Forbes magazine recently named the University of New Brunswick (UNB) as the “second best workplace for diversity in Canada” and a “top employer” in the country. The announcement has been followed by a series of glowing, self-congratulatory articles and social media posts published through UNB’s communications department.
Even if one is to accept the message of Forbes’s article, as UNB leadership evidently does, it is worth questioning the conclusion: Is UNB in fact Canada’s second-best employer on matters of equity, diversity and inclusion? If so, how does it begin to explain the concerns of marginalized community members, which contradict Forbes’ message?
The Forbes’ study was conducted with the help of Statista, a database company specializing in market and consumer information. To collect the data, Statistia drew on self-reporting. Their findings were extracted from an anonymous sample of employees.
Assuming sample sizes were of equal proportion across the 150 Canadian companies included in the study, only 60-70 employees at UNB out of approximately 3,000 would have been surveyed. But, without an explicitly targeted approach, researchers cannot actually sample diverse participants with diverse worldviews and experiences. Add to this the lack of information regarding the study’s methodology, it is difficult to know whether the sample surveyed by Statista actually included marginalized employees.
After all, New Brunswick is demographically a majority white and predominantly conservative province.
My experience as a diversity worker at UNB
My experience at UNB has been in direct contradiction to Forbes’ findings. I recently finished my work term as the “2SLGBTQIA+ Wellness Coordinator” for UNB, St. Thomas University (STU) and the New Brunswick Community College (NBCC). This role was externally funded by Post-Secondary Education, Training, and Labour, which is the government department responsible for higher education in New Brunswick.
For all intents and purposes, I was a “diversity worker” operating within the neoliberal university setting. Scholar and critic Sara Ahmed describes diversity work as feminist praxis, especially when undertaken by marginalized community members. This work is challenging work, full of deep, disturbing contradictions, which Ahmed describes in an academic article by way of a personal anecdote:
“[the university] funding of our project was often cited as an example of their commitment to diversity… [but] commitment converts very quickly to hostility towards diversity workers, especially those who talk about racism.”
Part of my job as Wellness Coordinator was to generate educational projects and resources in
response to community needs. Among other things, I created a formal Calls to Action Report that outlined areas in which UNB could improve its equity, diversity and inclusion policies, practices and infrastructure, including feasible timelines for each.
The document emerged out of an already existing project, which centered on the experiences of QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, people of colour) students.
In the end, the report was produced collaboratively with marginalized stakeholders, especially QTBIPOC, neurodivergent, and disabled students, faculty, and staff. The calls to action were informed by the lived experiences of my collaborators, many of whom wished to remain anonymous due to the job insecurity they experienced as a central characteristic of the neoliberal workplace at UNB.
The report covered many wide-ranging issues, including: the lack of equity in hiring; the lack of moves towards decolonization on campus; the mistreatment of marginalized community members; the lack of widely available anti-discrimination training; the precarious conditions and low wages of for some employees; the need for more systematic approach to sexual violence prevention; the uncertain fate of the Human Rights and Positive Environment Office.
In short, the report brought together many voices, and it was damning in the fact that it highlighted the need for real, substantive, structural changes to create a less discriminatory campus.
The Calls to Action report was prefaced by anonymous testimonials showing devastating experiences of discrimination from students, staff, and employees at UNB. Some of the testimonials taken
directly from the document include:
“I didn’t feel welcomed at UNB when I had to sit in a class and listen to my professor say the words ‘…Well, the biggest problem with our forestry sector are Indigenous peoples and their issues…’. I reported this, nothing happened. He is still a teaching professor.”
“My second week at UNB Saint John, I had a prof stare at me for a half hour and purposely did not start class. Finally, he asked “What [genitals] do you have?” and precedingly asked if I had a penis because he could not tell by looking at me.”
“There have been moments where I have felt discriminated against because I am a person of colour while contesting for a position or trying to be part of a predominantly white student club or society at UNB…”
“I was told by three guidance counselors not to go to UNB Saint John because it is known for being an anti-LGBTQ campus.”
“I never understood why I wouldn’t make any friends when I was a student at UNB, especially in my classes. And I conformed so hard to be around the white peers so they would let me in; it was rather exhausting. I remembered taking a class that centered around feminism, but I had to withdraw after a couple of classes because I felt so uncomfortable. The space was simply for white feminists; perhaps not the curriculum itself, but I experienced microaggressions and racism before in Fredericton; so, I was a little sad dropping this class as I expected this space to be about empowerment, but it couldn’t be any more alienating.”
UNB response to Calls to Action Report
It took two months before we got a response to the report from UNB, which came in the form of a letter from the President Paul Mazerolle. He wrote to me and my colleagues a formal letter to confirm his receipt of the report. He continued to highlight the official equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives underway at UNB. Most of which are, at best, only partially relevant to the concerns brought forth in the report.
Rather than substantively addressing any of the calls to action in the report, or even addressing some of the chilling anonymous testimonials given by students and employees, Mazerolle concluded by reminding me and my colleagues of UNB’s high standing on matters of equity, diversity and inclusion, quoting of all places, from an article in Forbes Canada, writing:
“The University of New Brunswick has been recognized as one of the best workplaces in the country for fostering a diverse and inclusive environment by Forbes Canada. UNB placed second out of 150 employers on Forbes Canada’s Best Employers for Diversity list for 2022. While we are pleased to receive this recognition, we acknowledge that there is more to do to make UNB an inclusive environment. We are committed to continuing this work. I wish you well in your studies as you pursue your doctoral degree.”
Even if one were to take for granted the message of Forbes’ article, as UNB leadership has evidently done in the above letter, it is worth questioning. Namely, if UNB is in fact Canada’s second-best employer on matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion, how does one begin to explain the expressed concerns of marginalized community members?
Contradictions at UNB
Despite the shortcomings of Forbes study, UNB leadership has privileged the document as a source of ‘truth’ about its own success in equity, diversity and inclusion policies and practices, over the voices of marginalized community members.
Drawing on my experience as a diversity worker at UNB, and the Calls to Action Report crafted in collaboration with diverse students, staff, and faculty, it is clear to me that the Forbes’ article is being used to “shield” UNB from criticisms being brought forth by marginalized community members at UNB—many of whom are advocating, from within their own silos, for structural change.
How does this process work? Well, the fact that the Forbes article was sent by the President in a response to the Calls to Action Report shows how it is being used to shield, and conceal, through what Sarah Ahmed calls a “politics of documentation.”
Within the context of a politics of documentation, equity, diversity and inclusion policies and awards are celebrated in ways that suppress dissent. It is a process that is mostly invisible to those outside of institutional walls.
Shielding occurs because the very existence of equity, diversity and inclusion documents becomes the end in and of itself. They become mere checked boxes, referring to what Sara Ahmed calls the “performative university’s” tendency towards “auditing equality.”
The report I wrote seems to have become one instance within a larger politics of documentation. Ahmed describes the unintended consequences of this politics: “Writing documents or having good policies becomes a substitute for action… as one of [Ahmed’s] interviewees put it, ‘you end up doing the document rather than doing the doing.”
An example of one such document can be found in the UNB President’s Strategic Vision: Towards 2030 document, which features a description of broad equity, diversity and inclusion commitments (UNB Strategic Vision).
On the topic of commitment, Ahmed writes: “Declaring a commitment to opposing racism [sometimes functions as a form of] organization pride: anti-racism might then accumulate value for the organization, as a sign of its own commitment. A university that commits to anti-racism might also be one that does not recognize racism as an ongoing reality.”
The contradictions become clearer in reflecting on my tenure as a diversity worker at UNB. Namely, my experiences of UNB leadership hailing Forbes’ study as somehow indicative of institutional excellence in EDI, while at the same time, refusing to acknowledge and remedy ongoing forms of institutional oppression, which are becoming even more publicly relevant after the recent sexual violence scandal, which has been described as a “systemic failure at UNB.”
To acknowledge the Calls to Action and the profoundly disturbing instances of oppression it describes would require a more thoughtful and intentional engagement with the university’s deeply colonial history and the present context, in which community members and their experiences continue to be marginalized.
Nadine Violette recently finished their tenure as LGBTQIA+ Wellness Coordinator at UNB, STU, and NBCC, and is now a PhD student at York University studying Social and Political Thought, with an emphasis on history, economy, and consciousness. Violette grew up in Fredericton, completing their undergraduate studies at the University of New Brunswick, Renaissance College. As a UNB student, their advocacy helped establish what is now known as The 203: Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity.