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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.

2017
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.

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Governance & Social Justice

The commitment to foster equity and accessibility will make marginalization a thing of the past

Governance & Social Justice

The commitment to foster equity and accessibility will make marginalization a thing of the past

Access to entertainment is something the majority of us take for granted. But for those with disabilities, including neurological and perceptual differences, unencumbered access to creative content is far from assured. When entertainment and other expressions of our culture and values are available to some but denied to others, we cannot be considered a truly just and equitable society.

At the same time, a persistent lack of diversity and inclusion in the research cultures and structures of Canadian higher education produces — and reinforces — inequity. If we’re to serve our population impartially now and in the future, as well as compete globally, we need to transform systems that limit the potential for excellence among those in specific groups.

Research and collaboration at Ryerson are contributing to a better understanding of the effects of marginalization in the contexts of culture and higher learning as part of a larger commitment to striving for a better future for us all.

Following the evidence to make media more accessible

Until Henry Vlug came along, a Deaf person had never graduated from a law school in Canada — or practised as a lawyer. After receiving his degree from the University of British Columbia in 1985, Vlug continued to confront barriers and challenge perceptions through a series of human rights complaints and legal cases. The requirement to caption all television programming in Canada today came about as a result of Vlug v. CBC (2000), in which the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that captioning only some broadcasts was discriminatory.

Deborah Fels
Deborah Fels, director of Ryerson’s Inclusive Media and Design Centre and a professor with the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management

“I owe much credit to the many Deaf and disabled people who, like Vlug, have fought to lay the groundwork for the work I am doing today in accessible media education, policy and practice,” says Deborah Fels, director of Ryerson’s Inclusive Media and Design Centre and a professor with the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management.

Indeed, the result of Vlug’s efforts is part of a course series, Inclusive Media: Real-time Closed Captioning and Audio Description/Described Video, that Fels developed for Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education.

100%
Percentage of Canadian television broadcasts that must be captioned following the seminal Vlug v. CBC case in 2000

“Our approach to media access — an important strand of our research program — is unlike other approaches in that we work with people with perceptual disabilities to try and better understand enjoyment factors in current assistive strategies, such as audio description and captioning,” Fels explains. “Not only are we working with users to study entertainment factors in media experiences, but we are also deeply engaged with other stakeholders, which has enabled our research to have greater reach.”

Looking ahead, Fels’ hope is that media industries in Canada and elsewhere, along with federal regulators and tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft and major streaming services such as Netflix, will become more invested in providing evidence-based recommendations for standards. And, she envisions advances that follow inclusive design frameworks in which Deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind and low-vision users are involved at all levels within production, legal and distribution positions.

Our approach to media access — an important strand of our research program — is unlike other approaches in that we work with people with perceptual disabilities to try and better understand enjoyment factors in current assistive strategies, such as audio description and captioning.
Deborah Fels, director of Ryerson’s Inclusive Media and Design Centre

In the meantime, according to Fels, Ryerson provides an ideal setting and environment for important work that still needs to be done.

“The support of the university has been critical to the work I’ve been doing in my lab,” says Fels. “What we’ve achieved already would not have been possible without Ryerson’s commitment to access, innovation and scholarly research.”

Fostering change within higher learning

Slightly more than one-third of academic faculty and researchers in Canada’s post-secondary education sector identify as members of at least two diversity groups from a list that takes into account such characteristics as gender, visible minority status, Indigenous identity, self-reported disability, sexual orientation and use of official languages or others.

That’s according to a recent survey conducted by Statistics Canada. Its purpose was to fill important data gaps related to equity, diversity and inclusion in the Canadian academic community — and to better understand how certain diversity characteristics “may influence career experiences and affect career advancement of the survey respondents.”

Portion of academic faculty and researchers in Canada’s post-secondary education sector who identify as members of at least two diversity groups

Action to address similar concerns within the ecosystem of higher learning is fundamental to Dimensions: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Canada, a federal government initiative in collaboration with Universities Canada as well as Colleges and Institutes Canada that was announced in May 2019.

Ryerson moved quickly to officially endorse the Dimensions charter and is participating in the program’s two-year pilot project, which is intended “to foster transformational change within the research community at Canadian post-secondary institutions by identifying and eliminating obstacles and inequities.”

“The Dimensions pilot will affect the Ryerson community by bringing responsibility and advocacy for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in research right into every department, school and faculty,” says Art Blake, a history professor who was appointed as the pilot’s director last February.

“We are fortunate to have a commitment to EDI embedded in our leadership and educational structures through the Office of the Vice President, Equity and Community Inclusion; however, we cannot make lasting, structural change and improvement unless everyone, at all levels, engages in the work,” Blake explains.

researchers of diverse ethnic backgrounds smiling in a lab
Ryerson supports new federal charter to increase research diversity

In Blake’s view, the work ahead includes a broad but necessary re-thinking of established research cultures and practices.

“It is clear, from the design of research spaces that do not fit a variety of people to how opportunities are distributed formally and informally, that our systems are not always equitable or inclusive,” he adds. “By participating in this pilot and making our learning from the Dimensions program sustainable, we can develop innovative EDI practices that every research leader can put in place and from which every researcher — from undergrads to faculty members — can benefit.”

The endeavour is worthwhile for another reason. While seeking to reduce barriers for others, the university has an obligation to do all it can to ensure its own house is in order.

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Governance & Social Justice

The next generation of lawyers will use technology to increase access to justice

Governance & Social Justice

The next generation of lawyers will use technology to increase access to justice

Starting a new law school in the best of circumstances is a major undertaking. Opening the doors to one during a pandemic shows not only a determination to prepare future lawyers for a rapidly evolving legal landscape — as well as whatever new “normal” emerges from our current reality — but also a deep commitment to advancing social justice and democracy.

Ryerson’s Faculty of Law — Toronto’s first new law school in over a century — is the culmination of years of planning, legal consultation and approvals, but it started as a belief that the university’s innovative approach to learning should be applied to the study of law.

The school’s purpose is to train career-ready legal professionals who possess the diversity of skills required to expand the reach of justice for all Canadians, and to create a new cohort of lawyers who are innovative, nimble and well-equipped to meet evolving social challenges and shifts taking place in the Canadian legal market.

Meeting the needs of consumers and society at large

The legal industry — and with it legal education — is experiencing a transformation that is driven in large measure by the application of technology to legal work in ways previously unimagined, according to the school’s inaugural dean, Donna E. Young.

“Driving the genesis of the school is the development of a fresh perspective that combines legal theory, skill and practice,” she explains. “Our three-year Juris Doctor program is characterized by a thoughtful, practice-based approach that responds to the present and future demands of multiple users of legal services. Creating this program is providing us with a unique opportunity to help shape legal education in Ontario.”

a group of students sitting around a table
Ryerson’s new Faculty of Law welcomed its first class of students in September 2020

Young’s appointment marks another step in her already distinguished career. Her most recent position was at Albany Law School, where she was the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy and a joint faculty member at the university’s Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Previously, she worked at Cornish Roland, a labour law firm in Toronto, as well as the Ontario Human Rights Commission and with the Legal Department of the City of New York. No stranger to Toronto or the Toronto legal community, Young is a first-generation Canadian raised in North York, the daughter of parents from Jamaica and Belize.

131
Number of years since the last new law school opened in Toronto

Working alongside Young is an impressive team of scholars with a broad range of interests and expertise who will help bring Ryerson’s Integrated Practice Curriculum to life.

“The faculty’s guiding principle is to train adaptive and flexible lawyers who can better meet the needs of consumers, communities and society at large,” says Young. “That translates into a dual focus on cutting-edge applications of technology in the legal sphere and issues related to equity and diversity. At the same time, our curriculum enables students to gain essential practical experience before they graduate.”

A track record of innovation

The faculty’s guiding principle is to train adaptive and flexible lawyers who can better meet the needs of consumers, communities and society at large. That translates into a dual focus on cutting-edge applications of technology in the legal sphere and issues related to equity and diversity.
Donna E. Young, Founding Dean, Ryerson’s Faculty of Law

According to Young, the emphasis on the growing role of technology in the legal sphere is especially relevant and a strong differentiator for the school. Students will get exposure to applications of artificial intelligence and quantitative legal prediction, technology-assisted review and predictive coding developments in eDiscovery, and a basic understanding of emerging transformative regulatory technologies, for example.

“There will always be a need for traditional lawyers,” Young concedes. “However, there is — and will continue to be — a growing demand for differently trained lawyers who are ready to become ‘legal knowledge engineers or consultants,’ ‘legal technologists,’ ‘legal process analysts,’ or ‘privacy, e-commerce and cyber security experts.’ Our goal is to produce this new generation of lawyers by infusing innovation in everything we do.”

She also notes that Ryerson has a proven track record in introducing novel approaches to the legal field, thanks to the success of its Law Practice Program — an eight-month engagement combining online training and experiential learning with a hands-on work term, as an alternative to articling — and the Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ), a global hub focused on building better solutions for the consumers of legal services.

a woman sitting in a coworking space
The Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ) is a co-working space and the world’s first legal tech incubator

“The faculty is making use of its strong linkages to the legal profession, as well as leveraging the experience we have gained — in large part through the LIZ — to extend Ryerson’s distinctive strengths in promoting entrepreneurial innovation in the legal sector,” says Young. “At the same time, we’re building on our record in furthering the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion throughout the university as a whole, as the faculty builds expertise in expanding access to justice.”

In a year of turmoil caused by Covid-19, Ryerson Law remains optimistic and is holding to its vision of offering students a leading-edge, future-focused legal education.

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Governance & Social Justice

Self-determination and governance are key to ensuring that Indigenous rights — and lives — are finally respected

Governance & Social Justice

Self-determination and governance are key to ensuring that Indigenous rights — and lives — are finally respected

The two-volume final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that was released in June 2019 found, as a matter of fact and law, that Canada is guilty of both historic and ongoing genocide.

The National Inquiry found that “Canada’s colonial history provides ample evidence of the existence of a genocidal policy, a manifest pattern of similar conduct which reflects an intention to destroy Indigenous peoples.” 

These colonial underpinnings, the report contends, is directly tied to current practices of violence against Inuit, Métis, and First Nations women, girls, and Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGBTQQIA) people.

“This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures, evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties scoop, residential schools and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence death and suicide in Indigenous populations,” the report concludes as part of its call for immediate action. 

The scale of the crisis is staggering. “Thousands of Indigenous women and girls are abused, exploited, disappeared and murdered in Canada every year,” explains Pamela Palmater, a professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson, which is supported by the university as part of its commitment to Indigenous education, diversity and social justice. 

2,380
Number of family members, survivors of violence, experts and Knowledge Keepers who participated in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

“My work combines academic research and publishing with public education and advocacy to help empower Indigenous Nations, Canadians and our international allies to push all levels of government to ensure that the human rights of all people in this country are protected.”

Exposing injustices on ‘Turtle Island’

Palmater, a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, has been engaged in Indigenous issues for most of her life. She has been a practising lawyer for over two decades and, as an author, activist and expert in her field, she frequently hosts or appears as a guest or panelist on radio, television, podcasts and social media to illuminate and discuss matters relating to Indigenous governance and empowerment. 

Pamela Palmater on stage at a podium
Pamela Palmater, Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson

In addition to teaching and public outreach, Palmater’s expertise is often called upon for expert interventions at parliamentary and senate committees, international human rights treaty bodies and especially within First Nation governments and grassroots Indigenous organizations “to expose injustices, resist ongoing genocidal policies and encourage resurgence through Indigenous identities, cultures, languages, traditions, economies, laws and governing practices,” as she describes her efforts.

“My focus is mostly on Turtle Island — what others know as Canada and the United States. First Nations and Native American governments are historically connected through kinship, trade, military alliances and treaties, but, our Indigenous struggle is also similar to what is experienced in other colonial countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Samoa, for example.”

Ryerson has been willing to support Indigenous faculty engaged in social justice work that challenges the status quo, even when it causes controversy or debate. The university is on the leading edge of real reconciliation, and its support of my research is a sign of more good that can follow.
Pamela Palmater, Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson

The path to a better future

Education has a crucial role to play in ending what the National Inquiry’s final report described as “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses” that are the root cause of disproportionately high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls and 2SLGBTQQIA in Canada.

In fact, specific actions for educators were included in the report’s 231 individual Calls for Justice.

Those calls reflect work that Palmater is already doing at Ryerson. Her efforts to promote greater public awareness and intentional learning among Canadians about historical and continuing injustices that result in violence against Indigenous people, and her advocacy for creating education opportunities for Indigenous people by Indigenous people — not just to recognize conditions that can lead to violence, but also around understanding and respecting traditional forms of governance as a path toward greater agency in their lives — are important steps toward a better and more equitable future.

“Ryerson has always had an open mind about how to combine academic education with practical societal benefits,” she says. “It has also been willing to support Indigenous faculty engaged in social justice work that challenges the status quo, even when it causes controversy or debate. The university is on the leading edge of real reconciliation, and its support of my research is a sign of more good that can follow.”

Palmater adds that Canadians are also important strategic partners in what needs to happen. 

“Canadians have the numbers, the wealth, the political influence and access to tools that could be used in partnership to demand change from governments — in fact, to force change from governments. Canadians benefit from the historic and ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples and thus have a role to play in advocating and supporting Indigenous self-determination and a fair share of lands, resources and governing power.” 

In the end, she says, that is what we promised each other in our treaties: mutual respect, benefit and protection.