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Student group demands action from University of Regina against on-campus racism

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WATCH: A group of education grad students from the University of Regina penned a letter to President Jeff Keshen calling for specific actions to address on-campus racism. Keshen, meanwhile, has said he's willing to meet with the group for further discussions – Jul 21, 2021

A group of BIPOC education grad students from the University of Regina has sent a list of calls to action to U of R President Jeff Keshen after a racist email was sent to students by a professor in May.

Global News. Global News

“When are we going to be able to exist in Canada and not have to deal with the repercussions of ignorant people who think it’s okay to say those things?” asked Aysha Yaqoob, a co-author of the letter.

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“I’m impatient. Time’s up.”

Read more: Calls for action arise after racist email sent to University of Regina students

Yaqoob says the letter specified three main calls to action.

She says she’d like to see the university develop and mandate ongoing anti-racist, anti-oppressive training for all faculty and staff.

Former interim U of R president Thomas Chase told Global News in May that while new hires are encouraged to review the school’s ‘Respectful University’ policy, doing so is not mandatory.

“We know that there’s some sort of training at the university yet it’s not mandatory,” Yaqoob said.

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“While that’s great, it’s not mandatory, and so what form of training can we offer all staff that is ongoing, and not just something you do for the fist month that you’re at the university?”

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The letter also calls for the introduction of some kind of on-campus third-party structure where students can report racism and seek independent support.

Yaqoob told Global News about an experience she had shortly after the 2017 shooting at a Quebec City mosque that symbolizes the importance of this demand.

“I was actually chased around campus by somebody who threatened to pull my hijab off and who told me that they’d cut my head off,” Yaqoob said.

“And when I approached the appropriate means to report this incident and have it taken seriously, it was suggested that if I don’t feel safe I should take my hijab off.”

Yaqoob, who didn’t want to share specifically who she took her experience to, says she ended up withdrawing her report.

“It was the university I ultimately went to and I ended up actually taking back my statement to say ‘You know what, it’s fine.’ I’m not comfortable putting that down anymore because the option was, well, why don’t you just take it off?” she said.

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“That’s not what I needed. Instead of telling the victim what to do, maybe you should deal with the oppressor. It definitely felt like it was being written off. I already don’t feel safe, I already don’t want to talk about this and now I have to face someone who might be friends with the person who was racist towards me?”

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The letter also calls for the university to hold faculty and staff members accountable through disciplinary actions and to make the results of investigations public.

A May statement issued by the University of Regina said an investigation was launched in line with the Respectful University Policy and corrective actions and disciplinary measures were implemented after professor Allan East sent an email accusing 14 students with “East Indian last names” of cheating on an exam.

It went on to say, though, that “due to its obligations under privacy legislation, the university is unable to discuss the details related to the specific actions taken”

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Yaqoob said the experience mentioned above is just one of several experiences with on-campus racism that have left her cautious whenever she sets foot on university grounds.

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“Throughout my four years doing my undergrad at the University of Regina I think every year I had to deal with some form of racism,” she said.

“It was to the point where I would go to class and leave campus as soon as I could because I didn’t know if I had the capacity to deal with what other students might say about me or say to me, or staff at the university.”

She says her first experience happened within weeks of starting classes, when she was just 17 years old.

“I was told by a professor that I probably shouldn’t go into a field where English is what I’m studying because English is not my first language,” she said.

“This is without the professor knowing that English is actually what I was raised learning. Had I taken that experience and decided not to pursue a career in English I would not be an English teacher today.”

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Global News also spoke to a chemistry student who says he was one of the recipients of East’s email.

The student, who asked to remain unnamed, says he didn’t cheat on the exam but was more alarmed by the messaging in the email.

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“I could not help but notice that all 14 of you cheaters have East Indian last names. None of the Canadian or other international students cheated. You must not cheat in Canada. Canadians do not like cheaters,” the email read.

The student said receiving the email was demoralizing.

“Hearing those kinds of things from professors who you look up to, who are literally the ones in charge of society right now because they’re shaping you and cultivating the next generation, if you hear them say this kind of stuff how do you think a person feels inside?” he asked.

“And not all of those students he pointed out were even international students. I may have come from a different country but I’ve been a Canadian citizen for a very long time. It was very hurtful to see. And in his email he mentioned he’s been a professor for almost 21 years. You would think he has dealt with students of all ages, races, ethnicities, nationalities — you would think that they’re a bit more sensitive and accepting.”

He also said the incident wasn’t the only time he’s experienced racism on campus. He says that in his first year at the school, while he was living in residence, he encountered a group he described as “football guys” who made “disrespectful gestures” and made racist sounds stereotyping Middle Eastern people.

“It wasn’t a welcoming sight, especially being a first year kid. And in the washroom once I saw graffiti that said ‘too many smelly international students here,'” he added.

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He says the incidents have made him feel unwelcome at the university, and have even made him reconsider the U of R for future education after he completes his undergraduate degree.

“I do want to pursue my master’s after, and after these incidents I don’t think the U of R will be my first option,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want anyone fired. I just want the right steps to be taken, the proper training to be given and the person to actually accept everyone from different ethnicities, countries and nationalities.”

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Speaking in response to the letter sent by the group of grad students, President Keshen called the requests “reasonable”.

“I understand where they’re coming from on this, and I want to sit down with them and the professors who were mentors to them in this regard and to work out ways in which they know we are very responsive and are taking seriously the issues that they’re bringing up. That’s the only way we can do it,” he said.

“They have the lived experience, they have the authentic voice, they need to tell us what’s going to really matter and what’s going to resonate.”

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When it comes to mandating anti-racism training for new hires, Keshen said, “we’re looking at that”.

“It’s something we would have to discuss with our unions. That would be one issue and I think that the students understand that. We have the ‘4 Seasons of Reconciliation’ course. Right now, strongly encouraged. I think that’s something we should look at as something everybody should do on-campus, something I should do,” he added.

“In principle am I opposed to it? No. In reality I have to sit down with everybody to see whether or not it can be implemented.”

As for establishing a third-party structure for reporting racism and discrimination, Keshen pointed to the Respectful University Services office a resource for students but added that he is open to exploring the idea of establishing something independent.

“I would say that someone has to pay the bill for whoever is there. that’s one consideration. But I would say again that we need to be welcoming to suggestions in this regard that are going to make a difference for our students who don’t feel safe. We need to satisfy those concerns,” he said.

As for the call to make the results of investigations public, Keshen said that while the university takes seriously the protection of the privacy of those involved in investigations, he agrees that those involved should be confident appropriate outcomes result.

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“What they want to see at the end of the day is that we’re responding meaningfully and that we did implement conclusion to the process that show we took those issues seriously and that justice was done in the response that we undertake.”

At this point, no meeting date between Keshen and the student group has yet been set.

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