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The town hall will be held on Nov. 20 in the Faculty of Social Sciences Building (Room 4007). Photo: Matt Gergyek/Fulcrum

Two of eight student demands now being met, UOSU executives say

Student leaders at the University of Ottawa say the administration has taken a good step forward on addressing systemic racism on campus by boosting representation of students of colour on their anti-discrimination committee and promising consultation with the broader community, but they say much work is still to be done

At least two Black students have been carded on campus since June, sparking a chorus of voices calling on the university administration to take action and “address systemic racism in a meaningful way.”

Conflict studies and human rights student Jamal Koulmiye-Boyce was carded and handcuffed by Protection Services officers in June. An independent investigator hired by the university found last month that Koulmiye-Boyce faced racial discrimination, with outdated procedures and insufficient training also at play. 

Conflict studies and human rights student Jamal Koulmiye-Boyce. Photo: Matt Gergyek/Fulcrum

The administration implemented four anti-racism measures at the start of September, including an updated carding policy, unconscious bias training for Protection Services officers, and an updated complaints mechanism, all informed by an anti-discrimination committee.

But just a few weeks later, education student Wiliston Mason was carded by a security officer when entering his residence building and workplace. The university says the officer in question was employed by a private firm and is now banned from campus, but many in the community say the incident highlighted how the administration’s anti-racism measures don’t go far enough.

Education student Wiliston Mason. Photo: Matt Gergyek/Fulcrum

That dissatisfaction culminated in a coalition of student organizations releasing an open letter at the start of October, listing eight demands for further action. Over 100 professors and librarians also backed the letter.  

Now, a little over a month after the release of the letter, two executives on the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) say two of those demands have been met — representation and consultation. 

On the representation file, UOSU student life commissioner Jason Seguya and equity commissioner Judy El-Mohtadi said the university administration has agreed to add eight student representatives to president Jacques Frémont’s anti-discrimination committee.

Those eight representatives include both Seguya and El-Mohtadi from the UOSU, two members of the Black Student Leaders Association, the vice-president equity of the Graduate Students Association of the University of Ottawa, both Koulmiye-Boyce and Mason, and one representative from recognized student governments.

A representative from the Black, Indigenous, people of colour caucus of the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa will also be included at the request of students, said El-Mohtadi. It is unclear who will make up the rest of the committee. 

El-Mohtadi said she sees the addition of student representatives as integral to the committee’s success.

“If you’re having a president’s committee where you’re advising the president on ways to make campus more accessible, safer for students, it doesn’t make sense to have members … that are not students,” said El-Mohtadi. “You need students to tell you what they need to make sure the decisions you are making respond to what their needs and wants are.”

UOSU equity commissioner Judy El-Mohtadi. Photo: Matt Gergyek/Fulcrum

“If you understand the experiences of a person of colour because you are a person of colour, that’s totally different than being a white person and assuming what the experiences are,” she added. “Our focus going into that meeting is making sure what we say is taken seriously and implemented.”

Seguya and El-Mohtadi have both been critical of the interim anti-discrimination committee, which was launched this summer, for what they say is a lack of transparency. Those committee meetings were not open to the public and no minutes have been made available, but the membership list was released. 

El-Mohtadi said her understanding is that minutes of the new committee’s meetings will be made public, but if not it is something the UOSU will “fully push for.” 

“Transparency is important, and if folks see that you’re (moving) forward, they don’t expect you to be perfect,” she said. “We’re here to learn and unlearn.”

The committee’s first meeting is set for Tuesday. El-Mohtadi said the goal of the meeting is to work toward embracing a second student demand — consultation — by planning a town hall on racism, set to be held on Nov. 20 from 5-7 p.m. in room 4007, Faculty of Social Sciences Building.

UOSU student life commissioner Jason Seguya. Photo: Matt Gergyek/Fulcrum

Seguya hopes the town hall will be a space where students can ask questions, share their experiences, and give their feedback on the university’s response to the two carding incidents. 

“It’s such a great opportunity to make your voice heard,” added El-Mohtadi. “Especially because it’s a public meeting, it’s easier to hold the university accountable.”

Both Seguya and El-Mohtadi are looking to develop a way for students to contribute anonymously to the town hall if they don’t feel comfortable sharing their experiences publicly. 

“Speaking directly to the president of the U of O and saying ‘this school is racist’ is not an easy experience for BIPOC,” said Seguya.

The open letter released by students last month has six more demands that the university administration has yet to address or is in the progress of addressing.

OPEN LETTER TO THE OFFICE O… by Matt Gergyek on Scribd

The letter calls for a public apology to both Koulmiye-Boyce and Mason, which acknowledges their experiences were not “isolated incidents” and were “part of a larger system of racial discrimination that exists at the institution.” 

Another demand calls for a stricter interpretation of the policy which governs carding on campus, in-line with recent court rulings. The students are also seeking recurring anti-racism training for all employees of the university, including Protection Services officers. 

The three other demands include accountability measures for all university employees to ensure compliance with anti-racism measures, better transparency surrounding the president’s anti-discrimination committee, and data collection to “better understand and validate community members’ lived experiences with racism.”

The findings of the second part of the independent investigation into the carding of Koulmiye-Boyce, which is focusing on the broader policies governing Protection Services as a whole, is expected to be released sometime this month. 

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Editor’s Note (12/11/19, 8:50 p.m.): Updated to include the location of the town hall, released by the administration after publication.