At McGill, issues surrounding sexuality, gender, and consent have come to the forefront of campus dialogue in recent years; however, the same awareness of racial equality and representation does not exist. Conversations about racial issues are so invisible that many students are not even aware that there is anything to talk about at all, despite the fact that, in my experience, racist comments are still present in day-to-day conversation.
Even though racial tensions in Canada have not yet reached the boiling point that they have in the U.S., it does not mean that they don’t exist. Every time another headline-making incident of racism is exposed, Canadians become briefly aware of localized issues—but once media coverage stops, so does the discussion. Rarely do single events translate into sustained dialogue about equity, diversity, representation, and racism as a whole. These are not singular events, but connected phenomena.
Although awareness-raising initiatives do exist at McGill and are important catalysts for change, what is really needed is change in the education structure in order to increase awareness and understanding throughout the entire student body. The lack of representation among faculty and within education curricula must be made visible so that the conversation about race can extend across campus.
Efforts are being made by administrative and student groups to raise awareness about racial issues on campus and in Canada. One of these is Rez Project, which is launching a mandatory workshop, Race and Colonialism, for students living in residence. Initiatives such as these are great in theory and important for bringing such topics onto McGill students’ radars, but are not solutions by themselves, and they do not reach the entire student body. Inevitably, some students don’t notice or see them as warranting attention. Furthermore, racial issues can be extremely individual and may require more discussion and context than Rez Project can provide. Although it is a good start, simply expanding these initiatives wouldn’t have the desired effects without simultaneous change in McGill’s actual education structure.
Weaving the conversation into classroom discussions is crucial to increasing awareness and understanding because it is the only way to ensure that visibility is achieved amongst the entire student body. For example, Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg have started requiring students to take an indigenous studies course before graduating.
Another part of restructuring education involves better representation among faculty. This might also lead to a greater range of courses being taught, based on works from varying cultural perspectives that are often left out of curriculums. Compared to other Canadian universities, McGill falls short in terms of minority representation at the faculty level, with only one full-time indigenous faculty member relative to other Canadian universities. University of British Columbia employs 33 indigenous professors across faculties, and the University of Manitoba employs 22. Currently, there are no black professors in the department of history, even for classes of African history, and only one black political science professor. McGill is committed in its mission statement to “offering the best possible education” to its students; but to fulfill this, it needs to expose them to a diverse range of perspectives.
If this diversity is not visible to students, it is difficult to have thorough conversations about race, diversity and ethnocentrism. Indeed, universities are the most important places to have these conversations because racial issues, both past and present, are relevant to a wide range of disciplines and influence the way students learn, form opinions, and go on to use their knowledge in society after graduating. Visibility of such issues requires the continuation of initiatives to promote equity and fight discrimination by students, as well as a change in administrative practices. McGill must work towards greater equality through better representation of minorities among faculty and course subjects, as well as the creation of mandatory courses on minority issues. Mandating a class on indigenous studies is no less justifiable than requiring engineers to tak an arts elective (which is the current policy for McGill engineering undergraduates). Many McGill professors and students are aware of these issues, but anyone can look at the demographic of McGill’s faculty and see that it is disproportionately skewed. Greater diversity is necessary to foster greater dialogue, which is central to everything education is about.