Skip to main content

Masuma Khan poses in Halifax on Oct. 28, 2017.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The Dalhousie Student Union says women of colour are under attack and the university is failing to support them.

In a statement on systemic racism endorsed by the council Wednesday night, the student executive says Indigenous, Muslim and other racialized women are under attack and the university has failed to adequately support marginalized students.

The statement lists 10 demands, including calling on the Halifax university to issue an apology to two students they say were subjected to "bureaucratic processes that uphold racist and colonial institutional policies."

Masuma Khan, a Muslim student leader who wears a hijab, and Kati George-Jim, an Indigenous student and member of Dalhousie's board of governors, have both been embroiled in high-profile disputes with the university's administration.

Khan was threatened with sanctions over a profane social media post that criticized white fragility while George-Jim took on the board of governors for what she called institutionalized racism and the silencing of Indigenous women.

"Recent events demonstrate the backlash that women of colour receive for speaking out about their lived experiences," the statement said. "Repercussions for public advocacy are amplified for racialized and Indigenous women, based on the intersecting identities they hold."

It adds: "We write to express love and concern for them and all marginalized people on our campus, in a time when our university is failing us and needs to better support students."

The student union's demands also include launching an external investigation into Dalhousie's disciplinary process against Khan, and publicly releasing the demographic data of students investigated by the senate discipline committee.

The council also voted to draft an issues policy document based on the statement, which is expected to lay out the student union's position on systemic racism at the university.

For the first time in its history, the majority of the student union executive are people of colour.

In issuing a clear stance on institutionalized racism, the executive appears to be making what they call the dismantling of "systemic oppression and marginalization" a top priority.

"We are committed to prioritizing issues of racism and colonialism on campus," the five executive student leaders said in the statement. "These conversations are difficult, but they are not new."

Amina Abawajy, president of the Dal student union, said Thursday the current executive ran on a platform of supporting Indigenous and racialized students.

"It is a priority for us to create an equitable campus," the computer science student said. "With the lived experiences of a majority-racialized executive, it's an opportunity for us to combat these issues."

Dalhousie student Mehak Saini said she attended Wednesday's council meeting to share her thoughts on the statement.

The second-year physics student said she supported asking the Dalhousie administration for an apology, but argued that the student body also deserved an apology from Khan.

"If they are asking the university for an apology for the threats or intimidation they have received, our council should also ask our vice-president of academic and external to apologize to the student body for the fear of labels and intimidation that she has caused," Saini said.

She argued that Khan's social media comments, including using the hashtag "whitefragilitycankissmyass," intimidated students from disagreeing with her out of fear of being labelled racist.

However, Saini was not able to speak at the council meeting.

"I totally felt silenced," she said. "We need an environment where our voices are welcomed and we don't feel fearful to talk."

Abawajy said Saini couldn't speak because of a "procedural issue" as someone had called for the question on the motion, but that the council "welcomes feedback from all students."

Two council members voted against the motion on systemic racism, including Mary MacDonald, who represents students with disabilities.

"It contains a lot of opinions and the facts are not well established. We can't pass a motion impugning the university administration without hearing the other side of the story," she said. "Before approving such a damning statement, I believe at a minimum we should hear from those who are under fire."

MacDonald said the motion would give "special treatment" to two student leaders, and creates a "hierarchy of marginalized women."

While she conceded that there are "valid concerns" about racism, she said she has been treated disrespectfully as a disabled woman and has never received an apology.

In response to a request for comment, a Dalhousie spokesman pointed to a university statement posted Monday on the Dal News website.

"The past two weeks at Dalhousie University have sparked many conversations about respect, inclusion, community and freedom of expression," the university said.

The Dal News post highlights the next steps the university is taking to "improve campus climate and enhance intergroup relations," such as launching a working group to support an inclusive environment and reviewing the code of student conduct.