Content warning: This article discusses death and anti-Black systemic racism in medical research.

University of Toronto, along with the rest of Canada, has a history of segregating against Black academics and their research. Historically, Ontario has legally banned Black students from attending schools with white students. Moreover, Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto, would reject Black students’ applications out of hand. This occurred most notably in medical schools and nursing schools, and even if Black students were able to receive their medical degrees, very few hospitals would accept Black medical interns. 

A 2017 research book depicting a data-based study published by the University of British Columbia found that despite the beginning of diversity and equity-driven policies in the 1980s, there have not been many major changes in academia to accommodate and promote Black researchers. More importantly, this study found through data that Black researchers and other racialized minorities have more difficulties securing funding for their work and even getting their work published.

The Black Research Network

Research is the origin of new knowledge and can encourage change in outdated systems. At first glance, supporting Black research seems to be an isolated issue for the Black community only; thus, it can be difficult to understand why people outside Black communities should care. But without the opportunity to receive funding or support, Black researchers have fewer opportunities to promote the needs of their communities in institutions such as courthouses, hospitals, and universities. As a result, research as a whole is often distorted and does not accurately reflect the entire population, which can ultimately harm everybody. 

U of T formed the Anti-Black Racism Task Force in response to worldwide protests against racial injustices. The Black Research Network (BRN) at U of T was launched in October 2021 following the task force’s report in March 2021, which recommended that U of T fund and support the BRN. The goal of this network is to enhance and aid Black scholars at the university through the BRN’s four pillars: research excellence; mentorship and pathways; funding and investment; and community, collaboration, and partnerships.

Why the BRN matters

Establishing a network for the Black community at the university can promote Black scholarship and excellence. More importantly, the BRN can create a safe space and support system for U of T’s Black community. The need for this has become far more evident with the current pandemic, especially in light of how the lack of research for the Black community in Canada and the lack of support for Black researchers have been detrimental to the health care provided to the Black community. 

Systemic racism, rural isolation, and poverty all affect the health care that Black Canadians receive. If health care is a universal right for all Canadians, why are the needs of the Black community not met?

Decades of institutional mistreatment by the medical system and providers have left the community with trauma and distrust. Studies have shown that some members of the Black community distrust COVID-19 vaccines due to the long history of abuse and mistreatment that Black patients have undergone. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, which exploited many Black men for medical research and resulted in 128 deaths, is only one of the many injustices that Black communities have experienced in North America.

Moreover, there is still very little research conducted on why and how certain health conditions and illnesses affect Black people disproportionately, such as diabetes and breast cancer. By supporting Black researchers, health care workers can gain a better understanding of the experience of Black Canadians and, more importantly, find ways to provide better health care for them. 

However, the health care system is not the only system that negatively impacts the Black community. The legal system and corporate world are also places where Black voices are not heard. To put it simply, without Black researchers at the forefront of change, the needs of the Black community would likely never be met, and systemic racism in Canada would probably not have been addressed.

What lies ahead

The problems that exist in our institutions today will not be solved in a year, much less a day. Instead, change is a long process that will require everyone’s cooperation.

The University of Toronto must continue to support and provide opportunities to Black professors, librarians, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates. Supporting Black researchers — whether it be behind the scenes, throughout the research process, or after publication — can create impactful changes. Supporting Black researchers and promoting their work are other steps allies can take.

Black researchers are needed at the forefront of policymaking to protect the needs of the Black community. Supporting the voices of Black Canadians can also bring forth more innovation, as diversity is considered to boost it. 

As we enter the new year, we must take time to reflect on 2021 and the many revelations that have come with it. More importantly, it is time to encourage the leaders who are leading this change to support U of T’s Black community. 

Jasmin Akbari is a second-year industrial relations and human resources, digital humanities, and writing & rhetoric student at Woodsworth College. 

If you or someone you know has been affected by anti-Black racism, you can call:

  • U of T’s Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office at 416-978-1259, or
  • Black Youth Helpline at 416-285-9944, or
  • U of T My Student Support Program at 844-451-9700.