By Rawan Habib, President of York Federation of Students
Canadian society prides itself on its multicultural and diverse fabric.Many Canadian universities and institutions reflect similar narratives, and promote the same pride in diversity and inclusivity on their campuses. The narrative of multiculturalism and diversity, however, fails to acknowledge the institutional racism that exists amongst our society as a result of our colonial history and the current influence of neocolonialism.
Many institutions have taken to launching popular diversity projects and initiatives nationwide. The majority of these diversity initiatives are launched with the goal of recruiting more Indigenous and Racialized students, and convincing them that their campuses are safe and inclusive spaces for their identities. What these initiatives fail to do is acknowledge the desperate need for change in our institutional cultures and practices. They fail to acknowledge the racist fabric of our institutions and the impact it has on the experiences of these students. Our institutions and universities certainly preach diversity and inclusion, but rarely do they follow through with tangible support for their Racialized and Indigenous students.
It’s important to recognize that our institutions were built by, and for, white men. No amount of diversity projects can change that reality. Racialized and Indigenous students consistently feel under supported, disregarded, and erased on their campuses. Our institutions may preach diversity and inclusion, but continue to actively invest in Arms Manufacturers that are complicit in attacks against the homelands of their students. They may preach diversity and inclusion, but continue to hyper-surveil and police their students, support and fund racist faculty, and remain complicit in the erasure of identities, histories, and cultures. They may preach diversity and inclusion but lack the resources, services, and support that Racialized and Indigenous students need to feel welcome and safe on their campuses.
Nevertheless, Racialized and Indigenous students continue to persist and thrive on their campuses and within society. Despite the fact that many of us feel under-supported by our institutions, we have managed to find and create space for ourselves by finding one another. Various clubs and organizations have taken on the responsibility and the labor of protecting and supporting their Racialized and Indigenous students when their administrations have failed them. Student Unions across the country have helped create space for Racialized and Indigenous students by creating student associations and collectives that exist with the sole purpose and intent of servicing and supporting students of colour. It is Student Unions that help support their cultural clubs on campus who undoubtedly provide space for students from a variety of different backgrounds. Students and their Student Unions are the ones who have consistently been at the forefront of the Anti-Racist movement, and have spearheaded initiatives that have not only supported Racialized and Indigenous students, but have worked to hold their institutions accountable for their racist policies and actions.
At Ryerson University, it was Racialized and Indigenous students that took on the labor of holding their administration accountable to the colonial and racist legacy of their namesake, Egerton Ryerson. At Dalhousie University, it was Racialized and Indigenous students that took on the labor of holding their administration accountable when appointing a notoriously racist and anti-Indigenous interim president, Peter MacKinnon. Nationally, it was the Racialized and Indigenous student leaders of the Canadian Federation of Students that recognized the need for a Racialized and Indigenous Student Experience Summit (R.I.S.E) to help create space for students from across the country to collectively heal, mourn, and organize. These are only a handful of examples of real, tangible work that students have taken on in order to support one another, and to carve safer spaces on their campuses for generations to come.
This is all work that is put at risk by enforcing undemocratic projects like the Student Choice Initiative that has recently been introduced in the province of Ontario. It’s initiatives like these that only further attack Racialized and Indigenous students, and only further reinforce the racist and oppressive realities of our institutions and societies.
To all the Racialized and Indigenous students nationwide: thank you. Thank you for your work, thank you for your resilience, and thank you for your determination to support one another. Thank you for giving students space to heal, to mourn, and to organize. It is your work that will undoubtedly be effective in holding our administrations accountable, and in working to dismantle the racist realities of our institutions and our societies.
To our institutions, and to anyone who may be reading this: I challenge you to move past diversity projects and begin to critically think of what you may be able to do to better support Racialized and Indigenous students nationwide. In order to truly work towards dismantling Racism, we need to acknowledge the racist fabric of our society, and better support the students who have been doing this work for decades.