UVic faculty participate in Scholar Strike Canada, call on university to do more against racism

Campus News
graphic of scholar strike canada, with three computers and protest sign

You wouldn’t know this by looking at the UVic website — but over 40 professors, lecturers, and administrative staff from at least eight different departments at the university participated in an academic strike in the first two days of the fall semester. Instead of teaching their regular courses, some of these academics organized teach-ins on police brutality and violence in Canada and paused administrative duties for the duration of Sept. 9 and 10.

Scholar Strike Canada, a labour action, teach-in, and social justice advocacy event, was inspired by the Scholar Strike movement in the U.S.. In addition to calling for racial justice and an end to anti-Black violence, the Canadian movement adds a specific focus on anti-Indigenous and colonial violence.

“Working against racism, working against colonialism are ongoing processes,” says Audrey Yap, a philosophy professor at UVic who has written and organized extensively to fight systemic racism in academia.

UVic has been publicly silent on the strike — and so for most of the school, life went on as usual. Other universities in B.C. have issued public statements, including UBC, Simon Fraser, and Vancouver Island University. While faculty-wide emails from the provost and the Faculty Association signalled general support for the movement, instructors engaging in the strike mostly participated out of strong personal conviction. Professors also indicated that the lack of coordinated organizing, coupled with the uncertainty of possible consequences for striking effected the overall participation of the movement.

At least 40 professors across 8 departments participated in Scholar Strike Canada

At UVic, faculty and administrators from at least eight different departments from the faculties of Education, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Fine Arts participated in the Scholar Strike.

While less than 15 academics from the school have signed the open letter published by Scholar Strike, the Martlet was able to independently confirm that at least 40 professors and lecturers participated in the strike in some form.

Most instructors contacted by the Martlet opted to incorporate the Scholar Strike movement and its calls to action into their classes. Others made class optional, delayed the delivery of online material, or cancelled classes entirely.

“It has to start somewhere,” said Moustapha Fall, an Assistant Teaching Professor in UVic’s Department of French.

The Senegalese-Canadian academic is no stranger to the anti-Black racism that exists in academia.

“They don’t tell you. They do it in different ways: in the curriculum, the way they give you stuff [to do],” said Fall. “You have to actually do more than [what] other people are doing … it’s very draining.”

Instead of cancelling entirely, Environmental Studies Associate Professor James Rowe chose to hold his 200-person class and include the resources created by Scholar Strike Canada.

“My guess would be that students would take the cancelled class as an extended vacation more than an opportunity to dig into the resources,” said Rowe.

Rowe, who sees racial justice as inextricably linked to the ongoing campaign calling for UVic to divest from fossil fuels, circulated the Scholar Strike calls to action amongst an email list of 300 faculty who support divestment.

“The only thing probably less effective than doing something like a Scholar Strike would be to do nothing at all,” said Stephen Ross, a graduate adviser and professor in the Department of English who participated in a partial strike. “It’s literally the least we could do to signal some kind of support and solidarity and attempt to be an ally with students, as well as our faculty and colleagues.”

For contract instructors, graduate students, and others in more precarious employment conditions, the decision to strike has higher stakes.

“These constraints weigh particularly heavy on those of us who operate outside of collective agreements,” said sessional instructor Kelly Aguirre, who chose not to strike but instead incorporated the call into her Indigenous politics course. None of the sessional or contract instructors that the Martlet interviewed for this piece did a full strike.

This sentiment was echoed by Yap, who expressed that she is in a “privileged position” as a tenured professor.

“I can totally imagine my colleagues not feeling in a position to participate,” said Yap, who is a tenured professor in the philosophy department. “There’s lots of people who are much more precariously employed than I am.”

Behind the scenes

On Sept. 8th, the day before the start of classes, Vice-President Academic and Provost Valerie Kuehne wrote an email to instructors at UVic signalling general support for the intent behind Scholar Strike Canada and recognizing the possibility of faculty choosing to “adjust planned activities.”

Marks sent an email to faculty shortly after that to let faculty know that they had the Association’s support, and to feel comfortable in rescheduling planned classes after discussing with their department.

Marks has advocated for equity both before and during her presidency at the Faculty Association, which has been calling for specific initiatives for the university to implement on campus since June.

The instructors that the Martlet reached out to for this story were largely unaware of the scope of the strike at UVic, or what other instructors outside their departments were doing in response to Scholar Strike Canada.

“When there’s silence around this it creates isolation and uncertainty,” said waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy. “I wish there was more discussion about that — faculty talking to each other about what we’re doing.”

Marks said that she was not informed about what the administration was planning to do in regards to Scholar Strike before the faculty-wide email sent by Kuehne on Sept. 8. “I didn’t know whether there would be or wouldn’t [be consequences],” said Marks.

“The information came so late,” said Sy, who said that the communication from UVic was a lot to work through in the midst of getting ready for a new semester. Sy says that a lot of these unknowns may have been solved with an open Zoom conversation facilitated by the Faculty Association.

In a June statement titled “Standing against racism and intolerance,” UVic President Jamie Cassels said he recognizes and acknowledges “the anger, distress and fear shared by members of the University of Victoria community” over rising racial tensions. Cassels also said that UVic is “deeply committed” to being an inclusive, supportive and welcoming community and “stands in solidarity” against racism, intolerance and violence.

UVic is now offering new anti-racism training programs through the Office of Equity and Human Rights (EQHR).

“We’d written [to President Jamie Cassels] hoping that the administration would do more and commit more — and that was something that was missing from that response,” said Yap. “When you compare [Cassels’s statement] to things that went out from other institutions it just really felt that there was a big difference.”

Yap previously helped write a letter cosigned by 300 other campus members, asking the university to take more concrete anti-racist actions. She says that the university should do more instead of just encouraging individual faculty to take part in anti-racist actions.

Changes, and changes to come

Faculty wonder if a fresh face at the top will mean changes.

Sy, who co-chairs the minority and Indigenous women instructors network at UVic with Yap, hopes that the university will begin collecting data on the diversity of the university. “UVic gets a lot of awards for diversity but when I look at those awards, I don’t know what that means,” said Sy.

The Martlet has previously reported on the difficulty of finding out the exact level of BIPOC representation at UVic. UVic collects no data on BIPOC representation at the higher levels of administration, such as the UVic Board of Governors or the Senate.

According to UVic, Kevin Hall, the university’s incoming president, is committed to truth, respect, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and has demonstrated a strong commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout his career. Hall will take over from President Cassels in November.

Fall hopes that more can be achieved with the incoming president.

“This is like a wave that comes — that we can’t stop with our hands anymore. It’s on our shores. The question is: what do we do about it?”

Overlapping initiatives from many departments and individuals continue to move the university in directions that signal a willingness to confront racial disparity on campus, but change is slow.

“There’s various kinds of structural changes that we’ve asked for from the administration,” said Yap. The Faculty Association has asked for the creation of a university-wide equity committee, the elimination of police street checks and carding on campus, and cluster hiring of Black faculty once “there has been a documented improvement” in the climate for BIPOC faculty on campus. So far, Yap says these structural changes have largely not materialized.

No public statement from UVic on Scholar Strike Canada

Unlike UVic, other universities in the province responded with public support for Scholar Strike Canada. This often took the form of releasing official statements informing staff, faculty, and students about the strike and stating general support.

At UBC, at least 10 different departments, research clusters, and unions have issued public statements of support for or participation in the strike.

Joy Johnson, president of Simon Fraser University, issued a statement condemning anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and respecting “the right of the right of faculty, staff and students to engage in political activity.”

Vancouver Island University (VIU) Provost and Vice-President Academic Carol Stuart issued a statement saying that VIU condemns racism and that those who wish to participate in the action are welcome to do so.

Denise Helm, the director of Marketing and Communications at UVic, said that the provost decided to contact faculty directly.

“Given the importance of the subject and the speed at which events were coming together at the national level, the provost chose to write directly to all faculty and staff to emphasize that advancing equity, diversity and inclusion, and respect and reconciliation are at the core of our work at UVic … and to ensure that all faculty and staff knew that the university was encouraging them to make it possible for their staff and students who chose to participate in the Scholar Strike.”

With files from Dorothy Poon.