Governance & Social Justice

Tracing the roots of anti-Black racism in pursuit of an equitable future

Governance & Social Justice

Tracing the roots of anti-Black racism in pursuit of an equitable future

As Black Lives Matter protests sweep the continent, the ongoing and systematic racism that Black people face is once again in the public eye. The movement has prompted Canada to confront its own experiences with anti-Black racism, both historically and in the present day.

Police brutality towards Black people is among the most well-publicized concerns to be voiced in 2020. Yet for those who study anti-Black racism in Canada, there are many other elements of our society — from politics and health care to entertainment and media — that are implicated in persistent racism, bias and violence.

While for some these revelations may be new, leading researchers at Ryerson University have been shining a light on these issues for many years. Through their work, they have uncovered structural and historical injustices that, although sometimes unseen or ignored, continue to influence anti-Black racism today.

Mental health discrimination

Idil Abdillahi, a professor in the School of Disability Studies, specializes in research on anti-Black sanism — discrimination against people who have, or who are labelled as having, a mental illness. Through her scholarship, activism and policy work, Abdillahi is informing current debates on critical issues such as fatal police shootings of Black mad-identified peoples. She stresses that the nature of this line of research is interdisciplinary, taking into account real people’s experiences across many facets of life, including the rights of prisoners and those held against their will in hospitals.

a protester holding up a sign that says Black lives matter
The Black Lives Matter movement continues to expand globally, advocating for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people. Philadelphia, PA, USA. Photo credit: Chris Henry

“My work focuses on the places that we don’t see and the people that we’re often not looking at,” says Abdillahi, who is the advisor to the dean on anti-Black racism in Ryerson’s Faculty of Community Services.

Abdillahi’s work has highlighted ongoing anti-Black discrimination in mental health diagnosis and care. She says that Black people are frequently over-diagnosed with mental health issues and are often not provided with appropriate care. For example, Black children are being psychiatrized at higher rates and young Black men are diagnosed with schizophrenia more than any other group. Through her work on the front lines in Toronto — including as a social worker for over 15 years — Abdillahi has found that more Black-identified patients are being held against their will in hospitals.

My work focuses on the places that we don’t see and the people that we’re often not looking at.
Idil Abdillahi, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work

At the heart of this issue are the diagnostic tools that are used by health-care services, including the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Too often, Abdillahi says, people are under- or over-diagnosed, or receive inappropriate care. And too often, people are assigned to psychiatric institutions where their civil liberties are taken away. In her experience, the system is like a fixed algorithm.

“When we talk about these ideas, we don’t talk about the fact that they are absolutely imbued in issues around race,” she says. “A part of my work is looking at interruptions to people’s livability in the context of mental health. For Black people, it’s carcerality.”

Abdillahi’s work is impacting not only our understanding of these issues, but also that of justice surrounding cases of discrimination. In 2017, her theorizing helped to inform the inquest of Andrew Loku, a Black man killed by police in Toronto in 2015. What followed was one of the first instances of the term “anti-Black racism” featuring in an inquest recommendation. However, Abdillahi says that there are still too many circumstances involving police where official information does not provide enough detail.

crowded protest scene with multiple prostesters kneeling and holding up signs
Street demonstrations, part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Washington, D.C., USA. Photo credit: Clay Banks

“What we know is that they were killed — they were in crisis, someone called the police and something happened,” she says. “Those are often the things that we know, and it is not good enough.”

Abdillahi’s forthcoming book, Blackened Madness: Medicalization and Black Everyday Life in Canada, will see her examine personal experiences, policies, inquests and interventions, providing a critique and offering ways forward. She says working within the School of Disability Studies gives her the environment to do this important research.

One of the first instances in which the term “anti-Black racism” was used in an Ontario inquest recommendation

“I’m working in a space where my scholarship is seen as urgent,” says Abdillahi. “My thinking is validated and my leadership is honoured.”

The history of blackface in Canada

As far back as the 1850s, examples can be found of blackface performances in Canadian theatre houses. From this point, these shows — which involve white men and women painting their faces darker — grew in popularity over the next century, from the big stage to schools, sports clubs and churches. Yet, until recently, very little was known about this part of Canada’s cultural history. Our improved understanding of these shows is largely down to the pioneering work of one person, School of Creative Industries professor Cheryl Thompson.

“The work that I’m doing is really the first to centralize Canada as the place where this was a thriving form of entertainment for at least 100 years,” she says.

a vintage photo of people lining up in front of a movie theatre
Al Jolson in Blackface on Ace Theatre marquee located at 605 Danforth Avenue in Toronto, Ontario (1940)

For the past decade, Thompson has been unearthing the history of blackface in Canada through research in newspaper archives. With a collection of more than 8,000 files, she is now conducting a major project to get these items online and available for the public on a new research website. Together, these documents reveal exactly what shows took place, their location and who performed them. Thompson says that, as well as providing a resource for research and education, her work will encourage people to engage with a history that is recent enough to involve people who we may have known, such as relatives.

100 years
Approximate period of time in which blackface was a thriving form of entertainment in Canada

“Part of this work is really uncomfortable,” she says. “How do you reconcile the fact that you are seeing these people as good people, and yet they’re performing these acts that I believe are a kind of performative violence against a whole community?”

While this part of Canada’s past has been swept under the rug, Thompson says the legacy of blackface can be seen in art forms that are practised today, such as tap dancing, which originated from Black male performers who had no choice but to wear blackface on stage. Yet this influence has been sanitized from curriculums, reflecting the broader fact that Black people have been erased in the history of performance.

“For me, this project is explaining contemporary culture, even though I’m doing it through history,” says Thompson.

a vintage photo of people wearing blackface on stage
“McCormick Minstrels” posing in various rows at the Second Floor Stacks, 255 Spadina Rd, Toronto, Ontario (1920, January 29). Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 794. City of Toronto Archives.

To tie her work together, Thompson is also producing a documentary about the subject. She says that working within the Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) offers a unique opportunity to explore both creative and academic ways of representing history and culture.

“I always tell people this, but it’s just factual — I don’t think that I could do this work at any other university,” she explains. “In FCAD in particular, you really have the breadth to be a creative.”

The story revealed by Thompson’s research not only illuminates a history of racism but also of Black resistance to discrimination and oppression. This includes the establishment of a Black newspaper in London, Ontario, in the 1920s and ’30s, and on-stage protest in the form of choral singing. Thompson hopes that highlighting these actions can help to broaden current debates.

“It speaks to the fact that there is a resiliency in Black communities that is not just about our relations with policing,” she says.

Urban Health & Wellbeing

How sewage science can be used to fight Covid-19 and future pandemics

Urban Health & Wellbeing

How sewage science can be used to fight Covid-19 and future pandemics

Beneath the streets of Toronto, there is an untapped resource that has the potential to provide authorities with vital clues about the spread of Covid-19. So far, the burden of tracking and containing the pandemic has been placed on mass testing. But pioneering work below ground could provide municipalities with a powerful new tool.

As Ryerson professors Kimberley Gilbride and Claire Oswald are keen to point out, no one can opt out of contributing to the sewage system. And in the fight against a deadly virus, this universal truth could offer a much-needed early warning system.

Evidence suggests that the virus can be picked up in samples of wastewater up to two weeks before clinical testing measures are able to detect that a new outbreak is on the way. Few cities around the world routinely conduct this kind of sewage monitoring, but in Toronto, Gilbride and Oswald are establishing a system that could be used during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.

Targeting the communities most at risk

Since the beginning of the pandemic, predicting the spread of Covid-19 through urban areas has been a hugely challenging task. It’s made particularly difficult by the fact a person can be infected without knowing it for several days before they develop symptoms. Yet in this time, individuals are shedding traces of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, via visits to the washroom.

1,200 megalitres
Amount of wastewater that’s treated in Toronto each day

As the pandemic picked up pace in spring 2020, Gilbride and Oswald began to hear of cities attempting to track the virus in wastewater. With decades of combined experience in urban water research, they realized they were in the perfect position to experiment with these techniques in Toronto.

“Before all this happened, nobody wanted to talk about poop,” says Gilbride, a professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. “But now people are realizing it’s not such a funny topic — it’s actually a serious topic.”

Gilbride and Oswald contacted other groups in Canada who were beginning to consider the wastewater approach, and built a team comprising other members of the Ryerson Urban Water research centre. In July 2020, they received support from the Ryerson Covid-19 SRC Response Fund, enabling them to begin the ambitious project. They also partnered with Toronto Public Health, Public Health Ontario and Toronto Water.

The unique thing about what we’ve proposed is that, while a lot of groups have stuck to the wastewater treatment plants, we are moving upstream into different communities, which opens up more end uses of the data if we are able to track the virus in those smaller areas.
Claire Oswald, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies

As Gilbride made preparations for testing samples in her lab, Oswald applied her expertise as an urban hydrologist to begin analyzing Toronto’s sewage network to understand how the virus would flow around the city. Extending the work being done by researchers elsewhere, the Ryerson team decided to test not only wastewater treatment plants, but also to head upstream. This would allow them to monitor the presence of the virus on a community level.

“The unique thing about what we’ve proposed is that, while a lot of groups have stuck to the wastewater treatment plants, we are moving upstream into different communities, which opens up more end uses of the data if we are able to track the virus in those smaller areas,” says Oswald, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.

Creating a complementary tool

Gilbride and Oswald began with monthly sampling at one of Toronto’s four wastewater plants and, by successfully getting positive test results for the presence of the virus, have confirmed that their system works. They are now finalizing their procedures in their upstream sampling sites and preparing to begin weekly testing. The data gathered from this sampling will be sent to their public health partners, complementing intelligence gained from clinical testing and modelling.

three researchers wearing masks and distanced from each other standing on a grass patch by the road
Professor Claire Oswald (left) and members of her research team at one of the research sites, where automatic sampling equipment will be installed to collect wastewater for analysis in labs at Ryerson University

In addition to showing that a sample of wastewater contains SARS-CoV-2, the researchers’ system can also indicate differences in virus levels between two samples. With regular monitoring of wastewater, it is therefore possible to tell if a particular neighbourhood is experiencing an increase in the amount of virus circulating in its local network.

“If all of a sudden you see a rise in one of the markers you’re looking at, then you can try to find out what is happening and maybe try to rectify the problem before it becomes a bigger problem,” says Gilbride.

Number of wastewater treatment plants in Toronto

A potential application of this system would be to help give public health authorities an idea of which locations they should target for enhanced clinical testing. With cities only able to conduct a certain number of tests per day, this could be crucial in the management of stretched resources. “We know there are strains on the system when everybody is going to get tested and this could be a way to relieve some of that strain,” explains Oswald.

Although Gilbride and Oswald are currently focused on tackling Covid-19, they say that sewershed surveillance — monitoring wastewater in neighbourhood-level sewer networks — could be adapted to monitor many other substances, like drugs and bacteria. The researchers believe that with enough funding it could be possible to develop a coordinated provincial or even national network for the technique.

“We’re building up the expertise and the infrastructure to contribute to a broader scale sewage surveillance network, whether that’s provincial or national,” says Oswald.

With other researchers in Ontario now working on their own sewage surveillance, labs in different locations are able to share results and corroborate protocols. These efforts are being aided through support from the Canadian Water Network. Gilbride says working with people with varied expertise, both within Ryerson and elsewhere, has been a crucial component of their success so far.

“It’s a real collaboration because we’re all doing it to get this pandemic under control and hopefully leave society with a tool that can be used in the future for many other things,” says Gilbride.

Urban Health & Wellbeing

How to maintain social connection in long-term care facilities during pandemics

Urban Health & Wellbeing

How to maintain social connection in long-term care facilities during pandemics

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on Canadians from all age groups with more than 100,000 confirmed cases of the virus. In long-term care homes across Ontario and the country, staff have faced the tension of balancing residents’ safety from the disease with their ability to maintain social connections with family and friends.

Just a few months into the pandemic, a large portion of Canada’s COVID-19-related deaths — over 80 per cent — were among residents of nursing or retirement homes. During Ontario’s early response in March, the Chief Medical Officer of Health recommended that only essential visitors be allowed into long-term care facilities and issued directives prohibiting residents from leaving to visit family and friends. Family visits in long-term care homes were allowed to restart in late June, but included rules such as outdoor visits and physical distancing. 

The importance of relational care

Relational care is the care that addresses the importance of human connectedness for overall well-being. In the case of residents living in long-term care homes, family and friends can also offer insights about the life, health and well-being, and care preferences of the older person to health-care providers. Because of the global health crisis that has been created by the Covid-19 pandemic, providing relational care has been a challenge.

Two Ryerson researchers from the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing have teamed up to examine these challenges and to find out how health-care providers have overcome them. Sepali Guruge and Lori Schindel Martin, along with a team of researchers and partners, will identify innovative strategies that can be deployed to create opportunities to maintain relational care as the Covid-19 global health crisis continues and in the event of future outbreaks. 

Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing building
Ryerson’s Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex opened in the fall of 2019

“It’s the background story of the older person that’s absolutely critical,” says Schindel Martin, adding that family members help to provide that background story for the older person living in long-term care. Relatives have often developed skills in caring for their loved one, which has frequently gone untapped during the pandemic as access to one other was limited. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, the researchers say, the impact of good relational care and how it is provided was misunderstood. 

It’s sometimes perceived that relational care is a happy accident instead of a result of the complex standards and competencies that are part of the skill sets of health-care providers such as gerontological nurses. “The public may not be aware of the skills and research-informed best practice knowledge that these wonderful interpersonal strategies are based upon,” says Schindel Martin.

of Covid-19 deaths were among residents of nursing or retirement homes

Social connections aren’t just nice to have for residents living in long-term care homes. They are critical to their well-being. “We can’t ignore the powerful impact that social isolation has on people in general, and older persons in particular. Social isolation can result in a range of short and long-term physical and mental health problems that can lead to early death,” says Guruge.

There can be difficulties in providing relational care during the pandemic. Many residents of long-term care homes may have cognitive impairments that affect their ability to initiate social engagement, which means staff, friends and family need to initiate or facilitate these engagements. Staff working in long-term care homes have had to try and balance allowing residents to socialize with each other and their family members and friends while keeping residents safe from those who may be infected and asymptomatic, a process Schindel Martin says can be complex. 

There’s also the potential confusion stemming from a visitor’s need to wear personal protective equipment, something Guruge says can make residents wonder if they’re having a bad dream when they cannot recognize their loved ones or their voices. This study will help to identify strategies, for example methods families have successfully used to make themselves known and understood by their loved ones when PPE makes them unrecognizable.

The pair says many health-care providers and family members are still striving to create meaningful moments of connection for long-term care home residents. “What we’re trying to understand is how we can do more of that,” says Guruge. She and Schindel Martin aim to capture the approaches that have brought such moments about, as well as highlight areas for improvement. 

someone having a video call on a tablet with an older Black couple
Health-care providers and family members are striving to create meaningful moments of connection for long-term care home residents

Creating guidelines for future pandemics and outbreaks 

As part of their research, Guruge and Schindel Martin will interview health-care providers and family members of older persons in care. Their findings could influence future policy directions as well as provide strategies for health-care providers to maintain relational care. Additionally, they seek to develop resources for health-care providers to help safeguard their own mental health and well-being during the pandemic. These resources may assist in future retention of health-care providers in long-term care homes or in other settings that focus on the care and well-being of older persons. 

We can’t ignore the powerful impact that social isolation has on people in general, and older persons in particular. Social isolation can result in a range of short and long-term physical and mental health problems that can lead to early death.
Sepali Guruge, Professor and Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing Research Chair in Urban Health

The strategies will aim to go beyond the individual health-care practitioner and family level to create best practice guidelines that could influence how facilities and even cities and neighbourhoods consider relational care and help to avoid some of the challenges that took place in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as visits being cancelled or some residents being restrained. 

Their findings will be applicable both during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as during future disease outbreaks, whether it’s another pandemic or the annual influenza season that can lead to closed doors. “Every fall, there are long-term care homes where there is an outbreak because of the flu,” says Schindel Martin. 

The work they are undertaking will examine the creative strategies used to deliver relational care during this global health crisis to help ensure that during the ongoing pandemic and in future disease outbreaks the residents of long-term care homes can continue to have the social connections that are crucial to their health and well-being. 

Urban Design & Infrastructure

The cities of the future won’t just be greener, they’ll be more resilient too

Urban Design & Infrastructure

The cities of the future won’t just be greener, they’ll be more resilient too

The world is an increasingly urban place. More than half of the world’s population already calls urban areas home, with more than two-thirds expected to do so by 2050.

At the same time, the planet continues to face the challenges posed by climate change. Without change, global biodiversity will continue to decline. In the near future, many of our children may grow up more familiar with the landscapes of the city than those of nature.

Humans need nature to survive — and to thrive. Ryerson is at the forefront of applied research that helps to address how urban environments can incorporate and include nature.

Green infrastructure from the ground up

Building a greener city is much more than planting trees. The design choices we make can touch every facet of daily urban life, from turning on the tap to the air we breathe walking down the street. Through planning and design, engineered, purpose-built infrastructure that integrates well with the living world can help cities to become places that are more resilient and sustainable.

Imagine cities developed with nature in place, where “green and blue” infrastructure — which incorporates living things and water — is as essential to the cityscape as the “grey infrastructure” of buildings, sewers and roads. Parks, urban gardens, meadows filled with pollinator-friendly plants, living walls, green rooftops and bridges not only connect humans and animals to those spaces; they also are important infrastructural investments.

Ecologist and urban planner Nina-Marie Lister can envision urban spaces of the future where green infrastructure is a standard part of city building in every community worldwide. Her work, and that of her Ecological Design Lab at Ryerson, connects people to and reminds them of the sustaining power of nature. “Our work helps people see nature for its benefits and services to people, and also for its inherent value,” she says.

a woman standing in the forest and looking up
Nina-Marie Lister, Associate Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning. Photo credit: Jonny C.Y. Lam

The green infrastructure she helps to design offers more than just the chance to experience nature’s beauty in the city — though that’s important too. As Lister notes, connections to nature are now known to be vital to human physical and mental health, as well as to our emotional and cultural well-being. In addition to providing green places to recreate, exercise and relax, integrating the natural world into the urban landscape provides important benefits to humans, as well as to wildlife, including cooling, shading, pollination, carbon capture and storage, oxygen production, water quality and infiltration, urban flood management, and food production through urban farming, foraging and seed collection.

Number of wildlife crossings (38 underpasses and 6 overpasses) in Banff National Park

Purpose-built green infrastructure has applications outside city limits as well. One of the best-known research projects that Lister has collaborated on are wildlife crossings designed to move animals across roadways safely via bridges and tunnels, which can effectively be used for urban roads and rural highways. The crossings can help to prevent animal and vehicle collisions and the ensuing potential injuries and deaths for animals and humans, as well as the costly cleanup and damage.

Despite perceptions that wildlife collisions are only issues in places like the Rocky Mountains, Lister says the fastest growing areas for wildlife-involved crashes are in the outer ring of suburbs. “You have wildlife on roads and you have settlement creeping into habitat areas, and both drivers and wildlife are at risk,” she says.

The ARC (Animal Road Crossing) project started 10 years ago with the International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition and has evolved into a decade-spanning effort. There are more than 30 partners across Canada and the U.S., including Ryerson University, working to make wildlife crossings a standard practice in transportation design. Well-known examples include wildlife overpasses in the Rocky Mountains and the efforts to build a wildlife crossing over the 16-lane Pacific Coast Highway in California to help save the cougar population in Los Angeles’s Hollywood Hills.

a woman sitting in a tree
Nina-Marie Lister, Associate Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning. Photo credit: Jonny C.Y. Lam

“It’s slow going but the evidence is compelling,” says Lister. “When they’re placed in the right spot with fencing attached, we know they work more than 95 percent of the time.”

Location, habitat type and materials are key considerations when designing the crossings. The research shows the crossings are successful, says Lister. What’s harder is getting the funds, usually from governments, to invest in a type of infrastructure that can sometimes be perceived as a frill.

Cities are where we often make a real and lasting difference on the ground, where decisions about the land and how we live are made.
Nina-Marie Lister, director of the Ecological Design Lab at Ryerson

Collaborating across borders and industries to design a more natural city

Collaborations and partnerships play a key role in many of the projects Lister is involved in. When it comes to government partnerships, she seeks collaborations with cities, universities and institutions across the globe for her research. She says municipal governments can sometimes be more agile in responding to current issues, such as climate change.

“We find that joining a worldwide network of cities, especially for those of us in urban planning, is a really smart strategy,” says Lister. “Cities are where we often make a real and lasting difference on the ground, where decisions about the land and how we live are made.”

Toronto offers Lister a living laboratory, providing real-time research opportunities and community connections. “At Ryerson, we are in the heart of the downtown of Canada’s largest city, the economic engine of the country, and a diverse community of progressive urban leaders and place-makers,” she says.

Estimated effectiveness of wildlife road crossings when installed in strategic positions with proper fencing

While her own work is focused on landscape design, it’s part of the efforts to address pressing issues such as climate change and declining biodiversity, and to spur cooperation. “It’s urgent work that’s necessary, and we need a lot of us doing it,” says Lister. “We’re not in competition for work, we’re collaborating, many of us, to effectively keep clean air, clean water and places for people and wildlife that are healthy, resilient and sustainable.”

For some of her projects, interdisciplinary approaches have been woven together to reach innovative solutions, developing integrated designs that incorporate the expertise of engineers, landscape architects, architects, artists and ecologists.

Lister and her colleagues seek beneficial partnerships in ways that cross disciplines, borders and industries. Sometimes, unusual partnerships — such as working with insurance companies to reduce wildlife collisions — can be surprisingly fruitful, she says.