pledge to address anti-Black racism

'We expect each partner institution to commit to the principles of Black flourishing,' says committee chair

Universities and colleges across Canada are signing the Scarborough Charter, a pledge to fight anti-Black racism. The committee that created the charter is chaired by Prof. Wisdom Tettey, vice-president of the University of Toronto and principal of the school’s Scarborough campus. (University of Toronto)

A group of universities and colleges from across Canada are signing a charter to fight anti-Black racism in post-secondary institutions.

The 22-page document requires those signing it to respect certain principles as they develop their own action plans to foster Black inclusion.

Referred to as the Scarborough Charter, the document was drafted by an advisory committee that emerged from an event hosted by the University of Toronto last year as anti-Black racism was in the international spotlight.

“There was an opportune moment for us to say, ‘well, there are a lot of statements being issued, but this may be the time for us to come together and do this together,” charter committee chair Wisdom Tettey said in an interview.

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The committee asked universities and colleges for their feedback to refine the charter and met with several organizations and groups, including Universities Canada and the parliamentary Black caucus, said Tettey, vice-president of the University of Toronto.

Forty-six universities and colleges, including the country’s largest post-secondary institutions, are signing the charter virtually on Thursday.

They include the University of Toronto, McGill University, York University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary and the University of Waterloo.

Tettey said more universities and colleges are expected to sign the charter in the near future. There are 96 publicly funded universities and 139 publicly-funded colleges in Canada.

“We expect each partner institution to commit to the principles of Black flourishing,” Tettey said.

“The idea of Black flourishing is to make sure that our institutions are places where Black people, faculty, staff, students and community members can feel a sense of belonging, can see themselves in our mission and can be supported to flourish.”

Removing barriers, reviewing curriculum

At the University of Toronto, part of the school’s plan to remove barriers faced by Black students includes providing better mental-health support for them, Tettey said.

“We’re making sure that we have counsellors that understand and come from Black communities,” he said.

The university is also reviewing curriculums to ensure Black knowledge is reflected, and is supporting Black students through scholarships and access programs.

Ananya Mukherjee Reed, the provost of the University of British Columbia, said Black students face the same barriers at post-secondary institutions that exist in society at large.

“They go to a class and they feel alone. They’re either the only Black student or one of the very few Black students,” she said.

“They don’t always feel that they have a voice and when they sometimes express the voice or they would point out something in relation to the Black experience or Black history, they’re not always heard. They often feel dismissed.”

Curriculums in many universities don’t reflect Black experiences or Black successes, she said.

“Black authors are often absent from curriculum and that creates a sense of alienation when you are alone in a classroom, and then you are studying something that you feel is missing a perspective.”

Student protests, including this one at Mount Royal University in Calgary in 2020, have called for mandatory anti-racism courses for staff and students. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Lack of Black scholars an issue

Malinda Smith, a vice-president at the University of Calgary, said there are also few Black scholars in the faculties of Canadian universities.

Statistics Canada census data from 2016 and data from a 2019 Universities Canada report indicate six per cent of undergraduate students, 6.1 per cent of graduate students, and three pre cent of PhD graduates are Black, while 1.9 per cent of the professoriate at universities and 0.8 per cent of universities’ leaders are Black, Smith said.

“There’s a significant underrepresentation. I’m the only Black senior leader at the University of Calgary,” she said, adding that universities need to deal with barriers and biases that may prevent Black scholars from being hired.

“We have to recognize systemic racism, and we have to recognize racial biases.”

Robert Summerby-Murray, the president of St. Mary’s University in Halifax said engaging local Black communities in research conducted by universities is also an important step to address anti-Black racism.

“Part of what we have done in the charter, I believe, is acknowledge a set of Eurocentric and colonial processes inside the academy,” he said.

“Here in Nova Scotia, we have a very important historical African Nova Scotian community … that has been in this province for hundreds of years. And these communities need to be engaged as partners in research.”


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