By Elizabeth Sargeant
Pria Nippak, an associate professor with the Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM), is the most recent faculty member to file a case of racial discrimination with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HTRO) against Ryerson University.
The Ryerson instructor of 20 years announced the case on the morning of Sept. 9 with an email to Ryerson community members. In the email, Nippak pleaded for the community “to help fight institutional racism at the university,” and outlined the six years of discrimination she faced during her employment at the school. Attached was a petition which has received over 300 signatures.
“All of these things have been absolutely stripping to my dignity and my self-esteem. They have been difficult for me to digest for sure…I keep trying to get support,” Nippak said.
According to Nippak, she has lost opportunities to teach and receive tenure, and has been restricted from working with graduates and applying for director positions over the past eight years following a leadership change in her department—despite her having the most seniority. Feelings of being antagonized resulted in an anxiety disorder, Nippak said.
“At that point, I had only been dealing with white men…No one would call it what it was—racism”
In a 43-minute-long video uploaded to YouTube titled “Racism at Ryerson University: My Story,” that was included in the petition, Nippak stated that she had “thoroughly loved” working at Ryerson and under Winston Isaac—a racialized professor who was the director of TRSM’s School of Health Services Management until 2013.
However, when James Tiessen took over in late 2012, Nippak’s sense of comfort in her work environment shifted.
“[Tiessen] indicated numerous times that my work was falling short…that I wasn’t doing a sufficient amount and I needed to do more,” said Nippak. “I was very concerned and continued going to the union, and my union was constantly telling me I was fine.”
Tiessen was involved in Nippak’s requests to become a tenured professor, being required to write her letter of recommendation.
“I was looking forward to teaching but I got pushback immediately and I was told I wasn’t allowed to teach,” said Nippak. “I repeatedly went to my union…and all they said was ‘all we can do is talk to Jim [Tiessen] and hopefully he’ll listen.’”
Ahmed Sagarwala, an affiliate member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies, said that he has also heard of negative experiences with Tiessen during 10 years as a racialized faculty member at Ryerson.
“This isn’t a one-off. There are others stating issues with Tiessen,” Sagarwala commented on Nippak’s petition.
Despite eventually receiving the position of associate professor in 2015, Nippak said she “reached her tipping point” after receiving no recognition, teaching opportunities or graduate opportunities in the three years following, so she decided to seek additional support.
According to Nippak, Ryerson’s human rights office labelled what she was experiencing as harassment but couldn’t identify which type. It wasn’t until a racialized grievance officer stepped in that Nippak was told she was facing racial discrimination.
“At that point, I had only been dealing with white men,” Nippak said. “No one would call it what it was—racism.”
Nippak said she feels like she’s been failed by Ryerson’s human rights office, human resources and the university’s faculty union.
By January 2019, Nippak said she decided to file with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario when she felt the university was still not taking her discrimination seriously. Shortly after, Ryerson University made an appeal to the HRTO to drop the case.
In an email to Nippak and her lawyer obtained by The Eye, Ryerson said it “denies that it or its directing minds have engaged in any infringement of [Nippak’s] rights under the Human Rights Code…as alleged or at all.”
Ryerson’s faculty union is required to stand with their employees in court during a case of racial discrimination, which the union said could not be determined in Nippak’s case.
The university also attempted mediation, paying for the mediator and Nippak’s legal fees for the mediation.
”[The mediation] was a complete bust. After almost 14 hours we were unable to settle,” said Nippak. “They attempted to set up another mediation attempt for the following week, but my lawyer let the university know I was not attending.”
“My lawyer’s exact words were, ‘they clearly don’t want to provide you with your basic human rights with respect to workplace safety.’”
Nippak says she does not yet have a set date for the HRTO trial, but she knows she will not have the support of Ryerson’s faculty union, who she made aware of her email before sending to the wider Ryerson community.
“I wasn’t putting anything out there that the union didn’t know that I was going to do,” Nippak said. “My bigger problem has always been that I wanted to go to the tribunal and I want them to support me.”
“My lawyer’s exact words were, ‘they clearly don’t want to provide you with your basic human rights with respect to workplace safety'”
“At Ryerson University, all human resource issues involving individual employees are addressed as confidential matters,” said Karen Benner, Ryerson’s associate director of communications. “Ongoing efforts are underway to promote dialogue and education on vital issues such as these.”
Dr. Daphne Taras, dean of TRSM, whom Nippak has also accused of harassment, said that it’s crucial that an independent arbitrator hears from all those involved before determining the truth.
“Making a video is easy; proving each allegation when there are competing facts is difficult. It takes a great deal of patience to allow justice to be done, and I urge caution,” said Taras.
Carol Sutherland, a former Ryerson staff member and creator of Ryerson’s Black Faculty and Staff Community Network, also filed an HRTO case against Ryerson in January 2019 after being fired while she was on medical leave. Sutherland’s union has also filed three grievances on her behalf, on the basis of wrongful termination, discrimination on the basis of disability, anti-Black racism, bullying and harassment.
“I’ve been oppressed in this position and just working around trying to get myself out from under all of the blockages that I’ve been so self-contained,” Nippak said. “I’ve been just trying to do my job.”
Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect Carol Sutherland’s case against the university. The Eyeopener regrets this error.