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The long path to equity

The long path to equity / vikas2c

It was a long journey, beginning more than 16 years ago, with many twists and turns along the way. But in July of this year, the federal government announced that a new settlement was reached to ensure greater equity in the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program.

“Under this new agreement, the Program will move quickly towards reflecting the full and actual diversity of Canada. This is a path-changing understanding, for universities and other Canadian institutions,” says sociologist Susan Prentice, one of the complainants.

In 2000, the CRC was a new initiative of the three granting agencies — the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — and ostensibly an effort standing at the centre of the federal government’s national strategy to make Canada “one of the world’s top countries in research and development.”

Over 2000 permanent research professorships, dubbed Canada Research Chairs, were to be established in eligible degree-granting institutions across Canada, and today close to $300 million is awarded yearly. But the intervening years have been fraught with criticism, not the least of which from CAUT.

“The funding formula was problematic, unfairly funneling the majority of dollars to large, research-intensive institutions, and the process was not accountable or transparent as to who received Chair appointments, or why,” notes CAUT executive director David Robinson. “Within a year of the Program’s launch, CAUT Council passed a motion condemning it.”

By 2003, the inequities within the Program prompted complaints to the CHRC by eight women who were supported by CAUT with legal representation. A three-year process unfolded during which an investigation and mediation resulted in a first settlement agreement in 2006, focussing on “four protected groups” of women, persons with a disability, Aboriginal Peoples and visible minorities.

For the first time, the Program would have to encourage and allow both nominees and current Chairs to voluntarily identify themselves within the groups. The information was to be collected and retained, and universities were to establish targets for the representation of members in the groups. Recruitment processes came under scrutiny as well, with the settlement mandating that going forward search and appointment processes must be “transparent, open and equitable,” and “consistent with the principles and safeguards embodied in the universities’ existing tenure-track hiring practices (collective agreement or equivalent)” and must contain features such as open advertising with statements committing to equity, encouragement and active recruitment of members of the protected groups, and a host of other measures.

The 2006 settlement, on paper, advanced the rights of the four groups, but problems with its interpretation and enforcement became almost immediately apparent.

The agreement required that “No later than 180 days after universities establish targets for the representation of members of the four protected groups…the Chairs Program agrees to conduct and complete a gender-based analysis and a diversity-based analysis of the Chairs Program.”

While this was accomplished, another requirement was ignored: neither the CHRC nor the eight complainants were consulted in the selection of the expert hired to conduct the review, or in the development of terms of reference for the analyses.

In 2010, the federal Conservative government led by Stephen Harper stopped making completion of the long-form national census mandatory, effectively eliminating the gathering of high-quality data which could be used to help establish representation of the four groups within the Canadian research population.

So while paragraph 8 of the agreement compelled the CRCP to ensure that “the targets established for the representation of members of the four protected groups (in the Program) are updated or refined at least every three years” the Program failed to do so after cancellation of the census.

Looking beyond these complaints, critics of the CRCP were also increasingly disenchanted by the fact that the intent of the agreement, proclaimed by all parties as one to “address equity issues in a speedy and forward-looking manner,” was not being realized. Profiles of nominees with the Program were not changing in any substantive way, and the face of the Program was not reflecting the diversity of Canada’s research population.

“The complainants were not happy with the methodology established by the Program for determining the target-setting basis. They wanted it set based upon percentage of the four groups within the general Canadian population, rather than that of the university community,” notes CAUT legal counsel Peter Barnacle. “We weren’t pleased either and while CAUT had complained behind the scenes — to this point — about problems with how the settlement’s terms were being enforced, we now realized that more pressure was needed.”

The decision, Barnacle says, was for the CHRC to begin legal proceedings with the consent of the complainants, to make the 2006 agreement an order of the Federal Court of Canada, for the purposes of enforcing its terms. In May 2017, the court issued its order.

In 2015, a newly elected Liberal government had quickly reinstated the long-form census, and started ushering in initiatives aimed at increasing equity, diversity and inclusion within the research and university sectors.

In May 2017, alongside the successful action taken by the CHRC and complainants before the Federal Court, the government launched its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Action Plan, stipulating that institutions must develop their own EDI plans, publish information and data about the management of their Chair allocations on public accountability and transparency web pages, and meet hard targets by December 2019.

The government’s actions were comparatively progressive and welcomed by CAUT as a large step forward.

With the strength of the 2006 agreement now made an order of the court, CAUT continued to negotiate to widen the terms around target-setting within the complainant’s agreement. In June 2019, an agreement was signed off by all parties to add new terms to the original 2006 settlement, including a ten-year framework for the Chairs Program to reflect the diversity of Canada’s population, setting institutional targets not just for the representation of the four groups, but to address the under-representation of members of the LGBTQ+ community as well.

The new terms were a welcome vindication for the complainants, and an acknowledgement of the need to increase EDI in order to promote greater excellence in research.

“The changes being made to the CRC program recognize that under-representation has arisen not from a lack of qualified candidates but from discriminatory and exclusionary principles or practices in society and in academia itself.

Addressing these barriers means we can better encourage excellence, innovation and fairness in the research environment,” said Robinson.

“When the agreement is in full force, the representation of the groups named will reflect their representation within the Canadian population — not just their representation in universities,” added political science professor Marjorie Griffin Cohen, another complainant in the case. “This is a significant expansion of the concept of equality and something that has the power to effect significant change, especially if it is expanded to other groups and applied more widely in public institutions in the future.”  

Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner of the CHRC, noted that the settlement is about fairness.

“This is an important step towards ensuring that the Canadian research field both reflects Canada’s rich diversity and benefits from the talent and perspectives of those who were previously denied a seat at the table,” she said.

The 2019 settlement forming an addendum to the original 2006 agreement, and along with the 2017 federal court order, make for a long, inspiring read, explaining a big story.

But for those who know, the smaller stories written between the lines emerge through clues: the naming of the new “Robbins-Ollivier Award”; the fact that while eight complainants’ names appear on the 2006 agreement, just seven are named on the 2017 Federal Court Order; that only 6 complainant signatures grace the 2019 addendum.

There is a letter from the six women, attached to the agreement, and written “in honour of our late colleagues Wendy Robbins and Michèle Ollivier.” It reflects the group’s view of the 2019 addendum and gives context for it, “in light of the ongoing systemic inequities in the academy.” 

It is within the letter that the smaller, individual stories emerge: mentions of the “manifold barriers to success” experienced by academics in the designated groups; the “fruitful” conversations with administrators of the CRC Program who proved willing to listen, and to respond in a “meaningful and substantive way”; and of the “important symbolic initiatives such as renaming the equity award in recognition of the leadership role played by Wendy Robbins and Michèle Ollivier, for whom we all had great affection and respect.”

David Robinson concludes that “Canada’s research community owes much to the eight women who came forward 15 years ago to challenge systemic bias in the CRC Program and who persevered in holding it to account.”

The academics who initially challenged the CRC program before the Canadian Human Rights Commission with the legal representation of CAUT are Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Louise Forsyth, Glenis Joyce, Audrey Kobayashi, Shree Mulay, Susan Prentice, and the late Wendy Robbins and Michèle Ollivier.


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