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Letter to the Ontario Human Rights Commission on York University’s Actions to Address Systemic Discrimination

Letter to the Ontario Human Rights Commission on York University’s Actions to Address Systemic Discrimination

Dear Chief Commissioner Chadha,

Thank you for your letters dated December 18, 2020, and April 14, 2021. We welcome the opportunity to share with you the many initiatives and actions we have taken and continue to take at York University to address concerns of racism, including anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism, as well as all forms of harassment and discrimination. 

I would like to provide an overview of some key initiatives that we have undertaken to, as you stated in your April 2021 letter, “foster learning environments that are welcoming, inclusive, and free of all forms of discrimination and harassment.” 

Establishment of the Office of the Vice-President Equity, People and Culture 

In the fall of 2019, I was pleased to welcome our first Vice-President Equity, People, and Culture, Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek. Dr. Cote-Meek brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to York, both in her academic research in decolonizing classrooms and her many years addressing equity and inclusion in post-secondary institutions. This new division brought our Labour Relations and Human Resources teams together with the Centre for Human Rights, Equity, and Inclusionwith the goal of fostering an environment where we all have a stronger sense of connection, inclusion, and wellbeing. 

Indigenous Framework

The Indigenous Framework for York University: A Guide to Action, endorsed in 2017 by the Indigenous Council at York and the Vice-President Academic and Provost, builds on the University’s distinct values, traditions, history, and vision. Specifically, the framework addresses the 2015–2020 University Academic Plan (UAP) and its call for a pan-University indigenous strategy. The actions required by the framework are guided by 10 principles, which are outlined below:

  1. Expand the role of the Indigenous Council
  2. Increase the number of Indigenous faculty
  3. Enhance the recruitment and academic success of Indigenous students
  4. Expand Indigenous programming and curricular offerings that explore Indigenous life, cultures, and traditions
  5. Facilitate research that is relevant to Indigenous life, and respects Indigenous approaches to knowledge and learning
  6. Engage with Indigenous communities to enrich the learning process
  7. Establish spaces for Indigenous cultures and community within the University
  8. Ensure that perceptions and experiences of Indigenous community members are reflected in the classroom, on campus, and in University life
  9. Develop and expand education opportunities for Indigenous communities
  10. Ensure the process for developing, implementing, and evaluating this framework involves Indigenous community members both within and outside the University.

The framework also echoes broader initiatives within the post-secondary educational system in Ontario and Canada, including the Principles on Indigenous Education developed by Universities Canada in 2015.

We have just announced our search for the inaugural Associate Vice-President for Indigenous Initiatives. The AVP Indigenous Initiatives will provide dynamic, visionary, and collaborative senior leadership that supports the growth of York University’s Indigenous portfolio, including providing leadership in supporting the Indigenous Council and the implementation of Indigenous strategic directions as embedded in the Indigenous Framework, the new University Academic Plan 2020–2025, the Strategic Research Plan (2018–2023) and the Decolonizing Research Administration Report (2019). The AVP Indigenous Initiatives will develop and nurture relationships across the university and the external community with the goals of Indigenization, Reconciliation, and Decolonization. The AVP Indigenous Initiatives will leverage the York University Indigenous Framework and lead a regular review of institutional progress.  

Addressing Anti-Black Racism: A Framework on Black Inclusion

Dr. Cote-Meek, Dr. Carl James, Dr. Andrea Davis, and I undertook a series of consultations with Black faculty, instructors, staff, alumni and students that culminated in the launch of the Addressing Anti-Black Racism: A Framework for Black Inclusion in February 2021. In drafting the framework, we held many listening sessions with over 200 Black community members at York University. This provided us with an opportunity to hear directly about concerns facing Black and racialized community members on York campuses, and informed the multipronged approach outlined in the framework. As a follow-up to the framework, we have been undertaking another series of consultations on an accompanying draft action plan to identify concrete steps to address anti-Black racism.  Some of those actions are already underway.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Strategy 

In the fall of 2020, I launched the President’s Advisory Council on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion under the leadership of Dr. Cote-Meek, with a broad representation of approximately 50 students, staff, and faculty members from across the university. The purpose of the council is to develop an EDI strategy for York University, and we anticipate that this will be presented in the Winter of 2021. In preparation for this council, Dr. Cote-Meek conducted two environmental scans to support the work of the council: one scan focused on the myriad of EDI initiatives underway at York University currently, and the other examined trends, challenges, and best practices of EDI in higher education institutions more broadly. The council has begun its consultations, and we will be launching a community survey in the Fall of 2021. The EDI strategy and the accompanying action plan will further support York’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. This work, alongside the Indigenous Framework and Addressing Anti-Black Racism: A Framework on Black Inclusion, will help guide actions on the continued cultivation of an inclusive and respectful university community. 

I would also like to note that many faculties, divisions, and units are also creating their own EDI committees and/or strategies. This approach will support our unique and diverse communities with the focus and impact that broader institutional strategies cannot necessarily provide. In support of this work, we will shortly be recruiting four additional advisors to the Centre for Human Rights, Equity, and Inclusion (REI) team to work directly with faculties and divisions in creating and implementing their EDI strategies.  

In addition, there are many affinity groups at York — including some that have been established for decades and others that are new and emerging — that hold their own unique goals and play an integral role in advancing inclusion at York.

Disaggregated Data Collection

Data-driven work is also a significant component emerging from the work in EDI. We currently have a self-identification process in place for all job applicants and employees, which includes attention to disaggregated data. We are in the process of enhancing our student self-identification census data to also support inclusive decision making. The student census, to be implemented in Fall 2021, will enable disaggregated data to inform program development that targets support where needed and helps to identify systemic barriers for students. 

Enhanced reporting on the representation of equity-identified groups is available to all hiring managers to assist with inclusive workforce planning. 

Enhancing Complaint Services 

At a service provision level, the REI has a broad mandate to address complaints of harassment and discrimination for York’s more than 60,000 faculty, instructors, staff, and students. The REI offers a robust human rights complaint service that responds to concerns and complaints, including questions of harassment and discrimination on the grounds of race, age, citizenship, creed, disability (including mental health and addictions), family status, marital status, gender identity/expression, sex, and sexual orientation using the provincial human rights legislation as a framework, as well as related York policies and procedures.  

In line with this service, REI provides informal and non-adversarial resolution approaches using a variety of alternate dispute resolution mechanisms. By working together with community members, REI empowers them to become proactive in the prevention and timely resolution of complex human rights issues. REI also provides one-on-one advice and consultative assistance to members of the community.

In some instances, matters cannot be resolved through informal processes and we must investigate complaints of harassment and discrimination. REI leads our investigations using either internal or external investigators, who use a trauma-informed approach and are trained in human rights law, and in particular in understanding the thresholds of harassment and discrimination set out in the Human Rights Code and in the case law. Our investigators are mindful of, and take care to address, issues of intersectionality.

REI also plays an important role in supporting the work of The Centre for Sexual Violence Response, Support & Education by investigating matters under the Sexual Violence Policy.

Human Rights Policy 

To enhance the scope and impact of its current complaint services and provide a robust framework for addressing human rights concerns in a clear and timely fashion, REI undertook the development of a new Human Rights Policy (HR Policy) where none previously existed. That is not to say that York had been without a process to address issues of harassment and discrimination until this point, but rather that the development of the new HR Policy was a response to the need for a comprehensive and robust review of York’s 1995 Policy on Racism. The need for a more robust human rights policy was also one of the recommendations made by the Honourable Thomas A. Cromwell C.C., who undertook an independent review following events at York in November 2019 as part of the President’s Initiative on Open and Respectful Dialogue (discussed in more detail below). We undertook broad community consultations in this process and are grateful for the guidance provided by the Commission relating to drafting human rights policies.  

In drafting the HR Policy, we were especially attuned to the concerns that individual complaint-based processes do not address the many power imbalances that exist in post-secondary settings. In response, we established a process for University-initiated complaints in certain circumstances. This scoped complaint process is particularly necessary when we identify systemic issues that are difficult to address through individual complaint processes. Being mindful of our responsibility to ensure that we uphold principles of natural justice for all involved has supported the establishment and continued development of robust individual- and University-initiated complaint processes.  

In the spirit of upholding principles of natural justice, access to these processes is a key concern. Throughout the HR Policy consultations, we heard that it can be difficult to navigate the complaints process, as there can be multiple points of entry when addressing a complaint. In response to these concerns and in support of access, we have strengthened our existing education and awareness resources and initiatives by creating a web-based decision tree that helps complainants understand paths forward thorough complaint processes.  

Institution-Wide Education 

The REI, in addition to offering online resources like its Inclusion Lens event-planning tool, supporting the #YUBelong communications campaign, and offering asynchronous onboarding education modules to faculty and staff, provides standardized and customized equity, diversity, and inclusion education sessions and skills-based workshops to staff, faculty, course instructors, and students across the university.  

The 2020–2021 academic year saw significant increases in demand for these live, participatory sessions, with over 130 workshops delivered to more than 5,500 participants. This is an increase of more than 100% over the previous year. Of those participants, over half returned for a subsequent session, indicating a widespread commitment to ongoing learning and growth. Specifically, close to 70% of those training sessions dealt directly with anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, topics that are thoroughly explored in a new Anti-Racism Workshop Series, which was launched in summer 2020 and is now offered three or four times a year.

Customized training sessions hosted by REI dealt directly with emerging social issues, such as the intersections of COVID-19 and racism; the importance of family accommodation in the context of a global health crisis with disproportionate impacts on women, caregivers, and other marginalized community members; and the manifestations of misogynoir both globally and on-campus. Furthermore, the REI’s education and communication team, in partnership with our human resource department, developed and delivered a four-part education series on the topics of racism, privilege, microaggressions and unconscious bias, and inclusive organizational change to the York University administration and deans. 

The REI’s yearly flagship education and engagement event, Inclusion Days, brought together approximately 450 attendees, two keynote addresses, and three skill-building workshops over the course of three days this year. Formal evaluation feedback of all these events and workshops were overwhelmingly positive, and REI has received a consistent stream of requests for more workshops and strategic consultations since then.

In tandem with this increased demand, the REI has also used cutting-edge pedagogical tools to ensure maximum impact and uptake. For example, the REI partnered with SimXSpace and the School of Nursing on the Humans Praxis project to roll out virtual and experiential learning opportunities to promote anti-racism. The REI also engages in ongoing research into best practices in all areas of its education and professional development offerings. 

The REI also regularly provides advice to York community members who have questions or concerns related to the impacts of their initiatives, actions, etc. For example, in consultation with the Teaching Commons, the REI supported the overview of several proposed courses, a highlight of which is an inclusive design session that shares approaches for integrating pedagogical principles of equity and inclusion within unique teaching contexts through a peer-based format and with an emphasis on Universal Design for Learning.  

Beyond the work of the REI, the Community Safety Department has committed to examining alternate models for the delivery of services, conscious of concerns regarding racial profiling and negative interactions with diverse communities. Campus security has partnered with the REI in developing and participating in customized training for all incoming and existing employees; this training is designed to build both skills and understanding of the mechanics of racial profiling and how to interrupt it.  

York has further reiterated its commitment to inclusion through the work of the President’s Initiative on Open and Respectful Dialogue. The first phase actions of this process are aimed at building trust, promoting safety, and supporting student voice and resilience. Emerging from the recommendations developed out of this dialogue, the Student Counselling, Leadership and Development department, along with the REI, developed and delivered training to support effective allyship within the York community, as well as training on respectful dialogue across difference, both of which build skills and empathy, and enhance understanding of what it means to live in a diverse society. These trainings are ongoing, with the next phase of the work rolling out over the coming months, including the development of guides, tools, and resources for inclusive event planning and management, as well as for more broad-based understanding of the nuance, complexity, and limits of freedom of speech within the York University context. 

Student-Centred and Student-Driven Initiatives 

In an effort to support students from an institutional level while providing them needed space to position themselves as leaders, York has embarked upon student-centred and student-driven initiatives, including those listed below: 

  • Varsity student-athletes have launched a new committee called the Black and Indigenous Varsity Student-Athletes Alliance to serve the issues facing Black and Indigenous varsity student-athletes.
  • The Division of Students held its first ever student symposium on equity, access, and inclusion in global learning in 2020.
  • Student Counselling Health and Well-Being developed support groups for racialized students and offered anti-oppressive clinical practice training for staff and practicum students. This service invites students to express their preference to meet with counsellors of a particular identity (e.g. male, female, Black-identifying, LGBTQ2S+-identifying, etc.). 
  • A risk assessment tool is being developed by Community Support Services to use when reviewing all incoming complaints of sexual violence that involve students. This will incorporate an understanding of barriers related to Black and Indigenous community members as well as economic and social barriers, and how they may affect survivors and the services and supports that they can access. 

Initiatives to Enhance Representation 

To further improve the representation of Black faculty members, in August 2020 York posted advertisements for 14 new tenure-stream positions for Black scholars (as well as one open to Black and Indigenous applicants, and one open to Black, Indigenous, and racialized minority candidates). The same month, we appointed Faculty of Education Professor Carl E. James as Senior Advisor on Equity and Representation to the University, as part of the Division of Equity, People, and Culture (EPC). Professor James is recognized nationally and internationally for his work in equity in relation to race, class, gender, racialization, immigration, and citizenship. James is also currently the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community, and Diaspora at York University,and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.  

In June 2020, we began undertaking a review of our pre-existing affirmative action program and unconscious bias education jointly with the York University Faculty Association. A key area for examination will be the enhancement of the program to ensure we have a better understanding of where equity gaps exist. 

In September 2020, Humanities Professor Andrea Davis stepped into a year-long role as Special Advisor on Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies’ (LA&PS) Anti-Black Racism Strategy. This position was developed by LA&PS’ Dean’s Office as part of the Faculty’s comprehensive response to combatting anti-Black racism.  

In February 2021, we launched a new Postdoctoral Fellowship Program for Black and Indigenous Scholars, as part of a wider commitment to promoting justice and embracing a variety of scholarly perspectives, backgrounds, and lived experiences. The program will provide emerging scholars from a range of disciplines with access to the financial support, mentorship, and career development opportunities they need to build the foundation for a successful professional future. 

While we are proud of what we have accomplished over the years and in solidarity with the global anti-racism movement, we know there is more to be done. What drives us is our shared and collective responsibility for creating a climate of understanding of the dignity and worth of York’s students, faculty, and staff. We are grateful for the continued guidance of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in supporting us to reach this goal.  


Rhonda L. Lenton, PhD

President and Vice-Chancellor 
York University 

Hon. Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities
Hon. Doug Downey, Attorney General
OHRC Commissioners