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Event had nine different guest panelists from the U of O, across Canada and the United States

The Carceral Studies Research Collective at the University of Ottawa hosted an online panel event discussing the intersectionality of prisons, racism and university campuses on Sept. 30. 

The event, titled “The Carceral (on) Campus: Confronting Racism at the Intersection of the Prison-Industrial-Complex and University,” had nine different guest panelists from the U of O, across Canada and the United States. 

The event lasted over two hours and had panelists share both their personal experiences with racism on campuses, as well as information and resources for others to reach out to. Each panelist had 10-12 minutes to talk before the next speaker went. 

Speakers included: members of the Black Student Leaders Association; Tawny Allison co-president of the Indigenous Law Students’ Association; Nadia Abu-Zahra, the joint chair in women’s studies at the U of O and Carleton University; Alannah Fricker a Ryerson University student and member of No Cops On Campus; and Ife Omidiran a member of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign.

The idea for the panel came about last year, when the steering committee for the Carceral Studies Research Collective wanted to make an intervention addressing anti-BIPOC racism on the U of O’s campus

“We wanted to talk about how the campus is implicated in reproducing racism … and how it is reflected in some of the ties that the university has outside of the campus,” said Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the U of O and the director of the Carceral Studies Research Collective. 

“We are not only trying to contribute to discussions on what needs to be dismantled and what alternatives need to be built on campus in terms of how we respond to harm, but also what other work the university needs to be doing to divest from racism,” 

Piché brought up the fact that the Compass Group, a food service provider, provides meals to the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre and their subsidiary, Chartwells, is the company that provides food services at the U of O. 

“The University of Ottawa shouldn’t be giving business to companies that profit off the mass incarceration of racialized people.”

One speaker, Baljit Nagra, an assistant professor in the department of criminology at the U of O awas present during the racial profiling of Jamal Boyce last summer and spoke about the experience. Nagra is also a member of the Association of Professors at the University of Ottawa, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (APUO BIPOC) caucus. 

“I’m not Black, I am a racialized minority but I have never experienced anti-Black racism so I can’t even imagine what Jamal went through,” said Nagra. 

“I have never seen something so overtly racist happening on a university campus … it was an eye-opener.” 

Following the incident in the summer of 2019, Nagra went to a committee for BIPOC faculty and brought up what she saw and other representatives working on the president’s committee took the information further. 

“Among the professors, there was outrage … to hear that this type of stuff was happening on our campus,” said Nagra. 

The panel was well received by the speakers, with many beginning their speeches saying how inspired they are by the others who spoke before them; including Nagra. 

“It made me think how I can better myself,” she said. 

“Universities in Canada, they all have systemic racism and they are all part of a colonial society, but I think that universities try to position themselves as being dedicated to social justice … I think it is always important to step back and say we are also part of the problem,” she said. 

“They [universities] say all the right things, but they don’t do the right things.” 

Piché added his suggestions on how the U of O can combat racism in the future.

“If the University of Ottawa is serious about ending racism on campus and within the university, it needs to look beyond what security contractors are doing and what protection services are doing,” he said.  

“We need to be looking more broadly than that because the linkages between the prison industrial complex and the university are actually much deeper.”