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The event took place Wednesday evening. Photo: Mar Khorkhordina/Fulcrum

Speakers share their experiences facing discrimination at the university

More than 30 Black students and faculty members from the University of Ottawa spoke openly about the discriminatory incidents they have experienced on campus during Wednesday’s town hall on anti-Black racism, with many proposing a number of measures to begin combatting the issue.

The town hall comes after two Black students were carded on campus between June and September, sparking a chorus of student voices demanding concrete action from the administration.

“We must increase our efforts to ensure that the U of O becomes a truly racism-free campus,” said U of O president Jacques Frémont at the event in the Faculty of Social Sciences Building.

“To do this, I believe that the most important thing we can do now at this very moment is to listen,” said Frémont. “To listen to you, your experiences, your challenges, your frustrations, your suggestions, your ideas, your aspirations, and of course, your visions for the future of this campus and this university.”

Students who faced carding speak out

Jamal Koulmiye-Boyce, a conflict studies and human rights student at the U of O, spoke to the crowd of the long-lasting impacts of his experience being carded, handcuffed, and detained for several hours by campus security for not having identification in June.

“The trauma coming back to school on my first day of classes for my special topics course and being locked out of the classroom —  and seeing none other than the guard that put me in handcuffs and made me sit there for hours be the one to come unlock the door — was more than horrible,” said Koulmiye-Boyce.

He added that the fact that he still sees the two security guards who had detained him walking around campus tells him that the university isn’t taking the issue seriously.

“I’m happy that we can have the president sit here and listen. This is nothing short of action …  I’m speaking here to be heard. I’m speaking here to have change come,” he said.

The first part of an independent investigation, the results of which were released in October, found Koulmiye-Boyce faced racial discrimination, with inadequate training and faulty procedures playing a role as well. 

Three months after Koulmiye-Boyce shared his experience, second-year education student Wiliston Mason was carded while returning home to his residence building, where he serves as a community adviser (CA).

“When I walked in, a white individual had walked in. He never tapped his card,” Mason told the crowd. “I did tap my card. I saw the guard look at the white man, look away, look at me and say, ‘Hey you, show me your ID. I need to verify that you live here.’”

He added that showing the guard his ID would not have made any difference, as campus security does not have access to the building’s list of accommodated students.

“As a CA, I have access to that software. He literally would have had to ask me to check to see if I actually live there,” he said.

The U of O administration says the security guard in question is employed by a private firm and is now banned from campus.

Following the incident, Mason detailed the frustrating process of filing a complaint with the Human Rights Office, and the sense of antagonism he felt when dealing with Protection Services.

“I get to the meeting, and I’m literally being interrogated by Protection Services,” he said. “I’m being asked questions such as ‘Are you sure didn’t misstep in the situation? Why didn’t you comply with the guard’s request to show him your ID?’ ”

His response to such questions, he continued, was “I don’t need to forfeit my rights just because a guard decides that he wants to infringe on those rights.”

Photo: Mar Khorkhordina/Fulcrum

More Black professors needed, speakers say

Several students called on the university to hire more Black professors and staff members, while many spoke of the discrimination that they have faced in the classroom.

“I have professors telling me I’m too dark to sit in the back and they can’t see me,” said Jade Sullivan, a geography and women’s studies student who was the first to speak in front of the crowd of about 100 people.  “I have professors telling me — and not my white counterparts — to respectfully rebuttal, even though I haven’t spoken yet.”

Another student noted how she’s only had one Black professor in her three years at the university, while others said they had never had a class taught by a Black professor.

“It doesn’t just stop at professors,” she said. “The university has so many areas in terms of faculty that I don’t see Black people, I don’t see Indigenous people. I don’t see people of colour in general.”

“So it’s hard to speak about making a more inclusive campus when your student body and your faculty don’t look like that,” she said.

One master’s student spoke of the additional responsibilities that she has undertaken as a Black teaching assistant in her feminist and gender studies course, highlighting how a large number of Black undergrad students come to her for help.

“They come to me to talk about things, to ask explanations about the course, to give advice in academic things,” she said. “It’s more than important for us to have diverse professors teaching us …  I see how it’s important for them to have someone like me with them.”

Photo: Mar Khorkhordina/Fulcrum

Speakers push for data collection on Black U of O students

An alumna who attended the U of O in the 1990s presented the idea of having the university create a database system that would contain a list of all the Black students attending the school, adding that if you want to fight anti-Black racism, “you need to know who we are,” she said.

“Does the university know how many Black students they have? Are you taking data to find out where Black students are coming from?” she asked. “The way you know who we are, you have to do a database data collection.”

Building off of this notion, one student added that a database for Indigenous students should also be established as well.

“Who is graduating? Who is making it to the next year, and why aren’t they doing that? Is it because of the curriculum that is geared towards them that isn’t helping them?” they asked. “When we do have that data, the university needs to be taking steps into rectifying that, offering more support economically to Black students.”

Changing the curriculum

What is being taught in the classroom was another frequent topic of discussion in challenging anti-Black racism, where one student proposed revamping the material that students are receiving when it comes to learning about Black history.

“As a Black student, why am I continuously being taught about colonization and slavery, as if it was our history?” they said. “We need to understand as Black students and also as Black professors, colonization and slavery was not our history, it interrupted our history.”

However, another student argued that there should be more focus on such topics.

“I don’t think many people realize how far colonization and slavery actually determined many of the things that happened on this campus,” they said. “When we see Black students targeted on campus, the reason why we have that is because university institutions are run like justice systems. We are constantly policed on campus.”

Photo: Mar Khorkhordina/Fulcrum

Achieving change

The final speaker was Joanne St. Lewis, a Black law professor in the common law section at the U of O, who said that diversity and changes to the curriculum can only be achieved by those professors who are willing to take risks.

“Who you hire and their willingness to take risks in the classroom —  to actually challenge the orthodoxy — has to become a competency requirement if you want actual change,” she said.

Changing the notion of competency for non-Black professors, she continued, is just as crucial as the Black population carving out their own place on campus.

“Can they actually teach history if they don’t understand our history?” she said. “It’s not going to be enough to settle for somebody who comes in that’s Black and is going to teach the Black history course.”

The reason why we have town halls of this nature, she concluded, is because “we consume the bodies of Black people and the spiritual energy of Black people to catalogue the conversation,” she said.

“At some point, we need to be able to get to this place without some freaking disaster happening to one of us,” she said.

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