International students describe threats, intolerance while in Sudbury
Laurentian University formed a task force in April after complaints of racism on campus
It's not the kind of treatment Ranjodh Singh expected when he came to Sudbury to study at Cambrian College.
He and other students are speaking out about racism they've experienced while pursuing post-secondary education in the northeastern Ontario city.
In 2013, Singh was just twenty years old and beginning his business studies at Cambrian College.
He was one of three turbaned, bearded Sikhs in the city, and he says they felt conspicuous.
As he walked to his home in Minnow Lake one evening, he encountered some vocal critics.
"I was on my phone and I was walking toward my house and some two, three people left and they started following me and passing comments, like negative comments," he says.
"They were like 'go back to your country' and all that, you ….immigrants, or whatever. So that was kind of scary because that happened in the first two months when I was here."
Singh does not think there's a problem with racism in Sudbury, but rather that the people here just aren't used to seeing people from around the world.
As post-secondary schools gear move towards a more diverse student body, they're also coming up with ways to contend with reports of discrimination among students, staff and faculty.
Laurentian University's Equity, Diversity and Human Rights Office has designed a Respectful Workplace and Learning Environment policy.
Its mandate, in part, is to assist individuals with complaints of harassment, discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual violence and bullying and to understand the range of options available for responding, and help them to pursue a resolution,
In the last full report in 2017-18, it says it received 94 written complaints of violations of the policy.
A university spokesperson declined to say whether any of these came from international students, citing confidentiality.
But one Laurentian student from South Africa says he doesn't feel comfortable talking to anyone in the department.
Litha Ncansia is a 6'5" basketball player from a township in Capetown, South Africa.
Last year, the campus was the target of a 'White Lives Matter' poster campaign, which Ncansia didn't initially understand.
However, when he came to understand they were hate messages, he grew fearful.
Another incident where candies were arranged in the sign of a swastika on a cafeteria table also rattled him.
Ncansia says he felt the administration brushed off his fears, and that makes him feel unsafe.
He doesn't think there is anyone in the Equity, Diversity and Human Rights office who can understand him as an African, especially one who grew up in a country torn apart by apartheid.
"They can't fathom what you've been through, they can't fathom what you go through. And then in some cases you have to start over now and explain, 'Hey I came from this,' and that's another trauma like right there," he said. "And I think it's best sometimes to just go talk to a person who will better understand the situation. They will understand where you come from that we understand what services you might need."
He wants to offer support to his fellow students and is co-founder of a student peer support group called U.L.U.
U.L.U. stands for Ultuntu (humanity), Lunginsa (justice) and Usawa (equity). The name comes from the African language Swahili, as well as two South African Languages Xhosa and Ndebele.
Last April, the university formed a task force to look into incidents of racism and is open to anyone who wants to join.
Dr. Joey-Lynn Wabi says they're working to eliminate racism against all, not just international students.
She says the task force has nine key priorities, with education prominent among them.
"The first part is anti-racism training for staff, faculty and students so we do realize that things happen at Laurentian and are very unfortunate. But we do want to ensure that we are all trained in order to identify and respond.
Across the city on the Cambrian College campus, one student says although he was subject to homophobic and racist threats, he's satisfied with the way the college handled it.
Tarun Godara was living on campus in a townhouse arrangement with about six other students.
He says tensions were growing among them because of their use of pot in the living quarters.
One night as he holed up in his room, he heard his room-mates battering his door and hurling epithets at him.
"They were kicking the door and screaming at me. They were swearing at me and I was locked inside hoping that they don't realize that I'm in there," he told CBC News. "I somehow managed to get my friend to come over and get like all the security on the campus. And when they came they all scattered to where they were.
"They threw garbage in front of my door. I did actually record all the things that they were screaming on my phone because I slid my phone close to the door that they were kicking. I showed the authorities what was going on and I was not making it up."
Godara says the administration asked him if he wanted the other students expelled.
However, he says he didn't want to be the reason they lost their education so he asked them to sign a no-contact order which they did.
He says he finished his courses living in another townhouse with friends.
Godara says he suffered a lot of mental anguish but has also benefitted from great kindness.
Now graduated from his design course, the young artist is opting to stay in Sudbury because of the friendships he has formed.
As for Ranjodh Singh, he has made Sudbury his home and educates Sudburians about Sikh culture through dancing.
Litha Ncansia is entering his final year of law and justice studies and continues to work to help his fellow students feel safe.