The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) and its annual conference (known as Congress) have faced serious allegations regarding racism and systematic bias in recent years.
Now, the organization and Congress — which wrapped up its 2022 edition in late May — seem to be on a new path. The Federation’s latest progress update, which was released this spring, builds on a flurry of activity in 2021 that included the release of the Igniting Change report, an action plan, and the adoption on a charter on equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization (EDID).
“I’m quite pleased with the progress that the Federation has made. These are also broader, sector-wide issues and the Federation has done its part to lend its voice to move things along,” said Barrington Walker, chair of the Federation’s newly struck standing committee on EDID and a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
The 192-page Igniting Change report made 43 recommendations, so the FHSS has a lot to strive for. “You’ve got to make sure you come at it from all angles,” said Mike DeGagné, chair of the board of directors for FHSS and president and CEO of Indspire, a national Indigenous charity focused on education. “You want to see something progress beyond words, which doesn’t always happen.”
The FHSS’s wake-up calls started with Congress 2019, when a Black PhD student, who was an invited speaker at the University of British Columbia event and a member of the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA), was asked to prove he was registered for the conference and falsely accused of stealing a laptop.
Then, a year later, the Federation awarded its 2020 Prix du Canada to a controversial book about Métis identity that was written by non-Métis authors. The FHSS’s Indigenous advisory circle was not fully consulted regarding this award choice, and the members of the circle resigned afterward.
After negotiating with the Federation, the BCSA decided not to attend Congress 2021 (the event was cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic). The group objected to the event being held virtually, which it said put up barriers to many attendees. Plus, it said demands that fees be waived for BCSA student and community members, and that a future Congress would focus on Black studies, had not been met. Other groups boycotted too, including The Bibliographical Society of Canada, which said it was “disappointed in the Federation’s lack of progress to accommodate the BCSA’s reasonable requests.” Others, such as the Canadian Association of African Studies, attended but made statements of solidarity.
But the FHSS had other, quieter problems, too. Dr. Walker said past editions of Congress would feature sessions on Black culture. “They had large audiences that were quite interested. But often these sessions had the appearance of a one-off,” he said. There was little in the way of intentionality around having people from different backgrounds in presenting roles, he said.
Wesley Crichlow, a professor of criminology and justice at Ontario Tech University and former board member and director of equity, diversity and inclusion for FHSS, recalled getting little support when trying to add a preamble to the organization’s bylaws to mention human rights and EDI in 2018. “Nobody wants to put EDI in anything because no one wants to be committed to EDI. If you put it in, you need to commit yourself to it,” he said. (The bylaws were redrafted in late 2019 to include the preamble.) He wrote a statement after George Floyd’s death in 2020 and had to argue to get it approved and published, he said. “At this point, the Federation had never really addressed race issues in a serious way. It left that up to the associations.”
Signs of change
But in recent months, the FHSS has announced the new standing committee, the hiring of a senior adviser on EDID and a $500,000 fund to pay for EDID initiatives over three years, including complimentary Congress passes for Black and Indigenous students and community members, and child- and dependent-care subsidies.
Dr. DeGagné said FHSS plans to gather data on the uptake and survey its members. “We’re tracking to make sure we know who’s coming to Congress and how to engage people.”
Congress 2022 opened with a welcome address and prayer by two Indigenous speakers and included lectures on Indigenous languages and decolonization, and a career advice workshop for Black, Indigenous and racialized students.
Dr. Walker felt the change at the event. “There was a centring of knowledge and ways of knowing that have been regarded as marginal in the past; there was a difference that I noticed,” he said, noting that EDID discussions were an integral component. “There were conversations about these issues held across organizations and in some plenary sessions. They were top of mind and a touchstone.”
Wendy Cukier, a business professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and an expert on diversity, sees promise in the FHSS’s efforts. “It looks like it’s very systematic. It looks like they’re trying to tackle the multiple dimensions of diversity and inclusion with an intersectional lens and focusing on more than just addressing numbers.”
More work ahead
However, Dr. Crichlow has qualms. “They don’t understand that you don’t throw money at people to solve social problems. This is colonialism and paternalistic. You need to address the systematic inequities that exist, and work with others,” he said. “Money doesn’t change things unless you change politics.”
He would like to see the FHSS question the colonialism of its own structures and reach out to make larger changes at universities, like creating a national mentorship program for students from underrepresented groups. “The Federation has good objectives but it’s being too safe. It needs to take more risks to address inequities.”
Dr. Cukier said the FHSS lacks the scope to move the needle on academia’s biggest diversity issues, such as a lack of women and racialized people in the most prestigious positions. “There’s always tension between initiatives that focus on radical transformation and those that are focused on more incremental change. Meaningful change is going to take a long time, but in the meantime, there are things that can be done to open doors and clear pathways,” she said. Dr. Cukier believes Canada needs a national strategy around EDID in academia, and that individual organizations can only do so much.
For Dr. Walker, moving FHSS to a more progressive place matters not just for the organization and for the future of underrepresented scholars, but for the academic disciplines it represents. “There’s a larger case we have to continually make and fight for, which is the importance of the social sciences and the humanities,” he said. “We have the knowledge and skills to help centre voices. The work our disciplines can do around EDID is very powerful.”