Student life commissioner, operations commissioner share discriminatory incidents they’ve faced on executive committee
During a University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) Board of Directors (BOD) meeting on Sunday, student life commissioner Jason Seguya detailed a number of experiences he described as racial discrimination that he and operations commissioner Rony Fotsing have faced from fellow union leaders during their time on the executive committee.
“The current sentiment within this space — as well as a lot of student unions across Ontario — is that these spaces aren’t necessarily for us,” said Seguya.
Throughout his term, Seguya said that there have been specific recurring themes that he’s been trying to address within the UOSU environment that haven’t been resolved.
“My personal sentiment is that we are being ignored. Whether it be through celebrations of culture … or very vulnerable moments such as the town hall last semester,” he said. “For hours, our community publicly grieved the experiences and the realities of being Black on this campus — experiences that reproduce themselves even within our workplace.”
He highlighted how he and equity commissioner Judy El-Mohtadi were the only two members from the executive committee or board present at the town hall, and how no one from the team has asked him to provide updates on his ongoing efforts working with the advisory committee to U of O president Jacques Frémont to address anti-Black racism on campus.
“Although the UOSU is one of the leaders in the campaign challenging anti-Black racism on campus, if a Black student — one of your constituents — were to come to you right now and ask you a question on an update on what UOSU is doing in regards to this, what would you be able to respond (with)?” said Seguya.
During meetings, Seguya said that points he puts forward are mocked for their length, or others seek approval and acceptance from his colleagues when discussing his ideas. Often times, he said his points are ignored altogether.
“Within these spaces, we’re taught to disassociate ourselves from our emotions and coddle our concerns to further accommodate our offenders,” he said. “While in other spaces, oftentimes we see this element of emotion — when it’s being projected by others — as an example of passion on the subject that we’re talking about. For us, no — it suggests a stereotype.”
Rather than addressing his concerns whenever he’s frustrated over a situation, he said he experiences tone policing from colleagues, who occasionally ask him to go for a walk when he’s upset.
“I only find myself accepted in these spaces when I act or follow the stereotypes of being the token Black man, which is that person who makes you laugh and makes you feel uplifted,” he said. “But when it comes to serious debates and concerns, I stay silent. Note that if I’m only being accepted as your comic relief, you are failing to see me.”
He noted how he’s been taught to code-switch when entering these spaces — whether it’s avoiding the use of ebonics or suppressing accents — due to fear of being viewed as unprofessional or “ghetto.”
“Within the Black community, we are taught a series of skills that become our toolbox in order to survive these professional workspaces,” he said. “I want to put emphasis on the word survive. It’s not to thrive in these spaces. It’s simply so we can survive the day to day experience.”
He then pointed to how Fotsing, a francophone international student, is constantly talked down to by his colleagues during discussions.
“I’ve seen (Fotsing) being met with condescending remarks such as ‘pay more attention’, rather than fully offering accommodations — which includes language — to ensure that he can participate to the fullest when it comes to discussion,” said Seguya.
According to Seguya, Fotsing is enrolled in six courses and holds a part-time job outside of his role at UOSU, while the majority of executives only take one course and have no other outside commitments.
“I’ve watched Rony be ganged up upon, shamed for not completing the task at the speed requested by others, (who fail) to recognize the impact of maintaining full-time status as described before,” said Seguya. “He’s attacked and met with hostility by others to the point where it’s easier not to participate, because should he open his mouth to express a point, the description of feeling like he’s standing on trial is a reality.”
Similar to his own experiences, Seguya said that Fotsing also has his points ignored during meetings or discussions.
“I’ve watched on multiple occasions (Fotsing) beg for permission to speak in the middle of discussions, and actually have to pre-say his specific points before them being presented to the board,” he said. “Despite the fact for others, they’re welcomed with humour and acceptance at the level of the BOD.”
All of these experiences, said Seguya, violate a number of UOSU equity codes and policies regarding discrimination and harassment.
“In these spaces, as your colleagues — folks who share equal voting rights, who share this space with you — we are struggling to have our voices heard by you,” he said. “If we are in the same room with you all here, I pray that these words resonate.”
Following Seguya’s speech, Zaina Hamodah, a director for the faculty of social sciences, said that fellow board members should use the rest of the day to reflect on Seguya and Fotsing’s comments.
“I think there’s room for letting it hang, and giving us time to reflect. I don’t think any of us should be jumping to respond,” said Hamodah. “I think what you said is really important for us to take in, because these spaces are exhausting for racialized and marginalized folks.”
In a message on Wednesday, faculty of social sciences director and chair of the board Zachary Robichaud said he was unable to attend the meeting and had not heard the specific concerns shared by Seguya and Fotsing, but was looking to get briefed on the discussion.
“I do intend to discuss with the actors involved to know what steps they think should be taken to foster an inclusive and accessible space for all people involved with the student union,” Robichaud wrote in a message.
Advocacy commissioner Sam Schroeder said on Thursday that the experiences Seguya and Fotsing shared at the board meeting have started important discussions within the UOSU.
“I think it’s a dialogue that everyone here has been participating in to make sure that we are making things as accessible as possible for all students,” said Schroeder.
“It made everyone, including myself, think about our actions, the way that those could be perceived,” he added. “I think that everyone should be having that internal discussion and thinking about ways that they can improve the way that they work.”
Appeal to reinstate club status for anti-abortion group fails to pass
During the meeting, board members voted anonymously against an appeal to reinstate club status for the anti-abortion group University of Ottawa Students for Life (UOSFL).
Before the decision was made, two representatives from UOSFL made several appeals to reinstate the club status to board members during the meeting.
The UOSU’s student life committee met in December, where representatives from UOSFL and pro-choice supporters who launched a petition to strip the club of its status were invited to attend and voice their arguments. The committee then announced in January that they had voted to remove UOSFL’s club status.
The appeal to overturn January’s decision to revoke the group’s club status was met with four yeses, three noes and five abstentions from board members. At least a four-fifths majority vote in favour was required in order for the appeal to pass.
Editor’s Note (Feb. 28, 12:25 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said at least five yeses were required from board members to appeal the decision to revoke UOSFL’s club status. In fact, the appeal required a four-fifths majority vote. The Fulcrum regrets this error.
Editor’s Note (Feb. 28, 8:08 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that Seguya said other members of the executive committee did not attend the anti-Black racism town hall. This sentence has been corrected to clarify that Seguya was referring to all board members, not just executives.