Nearly 50 postsecondary institutions signed on to the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education at a virtual ceremony last month. The document, which was written by a drafting sub-committee led by McGill University law professor Adelle Blackett, provides a framework of actions that need to be taken to improve conditions for Black students, staff and faculty at Canadian colleges and universities.
“I’ve been involved in higher education for a long time, and I haven’t seen anything like this that addresses Black life in the postsecondary sector, and I didn’t think I would see it,” said Barrington Walker, associate vice-president equity, diversity and inclusion at Wilfrid Laurier University and a member of the drafting sub-committee. “I am proud of what we’ve managed to accomplish.”
The charter was the brainchild of Wisdom Tettey, vice-president and principal at the University of Toronto-Scarborough, following national conversations about the state of anti-Blackness at Canadian institutions. It’s underpinned by four principles – Black flourishing, inclusive excellence, mutuality and accountability – to help drive the commitments outlined in the charter, Dr. Walker said.
Those commitments include enabling and supporting Black student leadership, collecting and analyzing data around Black representation, and reassessing existing campus security and safety protocols with a view to protecting the human dignity, equality and safety of Black people on campus.
The nuances of anti-Blackness laid out in the charter are particularly welcome, said Bukola Salami, an associated professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Alberta.
“I like that the document situates things within historical forms of racism that Black people have experienced in Canada, including Canada’s history of slavery,” she said. “It [also] discusses the needs in terms of paying attention to the experiences of non-tenured Black faculty members, and the experiences of Black staff members that have precarious status in Canada.”
The University of Alberta has enacted some of its own recent changes, including hiring a Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the faculty of arts, and putting plans in place to hire up to 11 Black faculty members in the next three months. But looking at the big picture, Dr. Salami wants anti-racism embedded in the structures and processes that keep these institutions running.
“One thing that I would like to see is ensuring that the faculty evaluation process actually has an anti-Black racism focus. So when people get promotions, they must have shown that they are anti-racist in their practice,” she said. “It’s important that anti-racism becomes a standard of practice in educational systems, in promotion systems, in all systems.”
Questions over student input
But despite nationwide consultations about what should go into the document, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) argues there wasn’t enough student input in the process.
“To my knowledge, neither I nor my predecessors have been invited to participate in conversations around the charter, and neither has any student leader that I am aware of,” said Mobólúwajídìde (Bo) Joseph, the Black Students’ Caucus representative at CFS. He said student participation in these kinds of initiatives is key to achieving sustainable solutions.
According to Dr. Walker though, students did have their say. “We did endeavour to include student voices in the consultation process when the charter went out to various universities,” he said. “We relied on the institutions that participated to do that work as they brought the document to their campuses, and we did hear from many students.”
The CFS is also wary about achieving accountability. They say steps outlined in the charter are a good starting point, but one of their biggest concerns is how to keep these institutions answerable to their commitments.
“Part of the problem with this is that there is no real way to hold institutions to actually doing work to address the lasting barriers that their Black community members continue to face,” said Mr. Joseph.
To tackle this important question, one of the major action items in the charter is the establishment of the Inter-institutional Forum on Inclusive Higher Education. Dr. Walker said the forum has been “designed not only as a space for sharing of information and sharing the best practices, but a forum by which institutions will hold each other accountable for continuing the momentum that we started with.”
For its part, the CFS is planning to launch a Black student leadership network, so that Black student leaders around the country can connect, share knowledge and learn from each other.
Dr. Walker says changes are also underway at Laurier, with the university finalizing its equity, diversity and inclusion strategic plan (due to be released in spring of 2022), and hiring six new Black faculty.
Looking ahead, the charter still has a lot of room to grow. Less than half of the country’s universities have signed on so far, and no francophone institutions. But Dr. Walker is optimistic about the long-term impact. “I’m hoping that this will put to rest the argument that universities no longer know what to do to address anti-Black racism or to create the conditions for Black thriving,” he said. “I am confident that the Scarborough Charter will be talked about 50 years from now, because I think it is that significant of a document.”