Content Warning: mentions of racism and police brutality

The start of 2020 was not only marked by the global COVID-19 pandemic, but by the Stop Asian Hate and Black Lives Matter campaigns that swarmed the streets of Canada and the United States. After George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota, the Black Lives Matter Movement led uprisings that gave way to global social protests calling attention to systemic and institutional racism towards equity deserving groups. 

In response to ongoing racism and persistent demands for social change, colleges and universities in the United States and Canada were being called to account for the racial inequities that existed both inside and outside campuses. And so, former UBC President, Santa Ono, established UBC’s Anti-Racism and Inclusion Excellence Task Force (ARIE TF) in March 2021.

Dr. Handel Kashope Wright, one of the Co-Chairs for the Task Force, noted that it was formed as a direct result of the George Floyd’s murder and police brutality. Adding to the sense of urgency for this anti-racist work, two months into the establishment of the Task Force, 215 unmarked graves at the previous Kamloops Indian Residential School were found. 

Dr. Donna Kurtz, Chair of the Task Force’s Indigenous Committee, explains:

“We had to pause to honour the 215 missing and found children around residential schools. As a result, the importance of the Task Force work became more meaningful for the Indigenous Committee.”

The Task Force’s implementation was driven in part by incidents on campus, as explained by Dr. Wright:

“Rising racism in Canada included incidents of blatant police discrimination at UBC. A Black male graduate student was stopped, questioned, and denied entry into his department building by UBC campus police who refused to believe a Black man with dreadlocks could possibly be a UBC student.”

Dr. Wright went on to add:

“In the course of what was supposed to be a wellness check by Kelowna RCMP, a female Chinese student was handcuffed and dragged through the hallway of her dormitory at UBCO, part of that by her hair. And her head was stomped on by the officer.”

But not every incident is as overt as these examples. Dr. Wright explained that:

“Racism at institutions of higher learning are much more likely to be very subtle. Institutional racism usually manifests more in the effect than the acts. It takes the form of Black students who never get to be taught by a Black professor; racialized staff members who somehow get passed over for promotion; job searches that somehow fail to yield any viable Indigenous candidate; a leadership that happens to be overwhelmingly white; or a departmental or even institutional atmosphere and culture that makes Indigenous and racialized folks feel they simply do not belong.”

Dr. Wright provided more examples of institutional racism: how professors and students can be dismissed when they speak English with a non-Canadian accent; the way ability comes into play in the classroom; being Muslim at UBC and how accommodations are made (or not made) for one to pray five times a day; when acts of racism are dismissed on campus, and so on. He continued:

“It can be quite insidious because it is usually subtle. Students take methodology courses that have not even considered including Indigenous methodology, or philosophy courses that do not include African gnosis, and design courses that simply do not include non-Western ways of knowing. To give a concrete example, UBC has a Catch-22 about Blackness — we don't have Black studies supposedly because we do not have a lot of Black students (as if only Black students are interested in Black Studies), and we don't attract enough Black students in part because we don't have Black studies.”

The Task Force’s objective became clear: UBC needed to come to terms with and address historical and ongoing systemic racism. In order to do so, the Task Force created six individual committees, each representing equity deserving groups: The Indigenous Committee, The Blackness Committee, The People of Colour (POC) Committee, The Faculty Committee, The Staff Committee, and The Students Committee. According to Dr. Dana Solomon, who was a member of the Task Force, “each committee was tasked with creating recommendations to address the systematic racism and discrimination on UBC campuses through an integrative anti-racism framework.”

A UBC Broadcast email called for nominations. Students, staff members, and faculty were all encouraged to nominate themselves to work on this ambitious yet necessary project. And so, each committee came up with their own recommendations (54 in total) that would then be given to the UBC administration so they could implement them. The ARIE TF final report was completed in January 2022.

According to the people who were involved, those in power at UBC were enthusiastic about the report’s recommendations, and were committed to using them to make UBC “more closely an institution characterized by equity and inclusive excellence.” When asked about the response President Santa Ono had to the recommendations, Dr Wright responded, “The Task Force report and its recommendations were very well received by the President on behalf of UBC. It was very significant that he readily accepted all 54 recommendations in principle. It takes a combination of bravery and humility to initiate something like the Task Force on Anti-racism and Inclusive Excellence and accept all its recommendations, and these are the qualities President Ono epitomized.” 

The work to carry out the Task Force recommendations has been passed on to an implementation team within the Equity and Inclusion Office, led by UBC’s new Associate Vice President of Equity and Inclusion (AVPEI), Dr. Arig al Shaibah. Working closely with the AVPEI is Dr. Jannik Haruo Eikanaar, an Associate Provost who has been appointed to “champion efforts at the Okanagan campus.” 

However, as we know, Santa Ono is no longer UBC’s president, which puts the Task Force in a potentially precarious position. Regarding whether or not Interim President Dr. Deborah Buszard is involved in the implementation process, we received the following statement from Dr. al Shaibah: “The Interim President is deeply committed to this work, and their Office and Executive are fully apprised and poised to support the work ahead.” That being said, considering how new Dr. Buszard is to the position and her many onboarding responsibilities, it is unclear how soon she will be able to turn her focus to this implementation work.

Dr. al Shaibah explained that a Strategic Equity and Anti-Racism (StEAR) Framework has been established to guide the implementation of the ARIE TF recommendations over the next 3-5 years, along with action items in the Inclusion Action Plan, the Employment Equity Plan, and other Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity-related plans. By the end of November, she anticipates more details on how the timeline for implementation would look like, as well as ways to measure and report their progress. A website is being developed to act as a platform for reporting, and the implementation team is also exploring other ways to communicate their progress with the UBC community; for example, through periodical town halls.

When asked about whether or not all recommendations presented in the ARIE TF report will be implemented, Dr. al Shaibah responded:

“I can say that the majority of them will be implemented…I've communicated to the Chairs of the ARIE Task Force, Dr. Handel Wright and Dr. Shirley Chau, about this one recommendation that speaks to a separate office [from the Equity and Inclusion Office] to advance anti-racism. That's one where there's some continued conversation, and I think the spirit of that is the university needs to really have leadership on these plans that come from a strong anti-racist and anti-oppressive lens. And, it may be that historically, there hasn't been a perception that there has been a strong anti-racist lens. But with my new role, and the experience that I bring, and my deep commitment to anti-racism, I am renewing our office so that we're really positioned to be able to drive the recommendations that are coming out of the anti-racism report – in addition to all the other reports – and the Chairs are happy for that. So, the executive sponsors have delegated me and the Equity and Inclusion Office to actually move those recommendations forward. So, the way that the one recommendation was articulated may look different moving forward.” 

Dr. Al Shaibah continued:

“But having looked at most other recommendations, there aren't any others that I don't think can't be actioned in some form…Some of them are really detailed. There could be a need for consultation with particular people. For example, there's a comment on a particular program out of the Allard School of Law, another one that's specific to medicine. So, of course, we're going to have to consult with leaders in those areas, but the spirit of the recommendations are excellent, and they're lined with best practices.”

However, some people are skeptical about whether the university will carry out the recommendations or not. Here is what Dr. Solomon had to say about it: 

“The impression is that, you know, a lot of people at the university, particularly equity owed groups, don't trust in the university systems or their willingness to make the changes that are necessary. There is a long history of equity owed groups hearing all sorts of positive rhetoric, with no follow through and action. Our impression is that people are very worried that the same is going to be true for the ARIE TF, and so they view the report with, I think, a little bit of hope and a lot of skepticism.”

Last year’s SUO president and member of the Task Force on the Indigenous Committee, Tashia Kootenayoo, gave us her opinion about the time constraints present during the creation of the Task Force: 

“I think a barrier to its implementation was also the timeline in itself. I believe an institution in Ontario did a similar report [but] over a two year span of time. So two years, in my opinion, allows for a significant amount, or should allow for a significant amount of community engagement in the process. These came out of some listening sessions.”

Dr. Gabrielle Legault, an Indigenous Studies professor and faculty member of the Indigenous Committee, spoke about the listening sessions that happened within the Task Force’s timeline and the extensive community engagement that informed the recommendations of the Indigenous committee:

There were twenty two Listening and Witnessing sessions that Santa Ono did with equity-denied peoples across the two campuses, which included Indigenous staff, faculty, and students.”

She says community engagement was an intensive process and foundational to their work. Dr. Legault goes on to explain the work involved in her participation and that a longer timeline would have been too draining:

“It was the most emotional labour I’ve ever done at this institution. Everybody who is a part of the Task Force recognizes the emotional labour because we talked about things that we had experienced, our experiences with the institution… and you can’t just compartmentalize them.”

The Task Force was a massive undertaking for all involved. Tashia notes:

Some of us really wanted to push to make [the Task Force] what we thought it could be. And what turned out was beautiful. 

So what can we expect to happen now?

From our conversation with Dr. Arig al Shaibah and Dr. Jannik Eikanaar, it appears that there is a strong team behind implementing the recommendations of the report. Despite it being a challenging task, the prospects for all recommendations being implemented are promising. However, until the StEAR framework is fully developed, it is difficult for anyone to definitively say how effective the implementation process is going to be. Those in the UBC community are encouraged to pay attention to email communications regarding the progress of the StEAR framework and to provide feedback, if necessary.

Ultimately, everyone we spoke to agreed that the work of the Task Force was incredibly important. Regarding this, Dr. Dana Solomon said: 

“Sometimes we don't agree with everything the organization does, but UBC wouldn't have put the time and the money and the effort and the resources into something like this if it wasn't urgently necessary. I don't even want to begin to tell you how many hours and nights and days on top of our workloads this was, for many of us. And that's on top of student workloads and exams and everything else that you guys are doing, because we had amazing students working on the task force – just incredible students. And we don't do that for something that's unnecessary. All of us have better things to do with our time than to do something that's just frivolous. This was urgent. This was necessary.” 

Despite valid concerns about the Task Force’s implementation and its effectiveness, it acts as a foundation for ways UBC can move towards a more inclusive environment. Many people we talked to highlighted that the work the Task Force did was not the end of the fight towards inclusivity. There were separate Task forces – such as the Trans, Two-Spirit, and Gender Diversity Task Force – that worked on issues that were not the focus of the ARIE TF, and there are advocacy groups, such as the Disability Affinity Group, that are working off of the efforts by the ARIE TF. 

The members of the Task Force urged those unfamiliar with the report to read it, or at the minimum, read the executive summary, which provides a brief overview of all the recommendations that were presented. Only by understanding the work that was done, and holding the university accountable for implementing the recommendations, can we ensure that the time and energy that was spent does not go to waste. We must support the university efforts to move towards a more inclusive environment, and remain both encouraging and vigilant.

We would like to give a special thanks on behalf of The Phoenix News to Dr. Handel Kashope Wright, Dr. Dana Solomon, Tashia Kootenayoo, Dr. Gabrielle Legault, Dr. Donna Kurtz, Dr. Arig al Shaibah, and Dr. Jannik Haruo Eikenaar, for taking the time to speak with us at length to support the completion of this article. We also thank everyone on the ARIE TF who we did not have a chance to speak to but still provided us with valuable information.

*Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Access the document created by the Anti-Racism and Inclusion Excellence Task Force by clicking here.  

Read an overview of the StEAR Framework and get updates here