Ottawa

U of O students hold sit-in, demand action on on-campus racism

Students protesting the University of Ottawa's response to anti-Black racism say they will not end a sit-in at the administrative offices until they're granted a meeting with the school's president. 

Say there's a continuous cycle that doesn't create real change

Around 20 students stage a sit-in outside the office of University of Ottawa president Jacques Fremont on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. They were protesting the university's response to racism on campus. (Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada)

Students protesting the University of Ottawa's response to anti-Black racism say they will not end a sit-in at the administrative offices until they're granted a meeting with the school's president. 

The sit-in stemmed from a day of action held Friday when students met with the co-chair of the newly formed action committee on anti-racism and inclusion

University president Jacques Fremont announced the committee Nov. 23 after a public clash between some faculty members and students over academic freedom and the use of the N-word in class, in addition to other incidents at the university over the past couple years. 

Dilaye Desta, a recent graduate who was the director of community engagement for the Black Student Leaders Association, said the new committee was struck in bad faith, as it involved dissolving an advisory committee that had been working on similar issues for a year. 

"We had continuously been putting forth our own recommendations, strategies, bringing forth other anti-racist initiatives that universities have been doing across Canada — and have continuously been met with resistance from central administration," she said. 

Those recommendations, Desta said, included forming an anti-racism office at the university, hiring Black professors who specialize in critical race theory, and making an anti-racism class mandatory for all undergraduates.

They also want the university to hire a BIPOC anti-racism officer at the executive level who would have their own funding. (BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous or person of colour.)

Organizer Jamal Boyce explains why students will remain on campus until they are granted a meeting with the university president. 8:40

Desta said a pair of meetings on Friday proved fruitless, including one with professor Boulou Ebanada de B'beri, the university's newly appointed special advisor on anti-racism and inclusion and the chair of the new committee.

Desta said he told them he did have the power to implement their requests, but needed time to understand the issues of racism that have plagued campus for the past few years. 

Jason Seguya, the equity commissioner for the University of Ottawa Students' Union, said he's worried the university's efforts will lead to very little action when it comes to dealing with racism on campus. (Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada)

'The same cycle that we've been seeing'

About 20 students could be seen Saturday taking part in the sit-in.

Jason Seguya, a fourth-year social science student and the equity commissioner for the University of Ottawa Students' Union, said students are concerned that the university has been engaging in these conversations for years — with no real change. 

"We worry that, once again, we are going to re-engage in that same cycle that we've been seeing before," he said. 

The now-dissolved advisory committee, Seguya said, had learned their work over the past year mirrored other research independent parties on campus were conducting — as well as a report by the Canadian Federation of Students calling for similar actions.

The university's Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa's BIPOC Caucus, which was part of Friday's day of action, also released a statement supporting the protesters and questioning the need for the new committee.

The group said they would not take part in the new committee but would work with the administration to implement structural changes to reduce racism.

A banner at a University of Ottawa sit-in held Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, outside the office of president Jacques Fremont. Students are protesting what they see as a lack of action on the part of the administration to address racism on campus. (Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada)

"We are concerned the committee is a means to avoid or to delay implementing the many recommendations contained in the University's own reports as well as those proposed by BIPOC communities," the statement said. 

In its own statement, the University of Ottawa said representatives had met with the students to hear their concerns and that the university would consider carefully how to incorporate the recommendations made. 

"The University is looking forward to working with the Special Advisor [on anti-racism and Inclusion], the students, and other student groups, faculty, and staff to address racism on our campus," the statement said. 

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.

(CBC)

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