Skip to main content

Adam Kassam is a freelance medical writer and senior medical resident in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Western Ontario.

My undergraduate years at Cornell were made most memorable by the life-long friends I made. While I was fortunate enough to meet people from all walks of life who came from across the globe, many of my closest relationships were the ones I made with other Asian students. This included a Chinese hall-mate in freshman year who founded a successful tech startup in New York, a Taiwanese hockey player who is now an anesthesiologist and an Indian bhangra dancer who works in Silicon Valley. Not only were they all incredibly bright, but they each had different and unique personalities that allowed them to thrive inside and outside the classroom.

This sense of individuality was something that I had come to recognize as an amazing strength, which I used as inspiration to hone my own personal development. This is also why I was disappointed with the language allegedly used by Harvard admissions to discriminate against potential Asian-American students in a lawsuit filed by the Students for Fair Admissions in a Massachusetts federal court.

Harvard is being sued for allegedly using racial quotas to limit the number of Asian students by ranking them lower on subjective traits such as personality, likeability, courage and kindness. Not only does this alleged practice echo the tactics used by the Ivy League to restrict the numbers of people of Jewish faith in the first half of the 20th century – if true, it also perpetuates the false narratives of Asians as being bookish and lacking in the qualities of Western ideological leadership. Most believe that these elite schools are strong because of, not in spite of, the diverse student populations that continue to grow in number.

While this case weaves through the legal system, which will likely make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, we should be asking whether the same thing is happening in Canadian postsecondary schools. The challenge, however, is that there is no publicly available diversity data at our institutions. While Universities Canada has appropriately committed to better transparency, little by way of data reporting and impact analysis has taken place since its announcement nearly a year ago.

Mike Mahon, chair of Universities Canada’s board of directors, says the approach is simple when employing what he calls public “self-monitoring.” He also states that “an institution is going to say to itself, ‘If this data is going to be public, we want it to look as best as it can.’” This strategy not only has the potential to veer dangerously into the territory of tokenism, it also highlights the perils of how these data can be used to perpetuate discrimination and the status quo, much like Harvard has done.

Interestingly, it has been reported that Canadian universities have their own system for collecting demographic information. This means that Universities Canada should not only make future data reporting public, but it should also publish historical diversity data that institutions have in order to properly identify trends from the past. In fact, federal legislation should be considered to enact this transparency in a way that would mirror Bill C-25 for publicly funded academia.

What is not clear from Universities Canada’s commitment is whether this diversity-data collection will also extend to graduate faculties, including those in medicine, law, business etc. Viewed through the health-care lens, this has significant implications. It is well established that the Canadian patient population is becoming increasingly diverse, thereby altering the landscape of the social determinants of health. Having medical leadership that reflects our communities will be vital for patient buy-in, understanding and outcomes.

Medical research is often conducted on homogeneous populations, thereby limiting its usefulness in diverse patient populations, such as in the case of heart disease for women and South Asians.

Canada should, therefore, follow in the footsteps of the National Institutes of Health in the United States and its Revitalization Act of 1993 to appropriately include women and minorities as subjects in clinical research. This is only possible if our leadership is diverse enough to identify our collective blind spots.

As a country that prides itself on being a beacon of multiculturalism for the world, we should investigate whether this claim extends to the political, economic and academic classes that invariably control the levers of power.

We should not just aim for more diversity, which itself is simply a measurement. We should encourage the emphasis on inclusion, which is an action that hopefully leads to equity, which should ultimately be our goal.

Interact with The Globe