Canada’s efforts at boosting inclusivity will not fly

The adoption of an Athena SWAN-style initiative is undermined by a failure to meaningfully consult Indigenous Peoples, say Karen Lawford and Jamie Lundine

May 27, 2019
a dead swan
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Indigenous Peoples experience systemic exclusion from higher education in Canada. This is demonstrated by 2016 census data, which show that 10.9 per cent of Aboriginal Peoples aged between 25 and 64 have an undergraduate degree or higher, compared with 28.5 per cent of non-Aboriginal Peoples.

The number of Indigenous Peoples and, specifically, Indigenous women and Two Spirit people currently employed within Canadian postsecondary education is unknown, but analysis of 2006 census data shows that there were only 360 professors who self-identified as both Aboriginal and as women. The total number in leadership positions is impossible to ascertain, but data collected during our project on empowering women leaders in the health fields, funded by the government’s Department of Women and Gender Equality, revealed that in prestigious Ontario teaching and research hospitals, only five of 23 chief executives are women. Moreover, while women outnumber men as undergraduate and graduate students in health sciences, they are less likely to hold research chairs, full professorships or senior administrative positions. Astoundingly, there have only ever been six woman deans of Canadian medical faculties.

To address this, Canada recently adopted a tailored version of the Athena SWAN Charter, developed by the UK’s Scientific Women Academic Network to advance the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) – and, more recently, other subjects, too. The Canadian version, known as Dimensions, is the initiative of Kirsty Duncan, minister of science and sport. It will publicly recognise efforts to remediate inequitable access to opportunities in higher education, not only for women but for people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, and members of visible minorities and the LGBTQ2S+ community.

The initiative, administered by Canada’s three research councils, is fuelling excitement that Canadian research will finally be able to leverage the full breadth of its human capital and perspectives. But there are reasons to fear that this will not happen.

In the UK, academic divisions and institutions are given bronze, silver or gold awards based on their commitment to take action on gender inequality after an in-depth self-audit. Eligibility for funding from the National Institute for Health Research is dependent on attaining at least silver status, while Irish research funders require applicants to achieve bronze accreditation by the end of this year. Similar incentives, however, are not part of the Canadian vision: a limitation heavily criticised at April’s final consultation on the draft charter.

That draft was subject to six months of consultation ahead of its publication in February. It comprises eight principles, framed around institutions’ commitment to incorporate equity, diversity and inclusion “throughout their practices and culture”. One principle is “to contribute to reconciliation, research with, by or impacting Indigenous Peoples”, and the charter goes on to say that institutions “must align with the research policies and best practices identified through ongoing engagement with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples and their organisations”.

Yet, to date, the Natural Science and Education Research Council, which is leading on the charter, has not provided evidence that the consultation processes have made a conscious, informed and deliberate effort to include Indigenous Peoples.

In the absence of both consultation and incentivisation, Indigenous Peoples within the academy wonder what the made-in-Canada Athena SWAN initiative can accomplish. We foresee the failure of another colonial initiative that will only serve to erase and overwrite the voices, perspectives and futures of Indigenous women and Two Spirit people in STEMM.

The government of Canada states that it “is committed to renewing the relationship with Indigenous peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership”. And both 1996’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Calls to Action of 2015’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada point the way to how this process of reconciliation should proceed. It is time to shift from self-serving displays of inclusion to a genuinely equitable, diverse and inclusive legacy of change.

Karen Lawford is an assistant professor in the department of gender studies at Queen’s University, Ontario, and an Aboriginal midwife. Jamie Lundine is a PhD student in the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies and a research associate in the Gender, Work and Health Research Unit at the University of Ottawa.

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