By Yanet Mengistie
Posted on August 26, 2021
University professors have the power to create research that is backed and funded by powerful institutions. This research can be used to influence boardrooms and political spaces to forge change in the lives of Canadians. Without this research, countries like Canada would remain stagnant in the problematic ways of the past that have hurt or ostracized groups of people.
The post-secondary space in Canada
In Canada, professors in post-secondary institutions are predominantly white. Black professors make up two percent of all university professors, whereas those who were “not a visible minority” comprised 78.9 percent of professors. Not having Black professors in universities negatively affects the curriculum being taught, and the narrative being perpetuated in academics. For example, experts in Canadian racism, Frances Henry and Carol Tator conducted a study with 89 racialized faculty at 10 Canadian universities. The faculties revealed that much of the curriculum being taught is based on a eurocentric lens. A eurocentric lens is the idea that subjects, perspectives and ways of thinking are derived from European culture while dismissing or downplaying other cultural views. This results in philosophy courses for example teaching the work of European philosophers whereas African or Indigenous philosophers get no recognition in the curriculum. One faculty member in the study even stated that their department chair “held a very traditionalist perspective of his discipline” which they believe led them to hire only like-minded faculty who would maintain the current curriculum.
The study also noted that the lack of Black professors in Canadian post-secondary institutions, isolates students and the faculty itself. Many of the staff in the study explained that they felt loneliness and alienation from the university environment itself. The Black professors felt they could not confide in their white colleagues about experiences they’ve had with racism on campus, causing them to feel alienated. This also affects Black students as they too feel isolated and alienated because they are not represented in their areas of study. They cannot see themselves represented in the majority of professors and find that the curriculum holds a eurocentric bias. There are some professors who are working to bring about change regarding this issue in postsecondary institutions. They try to influence boardrooms, political spaces, or bring in greater numbers of Black students to universities.
Dr. Charmaine Nelson
Charmaine Nelson calls out the idolization and white-washing of Canadian history. Dr. Nelson is an Art History Professor who taught at McGill from 2003 to 2020. In late 2020, Dr. Nelson became a Tier I Canada Research Chair at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Transatlantic Black Diasporic Art and Community Engagement. Here, Dr. Nelson became the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery, which was the first of its kind in Canada. From here, Dr. Nelson has published several books that unearth the hidden history of slavery and colonization in Canada:
- Legacies Denied: Unearthing the Visual Culture of Canadian Slavery (2013)
- Slavery, Geography, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica (2016)
Furthermore, Nelson has been key in revealing the racism towards Black Canadians that has also been hidden for too long. Her published works include:
- Racism Eh?: A Critical Inter- Disciplinary Anthology of Race and Racism in Canada (2004)
- Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada (2011)
Dr. Nelson has also been a leader and advocate in the field of Black Canadian Studies. Consistently stating the need for the field:
“Black or African-Canadian studies in Canadian academia continue to be largely absent compared to the progress made over decades in the United States for such programs, department and institutes”
This field is one that major universities and education systems in Canada have avoided teaching. Black Canadian Studies counters the erasure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in Canada by exposing the existence of those of African descent who were in Canada dating back to 1605. Dr. Nelson also has a website, blackcanadianstudies.com, where the few who are also in the field or similar ones can find other resources or learn from Dr. Nelson’s work. Dr. Nelson’s work that addresses the Black Canadian experience is what makes her an iconic Canadian professor.
Dr. George Dei
If you’re looking for a leader of anti-racism studies, then Dr. Dei is whom you seek. Dr. Dei is a professor at the Social Justice Education department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. His decades of work which include 29 books, 19 scholarly reports, and eight referred journal articles have been the foundation for many anti-racism policies and practices that have been initiated recently. Dr. Dei’s work around anti-Black racism in schools has been critical in calling out barriers Black students face in school systems and working toward changing these systems. For example, the creation of Ontario’s Africentric school was a result of Dr. Dei’s work on critical inclusion. Dr. Dei is also the founder and director of the Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies (CIARS), which seeks to provide research that can be used to influence changes in areas such as:
- Inclusive schooling practices
- Globalization’s impact on those of colour
- The Canadian legal system
- The state and community relationship
Dr. Dei’s thought-provoking and life-changing work makes him an iconic Canadian professor.
Dr. Tiz Mekonnen
Dr. Mekonnen is taking the isolation that comes from being the only Black person in his field and using that as fuel for a project that can inspire Black students. As of January 2021, Dr. Mekonnen is the only Black engineering professor at the University of Waterloo. Over the years, Dr. Mekonnen had noticed that there were very few engineering faculty members across Canadian universities. The professor took this as a grassroots issue, believing that this lack of Black faculty in the field meant Black engineering students were not being supported in the ways they needed. Dr. Mekonnen stated: “When they come to university we want them to see somebody that looks like them so they can get motivated, they feel that they can do it as well.” To combat exclusion, Dr. Mekonnen became the director of The Indigenous and Black Engineering Technology (IBET) Ph.D. Project. This project will provide Black and Indigenous students pursuing doctoral degrees at the University of Waterloo with mentorship and $25,000 a year for four years. Although this is a newly founded program that only accepts a few candidates, this project can provide space for prospective Black engineering students to become more engaged and achieve more.
Dr. Mekonnen’s leadership of this program makes him a truly impactful professor.
Dr. Funké Aladejebi
Dr. Aladejebi is a professor whose work focuses on Black women. Dr. Aladejebi is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto with a specialization in Black Canadian history, specifically in the history of Black Canadian women. Many times when studying race, the experiences of Black women can sometimes get lost in the examinations. This is because a lot of researchers do not take into account gender and how prejudices based on gender and race create unique experiences of discrimination. That is why Dr. Aladejebi’s book Schooling the System: A History of Black Women Teachers is significant. The book reveals how Black women not only fought outright and subtle forms of racism in the Ontario education system but simultaneously were at the forefront of breaking down racism in Ontario’s schools. The book uses a collection of first-hand documents such as newspaper records, policy documents and interviews to showcase the battles fought by Black female educators. Dr. Aladejebi has plenty of publications on the topic, which will encourage greater emphasis on the field of Black female educators in Ontario and even Canada as a whole. These other works include:
- “Send Little Outbursts Across the School’: Black Women Teachers and Micro-Resistive Strategies in Ontario Schools, 1960s – 1980s” (2016)
- “We’ve Got Our Quota’: Black Female Educators and Resistive Pedagogies, 1960s-1980s” (2015)
- “I didn’t want to be anything special. I just wanted to teach school’: A Case Study of Black Female Educators in Colchester, Ontario, 1960” (2012)
Dr. Aladejebi’s focus on this understudied area makes her a pioneer in her field and true game changing educator.
These four professors are changing the lives of Black individuals across Canada through their influential work. They are inspiring Black Canadians to take up their mantle and are true representations of Black excellence. These four professors showcase why having highly positioned Black professors is key to Black Canadian advancement, as these professors can look into issues and create studies that shed light on the systemic barriers that Black Canadians face in social and academic settings and support students of colour while they are navigating academia.