A CBC News investigation has found many Canadian universities received few or no student complaints of racial discrimination between 2011 and 2015, but experts and students — and even a couple of the universities — say the low numbers aren't necessarily a sign of racial harmony.

Instead, they say the data might suggest students are reluctant to come forward with official complaints. Experts also say significant barriers exist for students who do pursue complaints.

Back in October, Julia-Simone Rutgers of King's College in Halifax was concerned about a hip-hop-themed night planned for the campus pub because she was disturbed by what she witnessed at a previous event with a similar theme.

"It created a space where people felt kind of comfortable using racial slurs and kind of celebrating a music and a culture that was not critically discussed anywhere else on campus," she said.

Despite her concerns, she said her first instinct wasn't to make a complaint.

Dua

York University professor Enakshi Dua says students are sometimes discouraged from pursuing the formal complaint process. (CBC News)

"I just didn't feel like they would be able to understand that experience, and so I didn't feel like it would be productive for me to go through that route."

York University professor Enakshi Dua studies anti-racism policies at Canadian universities and says trust is important for racialized students looking for help.

"On the most basic levels, students want someone who can appreciate and understand, help them sort out the situation that they're dealing with," says Dua.

'It just escalated'

Shanese Steele is a fourth-year student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., who knows what it's like to need help after being the target of discrimination. In October of 2015, she visited an unofficial Trent University Facebook page and posted a message promoting cultural sensitivity when choosing Halloween costumes.

She says she wasn't prepared for the response she received.

"It just escalated into this ridiculous thing of like all these people posting really horrible racist and transphobic and homophobic things on the Facebook page that was making more than just myself uncomfortable."

Steele, who identifies as black and Indigenous, says she hadn't considered making a complaint because she didn't know much about the process. She also wasn't sure how her complaint would be received.

"You've had to deal with this your whole life and so you also don't want to make a big deal about it."

Steele

Shanese Steele, a fourth-year student at Trent University, says she was targeted with racial abuse online after she posted a message about the importance of being culturally sensitive when choosing Halloween costumes. (CBC News)

Her perspective changed when she was contacted via Facebook by someone from a campus mental health group who saw what was happening online. Steele says she was offered support and told that the university was notified on her behalf.

In the days that followed, Steele says she inquired about support services and received counselling through Trent's First Peoples House of Learning.

"I definitely, at the time, was happy with the response. I immediately felt like I was being listened to,"  she said.

Numbers not the whole story

CBC News asked 76 universities to provide their yearly totals for student complaints of race-based discrimination and/or harassment for calendar years 2011 to 2015. Forty-seven schools provided data, but the vast majority reported either no complaints or numbers in the single-digits over the five-year period (not all schools provided data by the calendar year).

"Over five years? To me, hard to believe that," said Girish Parekh, a former investigator with the Canadian Human Rights Commission who worked as a complaint resolution adviser at Ryerson University in Toronto in 2014/15. "Even for one year I wouldn't believe that."  

He says some cases aren't counted because they're resolved outside of the prescribed complaint process, without the involvement of a human rights or equity office.

But Parekh says many incidents don't result in complaints because students don't think they will be taken seriously.

"They say, 'Well, there is no point wasting time unless it's something extremely serious,'" he said.

'Don't be scared. If you want to be heard, be heard. Don't allow the fear or stigma to stop you from that.' - Shanese Steele, fourth-year student at Trent University

Dua says that even when these complaints are brought to the attention of the appropriate office, students are often discouraged from pursuing the formal procedure for dealing with them because the process can be long, tense and emotional.

In the case of Shanese Steele and the response to her Halloween advice, the complaint made on her behalf wasn't an official complaint in the eyes of Trent's Centre for Human Rights, Equity & Accessibility. CBC News asked Trent why an email sent to human resources wasn't considered an official complaint and they provided the following answer:

"In a scenario where Human Resources would receive a report, that office would  recommend a complaint be filed with the appropriate University office, such as the Human Rights Office."

Steele says she only recently became aware of the fact that the email sent on her behalf wasn't considered an official complaint.

"I think it's really unfortunate that it wasn't seen as an official complaint," she said. "I can understand why they say there wasn't a formal complaint made and so that part is on me because I wasn't aware of the other avenues that I could've used."

Students reluctant to file complaints

Western University in London, Ont., is one of almost two-dozen universities that reported zero complaints over the five-year period from 2011 to 2015. Jana Luker, the school's associate vice-president of student experience, says the numbers don't always reflect the reality on campus.

"I would say that this does not necessarily indicate that racism is not a part of our campus — our city, our country — at all," she said.

Luker

Jana Luker, Western University's associate vice-president of student experience, says increasing staff diversity is an important way to help make students comfortable coming forward with racial discrimination and harassment complaints. (CBC News)

Luker acknowledges that students aren't always comfortable taking their experiences forward and points to staff diversity as an important part of making the process more welcoming.

Mount Royal University in Calgary reported 11 complaints over four years (2011 data is not available) and raised the issue of under-reporting in a statement to CBC News: "We're always looking for ways to cultivate a culture in which members of our community feel safe to share their experiences."

When Rutgers decided to speak up about the hip-hop pub night at King's College, she turned to Facebook instead of her university's complaint process.

In her post on the pub's Facebook page, Rutgers said the event would be harmful to racialized students and challenged the pub to create  a "safe space for everyone." In response to her post, the pub cancelled the event and later hosted another event to address issues of cultural appropriation.

"I'm so incredibly proud of the work that we've been able to do," she said, "but I'm not satisfied in that, you know, a student organized panel is a Band-Aid solution to an institutional and systemic issue."

For her part, Shanese Steele, now the student union anti-racism commissioner at Trent, says she knows more about the complaint process than she did when she was attacked for her Halloween comments.

Steele says "the rose-coloured glasses are off" and she has a simple message for students who have experienced discrimination: "Don't be scared. If you want to be heard, be heard. Don't allow the fear or stigma to stop you from that."

Corrections

  • The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Mount Royal University in Calgary reported 11 racism complaints from students over a five-year period. The 11 complaints were reported over a four-year period (2012-2015).
    Mar 27, 2017 5:08 PM ET