Leading black rights activist sees hope emerge in Canada

After decade tackling Indigenous mistreatment, nation and its universities widening racial agenda, says Afua Cooper

June 15, 2021
Activist, sociologist and poet Afua Cooper
Source: Habiba Diallo
Sociologist and poet Afua Cooper

After years of watching Canada and its academy start to make amends for the historical mistreatment of its Indigenous population, a leader of black empowerment sees the same reckoning finally coming along colour lines.

Afua Cooper, a professor of sociology and social anthropology at Dalhousie University, said that she looked with admiration at Canada’s willingness to hear its native populations and address its long-standing abuse of them.

But for too long, black Canadians have had less luck, said Jamaican-born Professor Cooper, a poet whose 40 years of work in Canada have made her a leading voice of black rights in higher education.

“My opinion is that white people can only pay attention to one thing,” Professor Cooper told Times Higher Education. For the decade-plus that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) commanded national attention, she said, the message to black Canadians has been: “Let’s come back to you 30 years from now.”

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Through stops that include the University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University, York University and now Dalhousie, Professor Cooper has been a trailblazer in creating and teaching courses on race and gender studies.

She also has helped campuses confront anti-black racism and their institutional histories with it, written books animating centuries of Canada’s black experience and, most recently, won a C$1 million (£586,000) federal grant to write a school curriculum for such topics.

She can also recall her early days, while pursuing her doctoral degree at Toronto, when a racist student was so abusive in class that she needed police protection for the rest of the semester.

Now, both inside university campuses and beyond them, Professor Cooper said, a societal shift appeared imminent, prodded by a steadily increasing black population that is making clear its demands for change.

Individual examples of the problem, she said, include Toronto’s medical school suffering the embarrassment last year when its valedictorian, Chika Oriuwa, was revealed to have been the only black student in an entering class of 259 students.

Last month, a York University report listed the ways in which black Canadians – despite 400 years in their country – suffer poorer educational opportunities, higher unemployment, lower pay and greater incarceration rates.

“It’s grim, it’s grim,” Professor Cooper said of such data.

For Canada’s Indigenous population, the centrepiece focus for racial repair has been the TRC. That began as a national examination of the horrors of the Indian residential school system and led to sweeping policy changes affecting Indigenous peoples throughout society.

In higher education, it’s meant an almost universal commitment across Canadian institutions to recruit and retain Indigenous students, hire Indigenous faculty, create spaces designed for Indigenous gatherings and practices, and overhaul curricula to teach Indigenous history and reflect Indigenous ideas.

Such improvements are slowly starting to materialise for black Canadians, Professor Cooper said, as part of a broad uprising by a black population that now accounts for nearly 4 per cent of the country and is expected to exceed 5 per cent by 2036.

For her federal grant, Professor Cooper is leading a project called A Black People’s History of Canada that will create classroom-ready learning materials about the history of black Canadians.

Individual universities also have begun engaging in soul-searching, both looking at their past and realigning their future, Professor Cooper said. She led her own institution’s exploration of its pro-slavery namesake, guiding an internal panel towards a conclusion in 2019 that “Dalhousie” could stay because its meaning has been overtaken by far more positive recent associations, but that other reforms were necessary.

Steps now being taken by Dalhousie include establishing a black studies institute, creating a Canada-focused black studies degree programme and improving the recruitment of black students in the sciences.

Advocates of change within universities, she said, were strengthened by actions elsewhere in the country, such as the lawsuit late last year by hundreds of current and former black federal employees detailing pro-white workplace discrimination, and the protests in her home province of Nova Scotia that have driven reforms in the Halifax police force.

“Black people are forcing themselves on to the agenda,” Professor Cooper said.

Yet black Canadians still lack some of the structural networks of the Indigenous population, who have assemblies and chiefs across the country, she said. While about half Canada’s Indigenous people report experiences of chronic racism, 70 per cent of black Canadians feel that way, according to the report last month by York’s Institute for Social Research.

Canadian universities are, at least, starting to do the right thing, Professor Cooper said. “It’s never too late," she said, before adding: “It’s kind of too late, but I have to be optimistic.”


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Reader's comments (1)

No point in quibbling between First Nations and black people: until we ALL get our heads around the truth that we are all branches of the same tree, all sharing the same roots, racisim will continue. We need to stop seeing people as different merely because they occupy a different position on the cline of skin colour. By setting indigenous people against black ones and everyone yowling at white ones we only perpetuate racism, not deal with this stupid idea once and for all.