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Why DEI in Canada struggles to uplift Black people

It is important that we in Canada understand our history so that we know how to move forward with clear solutions. Photo by Desola Lanre-Ologun.

Christopher Stuart Taylor, University of Waterloo

Canada has a long history of trying to show that we are better than the United States when it comes to race relations. Yet, we also struggle with many of the same racial challenges. Antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism, anti-Indigenous racism, and anti-Black racism continue to be the daily realities for many Canadians.

As Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has become the latest culture war battleground in the United States, much of that same rhetoric has found its way to Canada. In 2023, some argued DEI and anti-racism training lead to the death of a Toronto principal. Others have suggested DEI statements create “ideological hiring” biases in post-secondary institutions.

The University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University will soon host the 2024 Inter-Institutional Forum of the Scarborough Charter to combat anti-Black racism in Canadian higher education. The forum is jointly organized by the universities’ DEI and anti-racism offices. Most, if not all, senior equity leads from post-secondary institutions will be attending. This is effectively a DEI gathering.

It is important that we in Canada understand our history so that we know how to move forward with clear solutions. And as universities gather to discuss ways of addressing anti-Black racism, now is an apt time to discuss why Canada, including its institutions like universities, continues to struggle to overcome various forms of racism.

Official multiculturalism

When seeking to challenge anti-Black and other forms of racism in post-secondary institutions, it is important to understand that the roots of DEI were never as inclusive as most tend to think. DEI in Canada is rooted in what I call the myth of the Underground Railroad; the historically inaccurate notion that Canada is better than the U.S. when it comes to the treatment of Black people.

However, Canada was never designed to be a space for unequivocal diversity, equity or inclusion. The general sentiment of DEI in Canada is based on the official multiculturalism policy of 1971—a policy designed to maintain the status quo. The policy was to “preserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada”.

Furthermore, the Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism—the Commission that facilitated the introduction of the 1971 policy—was created during a period of unrest in Québec.

This Commission was instructed:

“[T]o recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.”

Multiculturalism, and its offspring of DEI, were created primarily to ensure the English and French communities could get along. The rest of us, particularly Black and Indigenous people, were expected to stay silent and conform.

Anti-DEI sentiments

Anti-DEI sentiments today are part of an anti-Black movement designed to erase the progress and empowerment Black people have achieved. To put it simply, anti-DEI sentiments in Canada are a contemporary reflection of the country’s right-wing extremism.

DEI became politicized and rose to prominence with the general public after the murder of George Floyd. The ensuing racial “awakening” that challenged anti-Black racism facilitated a more mainstream focus on DEI initiatives.

However, once Blackness and the empowerment of racialized people became an imagined threat to the status quo, DEI became a problem. It was an uncomfortable reminder of Canada’s unresolved history of systemic oppression.

DEI, like multiculturalism before, was never designed to directly tackle history. Nor was it meant to facilitate the social mobility and empowerment of racialized people. Photo by Christina @

One of the core challenges for Canada is its unwillingness to reconcile and acknowledge a settler colonial historical past: a genocidal, enslaving, and setter colonial past that did not even consider large segments of the population as “qualified persons”.

DEI, like multiculturalism before, was never designed to directly tackle that history. Nor was it meant to facilitate the social mobility and empowerment of racialized people. Rather, it was created as a way for others to fit in to dominant colonialist and white supremacist structures.

We don’t have an anti-DEI movement in Canada that is as explicit as in the United States, because Canadian DEI was always about maintaining the status quo and dominance over racialized communities and Indigenous Peoples.

The purpose of the Scarborough Charter forum is laudable, and its framework is well-needed in post-secondary education in Canada. While universities receive recommendations to improve DEI, meaningful change can only come after recognizing that the very mechanisms and concepts that underpin DEI in fact reinforce the status quo.The Conversation

Christopher Stuart Taylor, Associate Vice-President, Equity, Diversity, and Anti-Racism; Assistant Professor of History, University of Waterloo. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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