NorQuest College reviewing allegations of anti-Black discrimination raised by advocacy group

In collaboration with Students4Change, NorQuest has launched an action plan to remove barriers for Black students that includes collecting race-based data and improving mental health supports.

College to collect race-based data, improve mental health supports to help remove barriers for Black students

In collaboration with Students4Change, NorQuest College is taking steps to address anti-Black racism. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Azeb Asmelash spent two extra years getting her nursing diploma at Edmonton's NorQuest College. 

She says that's because she failed an assessment by an instructor with a reputation for discriminating against Black students.

"The hunger to learn was almost gone," Asmelash recalled. "It took me a year and a half to pay back my loans. I didn't deserve that. I should have finished on time with my peers."

It's experiences like Asmelash's that led to the formation of Students4Change, a group made up of students, former students and advocates.

In a joint news release last month with NorQuest, they announced an action plan to address anti-Black racism.

The initiative followed meetings with NorQuest's new president Carolyn Campbell in August and September where the group said it raised allegations of discriminatory behaviour by eight instructors, associate chairs and an advisor.

"As we review these additional allegations that have since been brought forward, we are ensuring due process and impartiality — including seeking external advice — is at the core of our action so that we can best listen to our community and work to address the concerns of BIPOC students," Campbell wrote in an emailed statement to CBC News.

"We are also inviting students to share concerns relating to their experience with whomever they feel most comfortable sharing — from instructors to deans to executives — so that we can make sure all students have their concerns reviewed."
NorQuest president Carolyn Campbell says the school is reviewing the allegations. (NorQuest College)

In the earlier news release, Campbell said, "NorQuest acknowledges that we particularly need to commit to improving the lived experiences of Black students."

Longer completion rates, higher failure rates

Yodit Tesfamicael, convener for Students4Change, helped document the experiences of roughly 25 students and former students, including two who spoke to CBC.

The group says some instructors are believed to use tougher standards to assess Black students.

They've also recorded culturally inappropriate comments made by teachers such as, "Your people are good for health care."

Consequences include longer completion rates, higher failure rates, and a greater financial and psychological toll on Black students, the group says.

"Many students drop the courses," said Tesfamicael, who is also an organizer with Black Women United. 

"They kind of give up on completing their program, experiencing anxiety, depression — the things that happen to Black students that are facing anti-Black discrimination."

Data, mental health services

The action plan put forward by Students4Change and NorQuest lays out four initiatives.

The college has committed to providing community-based mental health supports for Black students who have experienced racial discrimination and assessing the distribution of scholarships through a racial-equity lens.

Practical assessments will be recorded after a complaint to help ensure evaluations are equitable.
Yodit Tesfamicael says students have identified roughly 8 staff who engage in discriminatory behaviour. (Yodit Tesfamicael,)

"There's a whole host of things that really need to be evaluated and assessed so that we can ensure Black students have an equal fighting chance at this college," Tesfamicael said.

Key to that, she says, is the analysis of race-based statistics to address systemic barriers — which is also part of the plan.

"This will take time in order to do it really well by addressing questions like what to collect, how to collect it, how we use it, and what can be shared," Campbell said.

Immigrant experience

According to Students4Change, students first shared their grievances just over a year ago in letters submitted to the nursing department and in a meeting with the former program director, but no action was taken.

Part of the problem, they say, is that there is no impartial system in place to handle complaints.

The group contacted NorQuest in June after the college asked to hear from communities following Black Lives Matter protests and the murder of George Floyd.

The way forward also requires a better understanding of how racism impacts a student body largely made up of women of colour and immigrants, the group said.

"We came from a different culture and language," said Asmelash, who pursued her dream of nursing while raising two young children after working as a healthcare aid.

"We are not only going to school. We have to provide food and shelter to our family. We work hard at the same time to improve ourselves by going to school.

"The school has to understand this."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.