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President’s message / A long time coming

President’s message / A long time coming

Brenda Austin-Smith

By Brenda Austin-Smith

How long does it take to change the academic awards system for the better? A long, long time, apparently. In late July of this year, there was a quiet announcement of a settlement between eight academics from across the country and the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program. This group of women, supported by CAUT, first filed a complaint in 2003 with the Canadian Human Rights Commission claiming that the allotment of Canada Research Chairs had failed to represent the diversity of Canada’s cohort of academic researchers. More pointedly, the group alleged that the CRC program, begun in 2000 to make Canada “one of the top countries in research and development,” had discriminated against members of protected groups. In 2006, an initial settlement was reached, with the CRCP Program agreeing to improve the representation of women, visible minorities, persons with disabilities, and Indigenous people in the ranks of academics receiving these prestigious research awards.

But did that happen? No, not quickly enough. Despite the initial victory — which took three years to achieve mind you — more time passed, and progress stalled. In 2010, ten years after the CRC program was established, and four years after the Program itself admitted there was a systemic problem, the percentage of Chairs held by women had increased from 14% to only 25%. The rest were held by men, notwithstanding the increased presence of women in the academy. Data on the representation of other groups either was not gathered or was not circulated (Towards Closing the Diversity Gap in Research Chairs, May 2, 2019). It wasn’t that women, Indigenous scholars, persons with disabilities and racialized academics were being rejected for these awards. The problem was that they weren’t being nominated for them by their academic institutions in the first place.

The CRC program depends upon institutional recognition and promotion of researchers and the work that they do. While universities present themselves as committed to equity and inclusion, the reality is that they are driven by the same biases that affect society writ large. The editors of the collection The Equity Myth offer trenchant analysis of how racism and neo-liberalism, among other social forces, become obstacles to the recruitment of Indigenous and racialized scholars, as well as to the kind of recognition and support of their research that awards competitions require. These are the kinds of structural barriers discussed in CAUT’s report entitled Underrepresented and Underpaid, Diversity & Equity Among Canada’s Post-Secondary Education Teachers, and ones the complainants stood against.

The original CRC complainants persisted, and their efforts benefit us all. The last four years have seen a number of federal initiatives to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion in the research community, but this 2019 addendum to the 2006 settlement pushes things forward. Among other critical achievements in the settlement, the CRC program has to hit targets based on general population representation, rather than on an availability pool already constructed by bias and discrimination. The CRC Program has agreed to monitor progress, and enforce the deadlines over the next ten years.

A number of other elements of this agreement warrant attention. One is that the underrepresentation of LGBTQS+ academics will be addressed for the first time. Another is that members of Indigenous communities will be consulted by the Program in order to assess and manage the target setting approach for Chairs, which is currently 4.9% for Indigenous scholars, based on 2016 census data. Still another is that within the next year, Chair holders and nominees will be able to self-nominate as “white” on the Program’s identification form. This strikes me as a critical outcome, one that furthers what the editors of The Equity Myth call the “unsettling the normativity of Whiteness,” providing an opportunity for those of us who identify as white to mark that identity as a structuring presence, rather than as an absence of an identity, a norm. It’s about time.

Our collective thanks go to this steadfast group of activists: 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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