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The federal government has settled a human-rights complaint about equity issues in the Canada Research Chairs program, committing universities to hit hiring targets or they will lose their positions.

It is the second human-rights settlement concerning equity at the CRC program, which awards hundreds of thousands of dollars to Canada’s top researchers. The first case, settled in 2006, was launched by eight women who successfully argued the program had been disproportionately rewarding white men. The federal government agreed to set equity targets based on the availability of candidates in the hiring pool, but in the decade after, universities rarely hit those targets.

In recent years and under renewed pressure, the government announced new measures to expand the equity of the program, including a decision in 2019 to make the targets reflect the diversity of the general population, not just the diversity of the applicant pool. These moves have pushed universities to greatly improve representation among Canada Research Chairs, moving the institutions closer to reaching their targets.

On Wednesday, the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat – a federal group made up of the three granting councils – released a settlement it reached this week with University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran, based on a complaint he filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2016.

The settlement puts new requirements on universities when they nominate academics for the awards, which are given out by the federal councils. Universities are required to finalize equity action plans by May 28 and meet transparency requirements, or their nominations for chairs will not be processed.

As well, universities that do not meet their equity targets over the next eight years will only be allowed to nominate academics who belong to one of the underrepresented equity groups. If, by December, 2029, a university still has not met its targets, the federal program will reduce the number of research chairs it gives that institution.

The four equity groups, their current representation and the 2029 targets are: women at 38.6 per cent, compared with a target of 50.9 per cent; members of visible minorities at 21.4 per cent, compared with a target of 22 per cent; persons with disabilities at 5.5 per cent, compared with a target of 7.5 per cent; and Indigenous peoples, at 3.2 per cent compared with a target of 4.9 per cent.

Prof. Attaran welcomed the settlement, and said the government had broken promises it had made to underrepresented groups.

“It is impossible for the country I love to be its most humane and globally competitive by discriminatorily excluding the brains and gifts of its visible minority, female, Indigenous, and disabled scholars,” Prof. Attaran said.

The settlement also empowers Prof. Attaran or the Canadian Human Rights Commission to bring the government to Federal Court if it does not follow through on enforcement.

Dominique Bérubé, vice-president of research for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which administers the CRC program, said the settlement aligns with other actions the council has taken in recent years.

“Diversity in terms of individuals and perspectives in research fosters Canada’s ability to reach its full potential for research excellence and innovation,” Ms. Bérubé said in a statement.

A frequently-asked-questions page posted online by the granting councils to explain the settlement said the measures were necessary to address systemic barriers in academia that hold back underrepresented groups.

“The program is founded on principles of excellence in research and research training,” the note says. “Such excellence can only be achieved in an environment that fully respects and promotes the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion.”

The Canadian Association of University Teachers said the settlement brought clarity to the equity requirements. “It is clear that there will be consequences for institutions which fail to meet the targets,” said CAUT executive director David Robinson.

The eight women who launched the original human-rights challenge were: Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Louise Forsyth, Glenis Joyce, Audrey Kobayashi, Shree Mulay, Susan Prentice, Wendy Robbins and Michèle Ollivier.

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