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McGill School of Social Work accused of perpetuating systemic racism

Racialized student files human rights complaint

A course lecturer and doctoral student at the McGill School of Social Work has filed a human rights complaint against McGill University, alleging systemic racism on the part of the School. In his complaint, Woo Jin Edward Lee alleges that the Employment Equity Guidelines of the School of Social Work, and generally campus-wide, perpetuate practices that discriminate against racialized persons for faculty positions.

The complaint was sent to Quebec’s human rights commission, and was officially received on July 4 of this year, on the premise of “discrimination based on race intersecting with gender and sexual orientation in violation of sections 4, 10 and 16 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.”

According to the School of Social Work’s updated list of professors, Lee is the only racialized person and visible minority – not including Indigenous peoples – registered as a lecturer this calendar year.

“I don’t think there is any representation of people of colour when it comes to the administrative level,” said social work undergraduate student Sidara Ahmad, adding, “I don’t think there is an understanding of what people of colour – students of colour – go through. I don’t think there is any acknowledgement of the discrimination and racism they face.”

Lee, a self-identified member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, and a visible minority, is currently a course lecturer for SWRK 325: Anti-Oppression Social Work Practice. He is also a doctoral student specializing in the experiences of LGBTQ immigrants and refugees.

In April 2013, Lee said, he applied for a part-time faculty lecturer position at the School of Social Work, recognizing the lack of racial diversity at the School. “Out of 22 tenure- and non-tenure-track faculty members, one or two are racialized, and one is LGBTQ,” he told The Daily in an interview.

“I don’t think there is an understanding of what people of colour – students of colour – go through. I don’t think there is any acknowledgement of the discrimination and racism they face.”

A month after applying, Lee said he was notified that he had not even been short-listed for an interview. The five candidates short-listed for the position were all white women.

According to Lee, when meeting the director of the School, Wendy Thomson, he was informed that his application was rejected because he lacked clinical experience. The job posting never mentioned the necessity of such experience, Lee said, asking only for five years of experience as a social worker in Quebec’s community, health, or social services. The job posting also included the University’s statement committed to diversity and equity in employment, “[welcoming] applications from indigenous peoples, visible minorities, ethnic minorities, persons of disabilities, women, persons of minority sexual orientations and gender identities and others who may contribute to further diversification.”

“The hiring committee’s internal and unwritten requirement regarding clinical experience produces a recurring, adverse impact on racialized persons who are underrepresented in clinical institutional settings in Quebec,” said Lee about his application rejection.

“I have been serving as course lecturer at the School of Social Work since 2008, in addition to devoting hundreds of volunteer hours in serving the McGill social work department and broader Montreal community,” said Lee. “It’s disappointing and saddens me that I was not at least short listed for the part-time faculty lecturer position. There are hiring criteria and procedures that must be reviewed by the human rights commission because there have been so few racialized teaching professionals that have been hired by the School within the last ten years. This is why I hope that my complaint of systemic racism in hiring will lead to change and better representation of the Montreal community among the School’s staff.”

Ahmad told The Daily about the very real implications of being a racialized person in the School. “I am one of the very few students who is racialized in the School of Social Work, and as soon as I started the program, I had a situation where there was discrimination and racism involved. [Lee] was one of the few faculty members who provided the support and the space to talk about it.”

Lee has been studying at the McGill School of Social Work since 2007, and is the recipient of numerous fellowships and scholarships for his studies. More recently, Lee was one of only four recipients in McGill history to receive the Award for Equity and Community Building, in the academic staff category. He was nominated by 16 students and community members. According to an article published in the McGill Reporter, this award “recognizes the work of students, faculty and staff committed to advancing equity and diversity at McGill.”

“In universities and corporations, the many professional and managerial positions produce a professional stigma when someone raises a claim of discrimination.”

“For me, just seeing where the students are before they take [Lee’s Anti-Oppression Social Work Practice course] and where they are after, it’s essential,” said undergraduate social work student Katrina Topping, who had previously taken Lee’s Anti-Oppression course, adding, “It challenges students to question who they are, both as people and as social workers.”

Lee has been teaching at the School for six years – as a course lecturer for five years in addition to being a teaching assistant for one year. He has also worked in the Montreal community sector for another six years and spent five years practicing social work with marginalized children and youth in Calgary.

“I think that there does seem to be some type of resistance to incorporate AOP – anti-oppressive practice – in a really big way,” said Topping.

Another current social work undergraduate, Annie Preston, added, “I think there is a structural change in the School that needs to be happening to push for this.”

On his part, Lee has been pushing for change. “There has been a lack of racial diversity that was apparent from the very beginning, it was something that I noticed when I served as Equity Commissioner for PGSS,” said Lee, who also co-created the Racialized Students Network (RSN).

In addition to the RSN, Lee is also the co-founder of AGIR, a community organization that advocates for LGBTQ immigrants, refugees, and non-status migrants in the Montreal area. He is also a member of the Social Work Association of Graduate Students (SWAGS), and was the co-coordinator of Ethnoculture, an annual event that raises awareness about LGBTQ racialized and ethnic minority communities in Montreal.

In the fall of 2009, the Principal’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning launched the McGill University Student Demographic Survey to “foster sensitivity to cultural and personal differences in the delivery of academic and other administrative supports to our students.” The survey was completed by 2,070 McGill students.

According to the survey, 26 per cent of students from any ethnic group – excluding students who identified solely as white – reported discrimination by fellow students, and 18 per cent reported some level of discrimination by McGill employees.

Section 2.6 of McGill’s Handbook on Student Rights and Responsibilities describes discrimination as “any action, behaviour, or decision based on race, colour, sex […] which results in the exclusion or preference of an individual or group within the University community. This includes both the actions of individual members of the University and systemic institutional practices and policies of the University.”

According to Fo Niemi, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), his organization does not receive many complaints from universities.

However, Niemi argues that this is more of a reflection of an unsafe environment for disclosure of discrimination rather than an absence of discriminatory experiences themselves. “In universities and corporations, the many professional and managerial positions produce a professional stigma when someone raises a claim of discrimination.”

Another explanation for the rarity of complaints arising from university staff lies in a Supreme Court of Canada decision, under which unionized people cannot independently appeal to the human rights commission unless the union has found a specific reason to file a grievance in the place of the employee. “That might explain why in many unionized workplaces, such as universities, we do not see very often claims of discrimination going forward,” said Niemi.

As a part-time course lecturer, Lee is a member of the newly-formed McGill Course Lecturers and Instructors Union (MCLIU). However, the union is currently in negotiation with the University for its first collective agreement, and Lee believes he would not have been able to go through the usual grievance procedure in place.

Among the remedies sought, Lee’s complaint asks the Commission to require changes to the hiring policies of the University in general and the McGill School of Social Work in particular, and to order the School to adopt a mandatory employment equity action plan to increase the number of racialized individuals among the School’s faculty and course lecturers. Lee also seeks material and moral damages.

“There are many other students that have been in situations where they have been discriminated against,” said Ahmad, adding, “and found support with [Lee].”