By Manuela Vega
Growing up in Regent Park in the 1980s, Christene Browne and other young Black filmmakers were committed to telling stories they didn’t see in mainstream media, calling it “cinema of duty.” Since then, Browne has allowed herself to create more personal and experimental pieces, but says her work maintains an underpinning of race and racial injustice. “It’s part of my soul,” she says.
With the release of Another Planet in 1999, Browne became the first Black woman to direct a feature film in Canada. She’s written three novels, received international praise for her films and continues to sell her five-part documentary series Speaking in Tongues: the History of Language, which features some of the world’s top linguists, including Noam Chomsky.
In 2016, Browne began teaching RTA media production courses—namely documentary production and a thesis class, known as a practicum. In the practicum course, students work in groups to produce projects that meet professional media standards.
When fourth-year media production student Keemya Parsa met Browne, Parsa felt that “RTA found a gem.”
“The way she would instruct and the things that she believes in—because a lot of her work goes around diversity, inclusion, social issues—[inspired people],” said Parsa. “A lot of people who [relate to] marginalized experiences…were drawn to her.”
As a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3904, Unit 1 and a contract faculty member for the past four years, Browne reapplied to teach the practicum course each year. But in June, when Browne tried to reapply, she realized the job application was no longer available to CUPE members.
Wondering why that was happening, Browne reached out to the RTA School of Media.
“I said, ‘Look, I would really like to continue with my students,’” Browne said. And I brought up the issue of the types of projects that…I was advising, and the students who wanted me to be there.”
“I’ve seen so much hypocrisy—faculty just saying pretty words while doing nothing”
Browne said the chair, Kathleen Pirrie Adams, responded with an email that said priority was always given to full-time faculty, that nobody promised her she would be teaching practicum and project development and practicum aren’t related courses. The email did not address the nature of students’ projects or their concerns, Browne said.
Ryerson Faculty Association (RFA) members have first access to available courses, Ryerson said in an email to The Eyeopener. The school added: “courses that are not assigned to RFA members then become available for CUPE Unit 1 Contract Lecturers.”
Browne wondered who would continue with the groups, saying RTA doesn’t “have that much representation in the faculty” to instruct students pursuing these kinds of projects.
Previously, she taught the project development course that precedes practicum each winter. There, she worked with a hand-picked selection of student projects to help them plan and manage, additionally providing guidance at these projects went into production.
All six projects Browne chose centre around the experiences of people from marginalized groups, such as racialized, Indigenous and queer communities, according to Browne and students who spoke with The Eye.
Past practicum projects at Ryerson have rarely told the stories of racialized people; racialized characters have often been given “subordinate roles,” said Browne. As more racialized students pitch their own stories, Browne sees it as her role to help them make their projects a reality.
“Part of being a person of colour in North America is that you’re invisible, you’re ignored, so when you see yourself reflected on the small and large screen, you feel like you exist,” said Browne. “It’s a validation of you as a person and you as your story.”
Browne’s student Sam Yang—who is working on a short film that deals with race, sexuality and gender—agreed. He explained why Browne is “instrumental” in an email to Pirrie Adams, RTA director Rick Grunberg and Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) dean Charles Falzon.
Yang felt other instructors wouldn’t care about his project and “wouldn’t be educated enough” to help him create the short film “with the nuance that it needed.”
Additionally, when he pitched his project last year, Browne was the only advisor who wanted to take it on, said Yang.
“I felt like…white professors didn’t want to look at [my story] because they were like, ‘This is too hard, this is too intense,’” said Yang. “Christene was the only one that took a chance on me and was like, ‘No, you should make this. Because this is truthful.’”
The news about Browne arrived as the world reckoned with anti-Black racism and advocates everywhere pushed for racial justice. Just days before, Falzon sent a mass email about FCAD’s commitment to adiversity and solidarity with the Black community.
“I just thought it was so much hypocrisy,” he said. “I’ve seen so much hypocrisy—faculty just saying pretty words while doing nothing.”
“POC will never get hired”
This isn’t the first time Browne has felt RTA has ignored her credentials. She said she’s applied for at least three full-time positions, two of which were tenure track positions, and has never even received an interview, despite her credentials lining up perfectly or exceeding that of the job. Browne said she has raised her concerns to RTA in letters.
“It’s like I’m invisible,” said Browne. “That’s how Black women are treated in institutions, so it’s no surprise.”
In one case, CUPE launched an investigation that found Ryerson did indeed fail to hire Browne when she should have been approached to teach an RTA course, said Browne.
There was an emergency posting for a documentary production course, which Browne had taught before, but Ryerson did not approach her to teach it, she said. According to Browne, the move goes against the union’s collective agreement with Ryerson which states that wherever possible, a contract lecturer “with the requisite qualifications who does not have a Full Sessional Appointment” should be approached first to fill an emergency posting.”
The result of the investigation means Ryerson must compensate Browne and give her seniority points as if she had taught the course, Browne explained.
Ryerson did not provide comment in response to Browne’s situation, citing confidentiality around human resource issues in an emailed statement.
CUPE also did not provide comment, citing confidentiality issues.
Browne added that she’s had similar issues applying to teach image arts courses. Hiring managers cited seniority as why Browne wasn’t hired.
“I believe if the hiring departments keep falling back on this reason, people of colour will never get hired since the people who have been there the longest and have the most seniority are mainly white folks,” said Browne.
Browne said she has applied for a tenure track position which, unlike CUPE positions, offers job security and better pay. “I believe I should get paid what I’m worth,” she said.
During a discussion about the lack of race representation in FCAD, dean Charles Falzon suggested to Browne that the solution would be, what he called, an FCAD-wide “token course”—only open to Black students, said Browne.
Browne added that at a later date, Falzon told her she could apply to teach it, but didn’t explain the content of the course or who would develop it. She said she found this problematic and insensitive.
While Ryerson didn’t directly discuss this topic specifically, they said the university “is committed to the equitable, intentional and ongoing engagement of diversity within every facet of university life, including continuing to strengthen our efforts to address racism and discrimination of all forms on our campus.”
Similar sentiments from Black staff are well-documented in the 2010 Anti-Racism Taskforce Report and the Anti-Black Racism Campus Climate Review report (ABRCCR) published in July 2020.
In the ABRCCR, Black staff cited systemic issues like pay disparities, inability to move up the ranks, being passed over for promotions and being on contracts long-term. Black staff also reported “having their experience and years of service treated differently from their white counterparts” and having criteria for open positions changed on them.
“Christene was the only one that took a chance on me…”
While the ABRCCR does not provide clear recommendations for how to deal with these issues, the 2010 Anti-Racism at Ryerson Taskforce Report recommended that the university collect data on CUPE sessional instructors; that CUPE experience be considered relevant in the RFA hiring process and that Ryerson consider a formal conversion process for CUPE faculty to transition to tenure-track status.
Ryerson has since begun collecting diversity self-ID on CUPE instructors, which it shares with deans to “diversify the CUPE complement,” Ryerson said in an email.
However, the university noted that while CUPE instructors’ teaching experience is relevant to department hiring committees, job postings will have other criteria—such as an active research program and service obligations—which it says CUPE instructors may not be able to fulfill given “the duties of a contract lecturer are primarily limited to teaching activities.”
“A formal conversation process for CUPE contract instructors that would transition them to tenure-stream positions would need to be addressed in collective bargaining,” Ryerson said. “The university could not unilaterally implement such a process.”
Students rally for Browne’s return to teaching
Throughout his four years at Ryerson, Yang said faculty have largely ignored the concerns of students, which made him feel it was crucial that others joined in demanding Browne’s return. He found success after creating a group chat with all 32 of Browne’s project development students.
Among those who spoke out to bring Browne back were Desirée Green and Keemya Parsa. The two students are in a group producing a web series about a Black biracial teenager who’s struggling to feel “authentically Black,” said Green, who pitched the project.
They said they gave Ryerson an ultimatum: rehire Browne or their group would drop practicum.
“As a Black woman, telling a Black story, dealing with racial issues, Christene has not only been a knowledgeable advisor from a production level…but also a mentor who can relate directly to the material,” Green wrote.
Green said Browne is the first Black or racialized instructor that she’s ever had, from primary to post-secondary education. Having a mentor to look up to was a new feeling, she said.
She added that someone who can’t relate to the community shouldn’t be advising her project when qualified “educators and storytellers” like Browne are available.
“[RTA] mirrors the industry with the amount of boundaries, gatekeepers and the lack of BIPOC within the staff and student body.”
“I am frustrated and exhausted,” Greene’s email read. “I find myself disappointed but not surprised that amid a pandemic and a Black revolution fighting for my right to exist, that I am here emailing my school about systemic racism.”
Parsa said she was “hurt” and “insulted” that RTA kept Browne from applying without warning or explanation to Browne herself or her students.
“We really wanted to put up a fight,” said Parsa. “Christene was a really integral part of our group. We really wanted her in our team, at the end of our credits, we wanted her there. And we felt like with her expertise in the field she works in, she honestly is the perfect fit.”
The group decided they would rather work together outside of class to complete the project than work with an advisor they “didn’t connect with,” said Parsa.
Students said RTA didn’t give them a direct answer about Browne.
However, Yang said he continued to correspond with Pirrie Adams, who was interested in speaking with Yang and his crew via Zoom about their project, as well as equity, inclusion and RTA hiring practices.
Yang said many students ended up discussing racism within the program with Pirrie Adams; a representative of Falzon, Catherine Dowling and a tech lead, who Yang asked to record the call.
In August, about a month and a half after students began advocating for her, Ryerson allowed Browne to continue advising practicum.
“Christene was a really integral part of our group”
When asked whether Ryerson apologized and if an explanation was given to her, Browne said she was given none. She said Ryerson simply asked in an email if she wanted to continue teaching the course and sent her a contract. “I asked, of course, why did they change it so that CUPE members could no longer apply?” said Browne. “I wasn’t given any explanation.”
In an emailed statement to The Eye, Ryerson did not answer directly why the position became available to CUPE members when it was initially closed. The university said CUPE Local 3904, Unit 1 Contract Lecturers are hired in accordance with Article 13 and 14 of the union’s collective agreement.
Section 1(a) of Article 13 states that “Decisions as to what teaching functions may be available for discharge by Contract Lecturers and all actions incidental to the process of reaching such decisions shall be within the University’s discretionary authority.”
Browne said the situation felt unnecessary. “Why didn’t they recognize the fact that they actually do need some kind of representation on the faculty?”
According to Browne, there have been recent changes and the project development course is now available for CUPE members. However, Browne said doesn’t know if she’ll be able to apply for practicum next fall.
“I speak up and use my voice because I really enjoy teaching and I believe wholeheartedly in equity and inclusion,” said Browne. “I also believe that students of colour deserve to see themselves reflect in the faculty.”
With or without Ryerson, Browne will be busy with her art.
Browne is writing a libretto—the story of an opera and the words sung by performers—called Inertia, with the guidance of the dramaturg in residence of the Candian Opera Company and Montreal-based Musique 3 Femmes.
The story is “a meditation on inertia, isolation, death, dying and love,” and was inspired by Browne’s former neighbour, a Jamaican lady who lived 92 years alone, said Browne.
In November, Browne’s film Farewell Regent—a “love letter” to Regent Park, which explores the “perils of gentrification”—will have its Canadian broadcast premiere on Hollywood Suites as part of Reelworld Film Festival’s 20th anniversary.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, The Eyeopener reported that the project development course was not available for CUPE members. The course is actually now available. The Eye regrets this error.