Black people make up just two per cent of university instructors in Canada. What needs to change?

Growing up in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood shaped Sam Tecle’s entire life and career. 

He noticed the towering high-rises and fresh produce in farmers’ markets in downtown Toronto, and compared them with the crumbling housing projects, negative perceptions, and heavy police presence in his own backyard.

His circumstances led him to pursue a career in community service and scholarship. 

“All of those kinds of differences mean you start to see the world from a particular vantage point,” Tecle said in an interview with The Pigeon

Tecle grew up in Jane and Finch in the early 1990’s. Now a PhD graduate student in York University’s Sociology department and an assistant professor and the director of engaged learning at New College at the University of Toronto (U of T), he’s proud to say he’s from that area. 

“You go to places like Jane and Finch and you’ll see generations of folks from all over the world, so it’s a very worldly place,” he said.

“It’s also a place where you get a bit of a chip on your shoulder because you didn’t start with much, and you want the world.” 

Jane and Finch is notoriously reported as being one of the most unsafe and violent communities in the Greater Toronto Area, earning a bad reputation that some have been questioning in recent years.

Since Tecle was a teenager, he’s been focused on addressing over-policing and racial profiling in predominately Black and marginalized Toronto-area communities like the one he grew up in.

In 2015, he joined Success Beyond Limits, a youth-led, community-based organization that strives to improve education opportunities for children in Jane and Finch.

Before receiving his assistant professor job at U of T, Tecle taught with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) from 2009 to 2019, and worked in a program with grade-school students who were suspended for more than five days throughout the school year.

In his first year at TDSB, Tecle quickly realized many of the students sent to him were Black. 

“I thought, ‘Okay, there’s got to be something else going on here,’” Tecle said. “They would do well with me in my program, and I would call principals to get them back [in their schools] and the principals wouldn’t want to take them back.”

“This was long before I did any research, but I knew something was wrong.” 

Seeing young Black students sent from across the TDSB inspired Tecle to pursue a PhD at York and understand the obstacles facing Black students and other marginalized youth in the education system. 

Among the barriers he found through his research, Tecle saw Black students get suspended and expelled at a much higher rate than non-Black students. He also noticed they’re less likely to graduate.

Last summer, the Huffington Post also reported incidents of systemic racism are still plaguing Black students in Ontario schools.

“Black students are less likely to be put in enriched classes, or academic university streams. They’re more likely to be put in college-level courses, or non-academic [courses],” he said.

“These pathways almost ensure students will not have a viable opportunity to attend postsecondary [schools].”  

In Canada, Black professors make up a small proportion of teachers in postsecondary institutions; two years ago, a report from the Canadian Association of University Teachers found that just two per cent of all university teachers across the country were Black. 

As the movement for Black lives following the May murder of George Floyd gripped countries around the world, many Canadian institutions promised to address a lack of marginalized representation in their faculties.

The Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Ont. hired five Black artists and designers for professor positions in June, while McGill University in Montreal, Que. made a pledge last month to hire more Black professors. Also, in October, the CBC reported hundreds of Black students, faculty, and community members met with over 50 Canadian universities in a cross-country forum on racial inclusion in post-secondary education.

In the wake of movements to address the lack of diversity in Canadian higher education, The Pigeon spoke to some Black professors about their positions in academia.

Annette Henry, a professor at UBC, wants university courses to represent all students. Photo courtesy of: Annette Henry

Annette Henry feels like she’s been in education her whole life. 

As a kid, she jumped at the opportunity to be a leader, whether through summer camps, Sunday school, or children’s church. She enjoyed teaching and loved to learn about language, particularly how it works in different socio-cultural contexts. 

Henry’s career as a professor has taken her from universities in the American Midwest to Canada’s Pacific Northwest—where she’s currently a professor in the University of British Columbia (UBC) department of language and literacy education

Henry also holds the David Lam Chair in Multicultural Education at UBC, and has written about the role of race and class in education for years. Two years ago, she won the Canadian Association of University Teachers Equity Award for her work challenging racism and talking about the issues making Canadian post-secondary studies less inclusive. 

Among her research, Henry wrote a paper in 2015 reflecting on her personal experiences as a visible minority at Canadian and American universities. In the paper, Henry made it clear she wasn’t out to indict anyone. She wrote about a systematic lack of representation in university faculties and supplemented it with personal stories—like being ostracized as a Black female instructor who took her role seriously.

“I was terrified the whole time I was writing it because it’s exposing one’s self,” Henry said in an interview with The Pigeon. “But what I really wanted to do [was highlight these issues because] sometimes we are so afraid to speak up about things.”

Henry’s personal struggle as a marginalized woman in higher education is far from an outlier. In 2019 the Toronto Star reported on the underrepresentation of Black female teachers in Canadian universities, which found many women in academia chronicling similar anti-Black systemic processes and attitudes. 

Henry believes simply hiring Black faculty isn’t the sole solution to addressing diversity. Instead, action should also be implemented to change curriculums to better suit the passions, learning styles, and areas of expertise Black students and faculty hold. 

“We have to really start thinking about the kinds of courses that are relevant to all people. The curriculum is very Eurocentric, so students can come through and never know Black authors,” Henry said, who also wrote an article last month on commitments to hiring Black faculty.  

This overall lack of representation puts pressure on current Black faculty to join committees and dedicate their time to addressing diversity for the university on top of this existing academic responsibilities—meaning the brunt of anti-racism is placed on the shoulders of Black employees.

Henry, who is currently on sabbatical, is still often asked to join committees and read proposals for the department. It’s a trend she’s noticed for women in particular, whose time is routinely seen as less valuable than men’s. 

“Black women, and women of colour, are expected more to be […] the ones who clean up the mess,” she said.

“We’re the ones whose time is not protected.” 

Carl James, a professor at York University, says helping Black students needs to early. Photo courtesy of: Mario So Gao

Carl James, a professor in York University’s Faculty of Education and Tecle’s PhD advisor, also believes change needs to begin at the grassroots level to give Black students the same opportunities to pursue postsecondary education as their non-Black peers. 

Along with curriculums, James says looking at cultural differences and disciplinary actions against Black students are critical factors that institutions and school boards should address to foster a space that encourages minority students to pursue an academic career. 

“We have to start thinking about the [educational] ‘pipeline,’” James said in an interview with The Pigeon. “What happens when the Black child enters kindergarten? What is the education he or she gets from kindergarten through grade eight and high school?” 

In 2019, James released a series of information sheets to help Black parents guide their children through Ontario’s school system, and in August, he was named a senior advisor on equity and representation at York University. 

The lack of diversity among professors isn’t just a Canadian issue, but a global one, Tecle says.

Hiring one or two Black professors into special advisor or equity positions is a good first step. Further, Tecle believes structural change needs to occur within the institution to fundamentally reform the system, specifically by hiring fully Black departments, and realizing that those departments will work to keep the university in check, Tecle says university institutions can encourage positive change.

“If we say that we want these resistances or critiques to exist, [or] if you establish a Black Studies department,” Tecle explained, “It’s going to be in some ways, or in many ways, antagonistic to the university administration, and [is going to] always keep it on its toes.” 

Going forward, Henry wants to see if conversations spurred by the murder of George Floyd in May—including commitments to diversity from universities across the country—will continue.

However, with the hiring and creation of equity positions, there still needs to be a commitment from everyone in the institution to address anti-Black racism, she said. 

“There’s always people that really don’t get it, and hopefully [with this movement] over time they will [understand] this isn’t a fad where you get your Black Lives Matter t-shirts,” she said.

“It has to be, ‘What courses are we teaching,’ and, ‘How am I going to mentor these students to get them through the pipeline?’” said Henry. 

As the world comes to grips with COVID-19, and conversations around race and diversity continue following Floyd’s murder, Tecle hopes individuals and institutions realize we can’t go back to whatever “normal” once was. 

“Change is hard. I’m completely shocked, to be honest, through this crisis that we’re living that everybody says ‘return to normal’ while also saying [that] Black Lives Matter,” Tecle said.

“It’s the normal that made the Black Lives Matter statement necessary.” 

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