Focusing on Equity and Social Justice at OCUFA

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OCUFA’s Equity and Social Justice Committee (ESJC) began the 2023-2024 year with events signalling its commitment to a greater action orientation and engagement with current issues impacting members at the committee’s annual Equity Training Workshop and its first meeting of the year this fall.

At a session called “Organizing for social justice and equity: Learning from OCUFA’s Contract Faculty Committee (CFC)” at the ESJC’s Annual Equity Training Workshop for new equity representatives, participants heard from OCUFA’s Engagement and Campaigns Coordinator Jordyn Perreault-Laird and Contract Faculty Committee member Kimberly Ellis-Hale (Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association) about the CFC’s annual Social Media Day of Action. Over the years, this Social Media Day of Action has helped to build awareness and support from the wider campus community for the issues facing contract faculty. Perreault-Laird and Ellis-Hale shared resources and facilitated a campaign-building exercise, leaving members excited and inspired to consider a similar campaign-based approach to highlighting common equity and social justice issues across campuses.

The horrific attack on a gender studies professor and two students at Waterloo University at the end of June was a painful reminder of the challenges of doing equity work. In his report at the ESJC meeting, OCUFA President Nigmendra Narain noted that OCUFA had immediately extended its deepest sympathies to the Professor and students, condemned the violent attack, and signed onto an open letter launched by the Women’s and Gender Studies Association [et Recherches Féministes] (WGSA/RF) calling for more support and resources for students and faculty working in social justice fields.

President Narain noted that several Ontario universities removed information such as course outlines and classroom locations from their public-facing websites as an important first step towards campus safety. However, he emphasized that OCUFA is advocating for universities to consult with faculty associations, faculty in gender, sexuality, race and Indigenous studies, equity-deserving, Black, Indigenous, and 2SLGBTQIA+ groups who are most targeted on campuses, as well as students and staff, to develop useful and impactful changes for classroom safety. These voices should be at the forefront when universities design their responses to bigotry, hate, extremism, and violence. OCUFA’s message was shared across multiple media platforms including CBC’s The National, CBC Radio, and CTV News.

At its meeting, the ESJC discussed the implication of the Waterloo attack in further depth, with a presentation by Catherine Anderson, Director of the Gender and Social Justice Program at McMaster University and President of the McMaster University Faculty Association entitled “The personal is the political: Risking our safety to teach about social justice.” Anderson noted that this kind of attack was not new in Canada, reminding members of the École Polytechnique attack of 1989 in which 14 women engineering students were killed.

Currently, faculty face increased hostility and threats through organized, targeted online harassment as well as greater racial and gendered hostility and mistrust in the value of scholarship and research from the public. This growing climate of intolerance for academic freedom and critical inquiry and for perspectives that challenge dominant socio-economic-political structures is exacerbated by pressures on faculty, staff, and students through funding cuts and performance metrics that devalue the work of collective care and support.

Anderson said university leaders must defend academic freedom and make a strong case for the public value of programs that teach social justice and critical thinking, and encouraged faculty associations to negotiate stronger protections around academic freedom, instructor autonomy, and health and safety in their collective agreements.

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