By Hilary Hagerman
A Muslim student is called a terrorist by her teacher. A Jewish professor is too afraid to teach. An Aboriginal student is treated like a homeless person by security. It doesn’t sound like scenes from a university campus in the centre of the most diverse city in Canada.
While a quick browse through Ryerson’s admissions booklet gives the impression of a school devoid of racial tension — Halal food in the campus pub, 40 ethnic student groups, foot washing stations outside of the Muslim prayer space — the numbers paint a different picture.
Last year, the office of discrimination and harassment services received 32 complaints about racism. Eight acts of anti-semitic behaviour were reported last month alone. And according to a report released on Feb. 8, racism is alive and well at Ryerson.
Ryerson’s Anti-Racism Taskforce, which headed the report, took a year to consult with faculty, staff and students and came back with 16 recommendations to help stop racism.
What is most apparent from the report is that Ryerson’s dirtiest secret is dangerously subtle. Racism on campus exists — it’s carefully whispered in the curriculum, in the hiring practices and between students in the hallways.
“Ryerson does not exist in a bubble. When there’s racism out there, there’s going to be racism in here,” said Liana Salvador, Ryerson Students’ Union vice-president education.
When Boonaa Mohammed goes to class, he doesn’t see anyone that looks like him. The fourth-year radio and television student remembers being able to count the number of coloured people that came into the classroom on his hands. That’s what it’s like being black and Muslim at Ryerson.
“We’re only diverse until we start talking about the whole school,” said Mohammed, the former president of East African Students of Toronto and United Black Students at Ryerson. “Ryerson isn’t preparing us for reality.”
Maiya Keidan, president of the Jewish student group Hillel at Ryerson, said the biggest problem lies with the RSU. She said Hillel is excluded from events hosted by the RSU on Friday nights when some Jewish students observe the Sabbath. Israel Apartheid Week, which features speakers and events critical of Israel’s policies, leaves Keidan feeling isolated on campus. It makes her feel her students’ union doesn’t have her back.
“We don’t feel our student union should be involved with issues, especially when it isolates Jewish students on campus.”
It’s no surprise students feel uncomfortable. The statue of Egerton Ryerson casts more than just his shadow across Gould Street — it serves as a daily reminder of the university’s unfortunate connection to Canada’s residential school system. Racism is part of Ryerson’s legacy.
Now with the release of the report, one of Canada`s most multicultural schools is being framed as one of the most racially divisive.
Some students disagree with how the media has inflated the issue. Hussein Kermally, president of the Ismaili Muslim Students Association, said Ryerson is doing the best it can to address racism. He said in his program, business management, there isn’t really room for diversity in the classes offered. He understands why the focus is on Western markets rather than other developing countries. To combat racism you’re going to have to change the whole world.
“There’s only so much you can do,” he said.
Naveed Rahman, secretary for the Bangladeshi Students Association, found the report shocking.
“I thought that Ryerson was more multicultural than other universities,” he said. Furthermore, Rahman said that as long as he is receiving a quality education, “I don’t think it really matters.”
It’s this passive attitude that drives Salvador and RSU President Jermaine Bagnall to push for change. Sure, the university’s multicultural track record isn’t as bad as other schools, but they feel that shouldn’t stop the school from striving to accommodate every student.
“Race is something Canadians as a whole don’t talk about,” said Bagnall. “That it happened on our campus I think is a big thing and a lot of the findings weren’t really surprising but it’s the first step.”
The report targeted the university’s curriculum — calling it out for being focused on eurocentric academia. The report goes on to say that in some programs, especially those in the Faculty of Communication and Design, the Faculty of Community Services and the Ted Rogers School of Management there is only one or no courses related to diversity and inclusion in required or professionally-related classes.
The report cited examples like JRN300, Covering Diversity, which used to be compulsory for all third-year journalism students. The course won the national Award of Excellence from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation in 2003. Now, with changes to the journalism curriculum, the course has been replaced with JRN301, Critical Issues in Journalism, and is no longer mandatory.
Classes like this aren’t the only to be cut down or eliminated from Ryerson’s curriculum. The Caribbean Studies program now has only four classes. Fitzgerald Reid, a member of both the Students United Against Racism and the United Black Students course union, thinks cutting Caribbean studies, or offering a low number of classes to begin with, cuts out a part of history.
“I feel that [Ryerson] cutting them out, in a way, did kind of cut us out of delving deeper into our history, especially at that upper level,” he said. “Me being a black student, if there’s any place that I would like to learn about my culture, it would be at the university level.”
Reid also said when certain groups or parts of history aren’t covered in classes, that it’s not giving those groups credit for things they’ve accomplished in history.
“For the faculty to shy away from discussing things such as colonialism, I think it’s doing the racialized students at Ryerson a disservice.”
The Anti-Racism Taskforce report also recommended Ryerson adopt a mandatory class in diversity and equality, which every student would have to take sometime during their time at Ryerson.
Ann Whiteside, Ryerson’s Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Officer, said it’s commonplace for history to be taught from the perspective of the dominant class. But she said her office has been able to impact certain courses and bring issues to professors’ attention.
“Telling history and giving facts from everyone’s point of view is going to give you the richer education,” she said. “Hearing it from all different perspectives is where it’s at.”
The report not only talked about what is being taught at Ryerson, but also who is teaching it.
The numbers don’t lie. Only 14.8 per cent of Ryerson’s senior executive and under 30 per cent of the faculty are visible minorities according to data from 2009‘s employment equity report.
Ivan Joseph, director of athletics at Ryerson, is the only minority to head an athletic department in the country. He said the executive council has done nothing but support him, and he can’t say the same for any other institution he’s worked at.
“If anything, this is probably the most welcoming environment for underrepresented populations that I’ve been a part of,” he said. “The faces of this campus are so welcoming and the students are part of that.”
When Ryerson fired basketball coach Glenn Taylor at the end of last season, the school fielded applications from across the country to fill the job. In the end, Joseph hired Roy Rana, head coach of Eastern Commerce high school. He admits Rana being black played a part in his decision – to Joseph, one equitable door opens another.
But Joseph acknowledges the undercurrent of racism that runs through traditional academic institutions.
“I look at what the taskforce does as a welcome change to the university. Racism exists everywhere,” he said. “No matter how you look at it, racism and discrimination exist.”
Bagnall expects some backlash following any push towards affirmative action. Bagnall is the first black president of the RSU and has faced allegations of tokenism while in office.
“The world is convinced now if you’re a racialized person who’s a professor you are hired on the basis of your skin, not your credentials.
“People need to open their mind to the idea that perhaps certain groups of people for whatever reason have been historically overlooked even though they do have their credentials.”
Bagnall supports the reports recommendation to focus on equity hiring and says it helps give marginalized people a fair shake at jobs.
How Ryerson will look back at this time in its history hinges on perhaps the most contentious recommendation from the report – data collection. The report urged for information to be compiled on visible minorities and racism in order to measure Ryerson’s progress. But how will the administration gather this data without racializing student’s even further?
“Once we get to school we’re in this little box,” says Mohammed.
“They begin to simplify the issue. They round people off.”