Athletes who inspired McMaster’s review of racism in its athletics department, and a former task force member, have some criticisms about a report that acknowledged systemic anti-Black issues but did not hold any individuals accountable.
In late June, Fabion Foote, a defensive lineman with the Toronto Argonauts and a former football player at the university, got McMaster’s attention after tweeting about his experiences with racism as a student athlete. He inspired the review.
When it came out in late October, the report acknowledged the persistence of systemic anti-Black racism. It detailed “extremely concerning experiences” from students and offered a five-point plan to improve the department.
Seeing the finished report, Foote expressed skepticism about if the school will change.
“It’s clear from the report that the leadership at McMasterU failed Black student-athletes and yet, the same leadership is expected to make change?” he tweeted.
“All these stories and nothing about the [athletics director] and assistant [athletics director] being held accountable for knowing about things that were occurring and had the opportunity to do something but didn’t give a f–k.”
However, the school’s dean of students, the report’s lead reviewer, and the chair of the task force all say the criticisms stem from misunderstanding the report’s intent. They also emphasize they did all they could to publish an unflinching report.
‘Our own little McMaster Truth and Reconciliation Commission’
Task force chair Dr. Bonny Ibhawoh called Foote’s concerns “legitimate” but said the report was a climate review, not a judicial review that investigates individual claims.
“I think of it as our own little McMaster Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than a judicial review … the point is to hold people accountable but the idea is to make things better,” he said.
“The idea here was to try and address a systemic problem with a view of moving McMaster forward and I think the university should be commended for taking that step to address these issues.”
He added what’s in the report is “only a fraction of what we heard from the student athletes” because of confidentiality and procedural fairness.
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John Williams, a former Hamilton Tiger-Cats player who worked with McMaster University’s Indigenous Student Services, wrote an open letter, shortly after Foote’s original tweets in late June, describing repeated attempts to raise issues of racism inside the school’s athletic department.
Seeing the published report, he wished it acknowledged Foote by name. He also felt the report was “incomplete” because it only looked at the athletics department and not the rest of the campus.
“It’s bittersweet. I’m glad they’re taking steps … but student-athletes weren’t the only ones who had to deal with discrimination,” he said in a phone interview.
Report isn’t meant to punish people
Any students who shared their experiences and sought a more concrete outcome (i.e. a staff member being reprimanded) would need to re-share their experience through human resources and undergo interviews as part of the school’s investigation process.
Kwasi Adu-Poku, a fifth-year student and basketball player at McMaster, was one of the report’s participants. He did the review knowing it would not lead to any punitive measures toward anyone he named, but said he and others would struggle to have to describe their experiences again.
“It’s unfortunate for a lot of people like myself, if I choose to step forward, to recount some of that trauma … but now that this review is in place, if I or other people choose to go through this process, they now have this big report to basically provide more evidence for the claims they’re bringing,” he said.
Sean Van Koughnett, the dean of students and associate vice-president of students and learning, said the review didn’t expose any issues outside the scope of the report, but if it had, he would have received names of faculty or staff to allow for a follow-up.
In response to Williams’ concerns, Van Koughnett said the parameters of the report only focused on the athletics department, which is why the report doesn’t examine the entire school. He also said the school cannot punish people who are no longer enrolled or working at McMaster.
Dr. Ivan Joseph, the lead reviewer and vice-president of student affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University, said while the report hasn’t led to anyone’s reprimand, he said the report does incorporate accountability.
“We’ve held the university accountable, we’ve held the athletics department accountable.”
Task force member left due to ‘compromised’ report
But not everyone on the task force who worked on the report agrees. The review started with a six-person task force. After its publication, that task force only had five people.
Aisha Wilks, a McMaster PhD student and co-founder of the school’s Resist: BIPOC Working Group, said she left the group shortly before the report was published because she felt it was “compromised” by internal politics.
During the process, Dr. Joseph and the task force would send drafts to Van Koughnett and Dr. Arig al Shaibah, the school’s associate vice president of equity and inclusion. Van Koughnett and al Shaibah would send drafts back with recommendations, which Joseph and the task force would deliberate on. Wilks says most recommendations were implemented.
Wilks says that Van Koughnett and al Shaibah asked the task force to tweak language in the report to focus blame solely only the athletics department, rather than the whole school.
She says the recommendation swapped terms like “McMaster” for “Athletics.”
“I felt the report fell short of our mandate to provide both accountability and transparency to the McMaster community and especially to Black student athletes and staff who trusted us with their stories,” she said.
Van Koughnett, said there were minor changes to wording in the report, but only for the purposes of specificity, clarity, scope and legality.
“When you use a term like ‘administrator’ what does that mean? So we asked for clarification on that … The task force members are satisfied [the report] represented what testimony was heard,” he said.
“If someone takes a look at the report and see 15 pages of testimonials … you look at that and say ‘It sure as heck looks like there was nothing held back there’ … This is not something we’ve taken lightly and tried to ignore.”
He also points to a section in the report that does call on university leadership more broadly to addressing systemic issues.
Wilks also claims the lead reviewer told the group he could not always push back on the school’s recommendations because of his own aspirations and relationships with upper administration.
Joseph denies ever letting relationships or personal goals impact his decisions.
“I was sensitive to [relationships], I know the athletics director … I will say it this way — I would not be surprised if some of those relationships have been bruised, but my job wasn’t to protect anybody, it was to do the things I thought were right.”
The other members of the task force either did not respond for comment or declined an interview.
Student athlete hopes report stokes change
Since the release of the report, Van Koughnett said McMaster has taken a number of steps including:
- Holding sessions with staff and Black student athletes to answer questions and to help work through emotions related to the report.
- Plans to host interviews and hire a senior advisor of equity, inclusion and anti-racism before Christmas.
- Having that senior advisor take on much of the five-point action plan and hiring of the Black student services role.
- Mulling over the location of the Black student services office.
- Plans to incorporate more planned initiatives targeting Black students for next September.
Adu-Poku said sharing his experiences in the report affected his mental health. He also said it took multiple attempts for him to read the entire report — but while it was a hard process and read, he thinks overall the report is a positive step forward.
Now, he and his teammates hope their pain will lead to lasting change.
“There’s a lot of people wanting to know what’s next. A lot of these measures and steps they’re taking forward are great, but I’m 23 and when I have kids and they’re deciding what university to go to, are they going to be going through the experiences I went through or the experiences of people 20 years before me went through? How long will the change sustain itself?”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.