Despite President Rhonda Lenton’s, Provost & VP Academic, Lisa Phillips’, and members of York University’s upper administration’s recent attempts to improve its public relations campaign on anti-Black racism, the university faces serious allegations of a coverup. Their attempts to suppress Professor Aimé Avolonto’s charges of racism in his department has backfired and now become a national scandal, with coverage on the CBC’s National. The professor has written a detailed report of the events that have transpired since making his first complaint in 2017, when he asked for a fair and proper investigation into the situation. It is quite regrettable that Lenton and Phillips, who have taken anti-Black racism pledges in the media, have simultaneously taken aggressive steps to terminate his professorship. Multiple students’ testimonies attest to their admiration, love and respect for Professor Avolonto; he has been teaching at York University since 2004, and was twice elected Chair in his department. It is a treacherous situation when complainants seeking an investigation into racism become instead the very target of racist attacks.
On Thursday, April 8th, a press conference was held. Watch the entire press conference. Find out more about the campaign to support Prof. Avolonto.
Excerpt from Sarah Nafisa Shahid’s article in spring magazine:
In a press conference on Thursday, April 8, Professor Aimé Avolonto, Associate Professor in the Department of French Studies at Glendon College, York University, put forward a detailed allegation of anti-Black racism and harassment against the university and its administration.
Allegations of discrimination, harassment, and surveillance
Prof. Avolonto first filed a formal complaint in 2017, mentioning incidences of anti-Black racism by Glendon College’s then-Principal and Associate Principal Academic. According to an open letter penned by Prof. Avolonto, he claims to have been subjected to a series of retaliatory race-based acts, including email surveillance by the administration, in addition to multiple smear attempts.
After requesting an investigation into his complaints, Prof. Avolonto was met with continued harassment and retaliation from the administration for the next four years, including attempts to discredit him and, by June 2017, the decision to dismiss him from his role as the Chair of French Studies at York University. The university eventually hired a third-party investigator to look into his accusations of anti-Black racism, but Prof. Avolonto soon lost trust in the process due to the investigator’s own biased conduct.
Almost 1.5 years after the investigation started, the investigator presented a summary of numerous allegations against Prof. Avolonto that accused him of terrorizing and victimizing colleagues and students. An allegation of sexual assault, which had never been brought to light before, appeared just six weeks after York University was notified it had been named in a complaint by Prof. Avolonto at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, and almost two years after Prof. Avolonto first requested an investigation into his complaints of anti-Black racism.
From June 2018 to December 2020, Prof. Avolonto opened four cases with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) against York University and its administration related to institutional racism, one of which accuses the third-party investigator of discriminatory and unprofessional behaviour during the course of the investigation.
The repeated, systematic harassment took a severe toll on Prof. Avolonto’s mental health, including suicidal ideations. Over many months, his union representative had requested accommodation for Prof. Avolonto’s mental disability but was denied by the administration.
James Clark, who was Prof. Avolonto’s union representative at the York University Faculty Association at that time, stated during the press conference, “One of the things that I noticed as a staff representative is how much the myth of the liberal university becomes a barrier to speaking up about systemic anti-Black racism or other forms of oppression because the brand of the university becomes more important than what happens to people at the university.”
Prof. Avolonto says that the university went above and beyond to malign his reputation and discredit him professionally to protect the career aspirations of the university’s senior executives and to protect YorkU’s image as a progressive and open campus.
York University (YorkU) recently initiated the process of terminating Prof. Avolonto’s employment, citing his speech at the university’s senate in 2017 and his several media engagements. Last month, Prof. Avolonto appeared in a CBC documentary exposing systemic discrimination across multiple Ontario universities.
Systematic anti-Black racism at YorkU
Incidents of anti-Black racism are neither new nor uncommon in York University. Another YorkU employee, Lydia Dosu, had also raised complaints against the administration for racially discriminating against her and belittling her professionally.
Last summer, following the murder of George Floyd, York undergraduate and graduate students wrote an open letter to the university’s president, Rhonda Lenton, calling the administration out for claiming to support Black lives when it’s convenient, without doing the necessary work to create a culture of anti-oppression at the university.
Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada and former staff representative at CUPE 3903, mentioned during the conference that she had to deal with several complaints from racialized employees during her time as a former CUPE staff member at York University, and oftentimes the administration had responded with dismissal or denial.
This sentiment was echoed by Kien Saningong Azinwi, Interim National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, who has been involved with anti-oppression struggles at York University since her time as a first-year undergraduate student. Azinwi raised a question to all during the conference:
“When do Black Indigenous and racialized bodies that are in our institutions, just get to exist and not have to fight every single day as to why we deserve to be in these spaces, and most importantly, why we deserve to be protected in these spaces?”
Azinwi and Fardosa Warsame, President, York University Graduate Students’ Association, both pointed out that the framing of the accusations against Professor Avolonto leverages an age-old archetype of Black men being “aggressive” and “dangerous.” Warsame further mentions that Black academics are seriously underrepresented in York’s teaching and research faculty and the few that exist, such as Prof. Aimé Avolonto, are met with constant challenges and repression within the campus environment.