Summary Report: Virtual Engagement Sessions to Discuss CIHR's Anti-Racism Action Plan
CIHR's Strategic Plan 2021-31 commits to co-developing an action plan to address systemic racism in the CIHR funding system. From March to May 2022, CIHR hosted a series of eight small group virtual engagement sessions to discuss our approach for an anti-racism action plan. The goals of the sessions were to discuss participant-identified barriers that CIHR's anti-racism action plan could work towards addressing and to prioritize the actions CIHR should take to address these barriers.
Most of the session participants were health researchers and trainees from communities impacted by racism. The sessions were facilitated by Generativ.ca, professional consultants with specialized knowledge of anti-harassment and diversity, equity, and inclusion. This report summarizes the themes discussed during the engagement sessions.
While barriers and racism experienced by Indigenous researchers were mentioned in the engagement sessions, in recognition of the distinct history, experiences and rights of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples, CIHR will be engaging separately with Indigenous partners on this topic. These discussions will be led by the Scientific Director of CIHR's Institute of Indigenous Peoples' Health.
CIHR's virtual engagement sessions to discuss the approach for CIHR's anti-racism action plan yielded valuable input on how to refine the action plan. To this end, participants emphasized the following:
- Consideration for the broader historical and systemic context, wherein CIHR represents one actor. Indigenous, Black, and researchers impacted by racism experience barriers well before they enter the CIHR funding system, and such barriers are then compounded by CIHR policies and practices.
- Recognition that eradicating systemic racism will require sustained long-term effort and investment, and the urgency to act now.
- The importance of ensuring the action plan will lead to meaningful change, given engagement fatigue and the sense of being engaged on the same issues repeatedly with little significant progress.
- Recognition that researchers and trainees from communities impacted by racismFootnote 1 are diverse, are differentially impacted by racism, and agree on some key issues but not all. Despite engagement fatigue, ongoing engagements are needed to not only probe areas of disagreement but also to guide the implementation phase of the action plan.
Overview of Engagement Sessions
Overall, 81 individuals participated in the small group virtual engagement sessions:
- 57 participants were researchers from Canadian research institutions, spanning all career levels, including postdoctoral researchers, early career researchers, mid-career researchers, senior career researchers, and graduate students.
- The remaining participants were from the academic sector, government or not-for-profit organizations, and the health care system.
- Participants joined from British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia.
- 11 participants identified as Francophone.
For legal and privacy reasons, CIHR did not collect disaggregated demographic data; however, almost all participants self-identified during the sessions as belonging to Indigenous, Black, or another community impacted by racism.
CIHR provided materials to support participation in advance of the small group virtual engagement sessions, including: an executive summary of an environmental scan on systemic racism in the health research funding system, and a draft outline of CIHR's anti-racism action plan, including draft objectives and key activities, for input.
Discussion of barriers experienced by communities impacted by racism
Overall, participants confirmed that the barriers identified through the environmental scan resonate with their knowledge of or experiences in the health research funding system, and underscored the following additional considerations:
- Self-replicating and self-reinforcing system makes it extremely difficult for individuals from Indigenous, Black and communities impacted by racism who are not already connected and networked in research and academia to obtain funding and advance their careers. Some examples named by participants that could have the effect of systematically disadvantaging Indigenous, Black, and researchers from communities impacted by racism include the practice of streamlining applications in peer review and, the lack of transparency regarding the selection process for peer reviewers on panels.
- Broader system inequities and the cumulative impact of racism means that Indigenous, Black and trainees and researchers from communities impacted by racism often enter the health research and funding systems with significant disadvantages relative to their White counterparts. This includes trauma, burnout and discouragement that results from a lifetime of racist experiences within and outside the health research community.
- Additional burden experienced by researchers from Indigenous, Black, and communities impacted by racism as a consequence of the relatively small pool of faculty members from these communities. Students from such communities can have difficulty finding mentors who understand their experiences, and faculty from such communities (Black faculty, in particular, were highlighted by participants) are disproportionately impacted by expectations to take on mentoring duties and other labour related to addressing racism.
- Tokenism whereby Indigenous, Black and researchers from communities impacted by racism are invited to participate on a grant in order to fulfill a requirement, with no real consideration of their fit with the research or the contribution they could make, and no real intent to involve them in the research.
- Pigeonholing whereby Black and Indigenous researchers in particular tend to be pigeonholed into specific topics, and receive even less support when they want to do research that does not fall within these specific topics.
- Intersectionality and that the impacts of racial discrimination are compounded when they intersect with other dimensions of the experiences of Indigenous, Black and communities impacted by racism, such as poverty, immigrant status, sex and gender identity, and university size.
- Barriers that specifically impact Black communities were discussed such as, the impact of the history of slavery in Canada and anti-Black racism experienced by Black health researchers. This includes racist peer review feedback based on the grant applicant's Black identity and/or the grant applicant's focus on African, Caribbean and Black populations. Participants also discussed instances where Principal Investigators on grants shift the study population from Black people to visible minorities once the research is funded.
- Barriers that specifically impact Indigenous communities were also discussed such as, the lack of understanding regarding the determinants of Indigenous health, particularly the cultural aspects, which are distinct from the general population, and that Indigenous students and trainees are often completely disconnected from their communities while attending university and lack cultural supports essential to their mental health and wellbeing.
Discussion of priorities for CIHR's anti-racism action plan
Overall, participants agreed with CIHR's high-level concept for an anti-racism action plan. However, some participants argued that it does not go far enough to address the colonial underpinnings and systemic nature of racism, and voiced skepticism regarding CIHR's willingness or ability to make systemic change. In this regard, participants emphasized long-term investment and sustainability of efforts given the depth of systemic change required. Additionally, participants noted that the draft outline for the action plan does not mention how CIHR will advance commitments across its various partnerships and external relationships. Finally, accountability emerged often in discussions, whereby participants stressed the importance of building accountability into the action plan, with clear and openly communicated objectives, benchmarks, and routine evaluations to ensure the action plan has systemic impact.
Clarity, framing, and language
Key themes that emerged during the virtual sessions were about the importance of the language used in and the framing of CIHR's future anti-racism action plan, such as:
- Better acknowledgement of the broader historic and systemic context for the anti-racism action plan
- Criticism of using a "deficit model" to frame the action plan as though Indigenous, Black, and communities impacted by racism need help due to some inherent weakness. Rather, participants recommended framing the action plan as addressing barriers to achieve an equitable system in which all researchers and trainees have access to the same opportunities
- Definitions of key terminology should not be driven by the existing racist and colonial system but rather by individuals from communities impacted by racism
- The importance of taking an intersectional approach to the action plan
- Divergent views on how to refer to the populations that are the focus of the action plan, including the suggestion to avoid terms such as "other" as it diminishes the populations not specifically named; to avoid the dichotomy "White versus racialized," since the latter is a diverse group, which the term "racialized" obscures; and that Black and Indigenous populations have the worst health outcomes and therefore should be specifically named as a focus of the action plan
- Calls for greater specificity regarding the scope and operationalization of the future anti-racism action plan, such as which anti-racism principles CIHR plans to integrate in their operations, and what targets CIHR will aim for regarding the recruitment, hiring, and retention of Indigenous, Black, and individuals from communities impacted by racism
- The importance of not confusing anti-discrimination with decolonization; anti-discrimination is about opposing or preventing the unfair treatment of someone based on their identity whereas decolonization is about questioning hierarchical structures.
Top priorities that participants felt CIHR should focus on in the action plan
At the end of each workshop, participants were invited to select the priorities that they felt were most promising for CIHR to focus on in the draft outline of the anti-racism action plan. The activities that received the most votes were the following:
- Increasing the ethno-racial diversity of CIHR governance, scientific advisory committees, leadership, and staff
- Reviewing CIHR recruitment and staffing policies and procedures to identify barriers and where diversity, inclusion, and racial justice can be embedded (review should be conducted by an external body)
- Implementing accountability mechanisms for CIHR staff in positions of leadership to ensure a demonstrated commitment to anti-racism, such as recruiting, hiring, and retaining Indigenous, Black, and individuals from communities impacted by racism
- Designated funding, post-doctoral fellowships, and scholarships for Indigenous, Black, and researchers and students impacted by racism
- Creating awards for Indigenous, Black, and trainees impacted by racism to support the transition into independent, early career research
- Equality of outcome measures such as equalizing success rates for applicants from Indigenous, Black, and communities impacted by racism
- Designating funding for research topics related to racism and health
- Collecting and reporting on disaggregated population data of CIHR applicants and peer reviewers.
Additional priorities suggested by participants
Throughout session discussions, participants made several suggestions for additional priorities that CIHR should focus on in the action plan. Many of these suggestions revolved around changes to CIHR policies, processes, and peer review practices, such as:
- Expanding the early career definition for researchers from communities impacted by racism
- Increasing the frequency of calls for applications to CIHR's flagship program to provide more flexibility, given the additional burden experienced by researchers from communities impacted by racism
- Designating a proportion of funding to first-time applicants or applicants without funding history to disrupt the self-replicating system whereby well-connected and funded researchers tend to be successful in funding competitions
- Providing grants for teaching-release so that researchers from communities impacted by racism have opportunities to develop grant applications, build networks and/ or teams, and/or volunteer for peer review
- Making it a requirement that all applicants listed on a grant remain active participants throughout the research and dissemination process, to avoid including researchers from communities impacted by racism on grants for tokenistic purposes
- Adopting an iterative review process for applicants from communities impacted by racism, to provide feedback and support in the application improvement process
- Increasing transparency and improving clarity regarding calls for funding applications, such as what funding is available and when, and how to apply
- Making peer reviewer credentials available to applicants, to ensure peer reviewers with the appropriate expertise are reviewing applications
In response to the draft outline of CIHR's anti-racism action plan, session participants raised several considerations related to implementation that fall into two broad categories: facilitating culture change and how to ensure interventions are impactful and do not engender further harm within communities.
- A plan for responding to resistance to CIHR's anti-racism interventions that may arise both within CIHR and in the broader academic community is needed
- The importance of normalizing the participation of Indigenous, Black, and communities impacted by racism in the system rather than creating separate systems, processes, or programs
- Challenging epistemological biases in the system and placing more value on Indigenous knowledges, African knowledges, and diverse ways of knowing
- Taking a bottom-up approach that prioritizes involvement of Indigenous, Black, and communities impacted by racism throughout the process of design, development, and implementation to ensure their voices drive the process.
- Debate regarding the utility of mandatory training as an anti-racism intervention; some participants expressed that training does not achieve culture change whereas other participants underscored the importance of continuous training with experiential learning opportunities that are not just check-box or one-off exercises
- The importance of establishing an Ombudsperson role to evaluate the performance of the action plan, and ensure accountability measures are in place and being followed
- Developing a retention and sustainability plan related to new CIHR staff from Indigenous, Black, and communities impacted by racism due to the barriers and stresses such new staff will inevitably experience
- Consideration for the potential unintended consequences of separate funding opportunities or programming for Indigenous, Black and communities impacted by racism is needed; for examples, less access to the general funding stream, and the delegitimization of individuals' research and career trajectories if they are not funded through CIHR flagship funding programs
- Recognition of the overwhelming mistrust of appeals and complaints processes in communities impacted by racism, due to a racist system that discourages complaining as a behaviour; if the reform of appeals and complaints processes to address bias in CIHR's funding system is to be effective, community trust must be built
- Consideration for the potential unintended consequence of ensuring peer review committees have greater ethno-racial diversity; for example, given the small numbers of Indigenous, Black, and researchers from communities impacted by racism, the policy that excludes peer reviewers from applying for the same funding could disproportionately impact access to funding for such researchers.
CIHR would like to thank the virtual engagement session participants for sharing their valuable insights. CIHR continues to synthesize evidence and findings to date and is consulting with partners and community members to develop and implement the anti-racism action plan.
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