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E(RACE)r Summit on Race and Racism on Canadian University Campuses

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March 21, 2016 - Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane addressed attendees at the inaugural e(RACE)r Summit on Race and Racism on Canadian University Campuses, hosted by Wilfrid Laurier University’s Diversity and Equity Office and the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, on the United Nations (UN) Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. For more information about the event, visit:


Thank you for inviting me to join you this morning.

I’d like to begin by recognizing the long history of First Nations and Métis Peoples in Ontario, and show respect today to the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory.

Our work every day at the Ontario Human Rights Commission – or the OHRC – involves addressing discrimination where we work, live, access services and study.

We are effectively Ontario’s human rights watchdog – we look for systemic solutions to today’s persistent human rights problems.

One such problem is racism and racial discrimination within our education system.

In the past few months, we have seen many reports of racism and racial discrimination on Canadian campuses.

And we have also seen instances of retaliation through harassment and even violence from non-racialized students when issues of racism have been raised.

One Black student at a predominantly White university put it bluntly:

“A typical day at this campus is literally being stared at … like you’re an animal at a zoo.”

As tensions have risen and inspired the “#BlackonCampus” movement we have seen student groups join together in solidarity across North America to call for changes, many of which are aimed at the systems and structures that allow racism to persist.

ACLC policy paper highlights

The African Canadian Legal Centre provides a good overview of the issues.

The ACLC talks about inequities that exist in secondary schools where racial profiling of Black and other racialized students manifests itself in streaming, a culture of low expectations from teachers and guidance counsellors, and disproportionate application of school discipline policies.

These structural and systemic inequities limit racialized students from meeting their full potential and, ultimately, from enrolling in post-secondary education.

Students who manage to do so continue to face systemic racism in our colleges and universities, where there are often doubts, based on stereotypes, about their academic potential.

As well, inclusion programs, although well-intentioned, have the potential to reproduce these inequities if they are based on views of African-Canadian or other racialized students as “deficient” to other students, who are generally of White or European background.


Another recurring issue is Islamophobia on campuses.

Just ask the Student Association at Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which held a conference on overcoming Islamophobia earlier this month.

Conference organizers faced several threats, and a stream of nasty comments about the event.

But sadly, this is nothing new.

Over the past two years, racial slurs have been scrawled on club posters for the Muslim and Arab associations and references to ISIS have defaced campaign posters of people running in student elections.

Sirag Syed, the association’s vice-president of university affairs, has come to expect this kind of negative treatment.

He says “It’s the nature of the game.”

But colleges and universities need to put systems in place and send a strong message that this behaviour is never acceptable, and that we need to change the game.

Under-representation of racialized persons

Another common issue is the under-representation of Indigenous and racialized people on faculty and in senior administrative positions.

Many racialized students are further marginalized because they can’t see their own identity reflected in the people who are teaching them or overseeing their institution.

From personal experience, I can tell you how important it was for me to have role models I could identify with during my undergraduate studies at Queen’s University in Kingston. 

Living away from home at a predominantly White university – this was 1995 -- was sometimes challenging. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that I found mentorship from the only South Asian female professor in the Department of English at the time, Dr. Asha Vardharajan.

She was one of the only professors to encourage me to think about graduate studies, and wrote my reference letter when I applied to law school at the University of Toronto.

You would assume that things would have changed a lot in 20 years, but having taken a quick glance at the English department website in preparing these remarks, I noted that it appears that Professor Vardharajan is still the only racialized woman on faculty, and that there is now one Indigenous man.

What do we do?

So what can we do about these seemingly intractable problems?

There are many ways to tackle racism and racial discrimination, but we have to always consider the big picture.

It is not enough to simply react to an incident of racism after it happens or to address systemic discrimination after a student protest – the goal must be to put systems in place, remove barriers and create a learning environment where these issues are addressed proactively.

Here are four things you can do to show a positive commitment to dealing with these issues head-on:

  1. Use the right words, which reflect the lived experience of racialized students – talk about racism and discrimination, rather than the usual “diversity and inclusion.”
  2. Start collecting race-based data for students, faculty and administrators, and commit to closing the gap in representation, especially in professional faculties, in academia, and within senior leadership,
  3. Consult with experts – including students and racialized professors and staff, and
  4. Commit adequate resources and effort to changing your organization, with clear benchmarks and deadlines for achieving the desired change.

Include human rights, discrimination language

First, you should consider using the language of human rights, anti-discrimination, and anti-racism.

We must move beyond approaches that favour diversity, equity and inclusion as if all we need to do is make the tent bigger. 

Acknowledging systemic discrimination requires us to acknowledge that discrimination arises precisely because resources are scarce and not everyone can share a piece of the pie.

But we might ensure the pie is shared in an equitable manner.

The hard truth is that universities and colleges have historically been the bastion of a privileged few.

It is relatively recent, for example, that women have been allowed to enrol.

What we know is that, if we are truly committed to the ideals of equality that underpin the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Code, some will be required to give up their stronghold on privilege.

Using language grounded in the ideals of substantive equality that are grounded in human rights law is an important first step

Data collection/Count me in!

Systemic discrimination happens when systems or processes exclude people based on grounds of the Human Rights Code.

This does not have to be intentional – in fact, it is often unintentional.

For example, at the University of Windsor, the dress code at a campus pub prohibited “urban” clothing based on an incorrect stereotype that such clothing was necessarily gang-related.

As a result, many Black students were refused entry.

To fix these systems, you first have to identify the problem, and collecting data can help you do this.

We often hear anecdotes and personal accounts of racial discrimination taking place, but there is rarely sufficient data to point to as proof.

Many organizations are afraid they will contravene Ontario’s Human Rights Code if they collect human rights-based data on Code-grounds such as race, creed, disability, sex or gender identity.

But when done properly, the OHRC actually recommends collecting this data.

We have published a guide, called Count me in!, that dispels the myths and fears about collecting human rights-based data.

Count me in! offers a plain language, common-sense framework for collecting data in a way that can build trust, highlight otherwise “invisible” instances of systemic discrimination, and help you develop real solutions to human rights problems.

The guide also talks about how good data can help identify and verify whether problems exist, and if found, help organizations be proactive in addressing them.

Good data can also help to gain trust, develop effective, respectful consultations, and gain the support of the decision-makers when creating sensitive policies, programs or initiatives.

That’s why we are pleased to see that the University of Toronto has recently committed to collecting race-based data.

But collecting data on its own is not a solution.

The data is simply a tool to help you discover what is not working, or what is, and for charting your progress.

It can help you identify a starting point or area of concern, and it can help to gauge whether steps you are taking are helping – or hindering – efforts to eliminate racism and racial discrimination.

Consult with the experts

One of the key steps in collecting data is to consult with the experts.

These experts must include people with lived experience, and the people who are most affected by the policy or system you are looking at.

The need to talk to and work with the right people also applies to any steps you take to prevent and overcome racism on campus.

So you need to have an ongoing dialogue with Indigenous and racialized students, administrators and community groups, as well as experts in the fields of social work, public policy and law.

Through this dialogue, you can learn what the real issues are facing certain groups of students and faculty.

And you can learn some inspired strategies for getting at the root causes of racism and racial discrimination.

Black Liberation Collective

Many such strategies are available through the Black Liberation Collective.

This group consists of Black students who are dedicated to transforming institutions of higher education through unity, coalition building, direct action and political education.

The Collective’s website lists the input and demands of universities and colleges across North America.

Student groups from the University of Guelph, the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and University of Ottawa have added their campus demands to this growing movement.

It is really interesting to look at and compare the demands on the website.

They often reflect regional experience, so the demands from a university or college in the United States deep south are different than the demands from northern schools.

But several recurring themes emerge, especially when looking at the input of the Ontario campuses.

Those themes are…

  • Collecting data to identify the problem and gauge solutions,
  • Taking steps to ensure Indigenous and racialized people are included in faculty and leadership ranks,
  • Introducing mandatory human rights and anti-racism training for faculty, administrators and students,
  • And increasing funding so that more Indigenous and racialized students have the opportunity to pursue higher education.

These are all common-sense demands from the community that has the lived experience of racism and discrimination, and I urge you to listen to them.

Other experts

You also have another group of experts on your campuses – your human rights, equity or diversity offices.

You have set these up and chosen staff to reach out and make connections with students, faculty and the surrounding community, yet we have heard how these are sometimes the last office to be contacted when incidents of racism happen on campus.

These offices can’t solve the problems by themselves, but they are a vital link to the experts who can work on solutions.

And if they have built credibility with the campus community, they can help add credibility to your efforts to prevent and respond to racism.


Universities and colleges can and do contribute to the human rights discussion by sharing their specialized knowledge in areas like data analysis and sociology, and advancing the field of human rights law through cutting-edge academic research.

Universities and colleges also offer a unique and “neutral” forum to bring together diverse stakeholders such as academics, governments, the private sector, NGOs, and grassroots community groups to discuss difficult and contentious issues in a safe space.

This free flow of ideas is the hallmark of post-secondary institutions.

Identifying and eliminating racism and racial discrimination has to start from a place of respect and common ground, where all voices can be heard.

As places of education, employment and community, you can and you must commit to building and supporting a learning environment that realizes the vision of equality articulated in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Human Rights Code.

Thank you.