Disclaimer: This document contains allegations that are before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and have yet to be proven or tested.
[A one-page summary of Prof. Avolonto's case appears in this petition.]
My name is Aimé Avolonto. I am a Black man and, since 2004, I have been one of your colleagues. I am an Associate Professor in the Department of French Studies, Glendon College, York University where I served as Chair from 2014 to 2017. I have five degrees, speak seven languages, and am a specialist in three fields: francophone literature, linguistics, and teaching French as a second language. I am writing this letter to share with you my experience of being a Black professor at York University and what happened to me when I made a complaint about anti-Black racism. Some of you might have seen my story on The Fifth Estate broadcast of “Black on campus,” a 21-minute documentary about systemic anti-Black racism in Canada’s post-secondary sector. The broadcast looks at cases of anti-Black racism at three Ontario universities: the University of Windsor, Ryerson University, and York University.
In the wake of The Fifth Estate broadcast, York University President Rhonda Lenton is making a renewed attempt to fire me. Her first attempt was in August 2020.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to watch “Black on campus” before reading the rest of this letter. Click here to watch it. You will likely be shocked, upset, and angered by its content, but the documentary is a must-see introduction to the painful experiences of Black students, staff, and faculty on Canadian campuses today. After you watch it, I encourage you to share it with colleagues in your unit.
Following the broadcast, York University had two responses. The first was the public one, which came the day after “Black on campus” aired: a statement to faculty and staff at Glendon College in which the administration acknowledges the “urgent attention” the issue of anti-Black racism requires and promotes a number of anti-racism initiatives now underway at York. The only reference to my case appears in the fifth paragraph of the six-paragraph statement:
This week’s episode of the CBC’s The Fifth Estate focused on anti-Black racism on university campuses in Canada, a vitally important and challenging societal issue that requires urgent attention. One segment focused on a specific allegation of anti-Black racism at York’s Glendon Campus, and while it is a very complex issue involving multiple persons, the University has accepted the finding of an independent external reviewer who determined that the allegation of anti-Black racism was unfounded.
You can read the full statement here.
Despite the administration’s claim, I have been deprived of a meaningful opportunity to participate in the investigation; and the reports that have been issued and relied upon by York University have been made without the full benefit of my input and key evidence. By contrast, the York University administration has knowingly participated in a coordinated cover-up of my complaints about anti-Black racism and fuelled a vicious, years-long smear campaign to discredit me for speaking out in the first place and for refusing to back down when they asked me to. I know you will probably find this hard to believe. I did, too, at first. But I promise you, it’s true.
And I have the evidence to prove it.
The second response was the private one, which came almost three weeks after “Black on campus” aired: a confidential letter to me from Provost and Vice-President Academic Lisa Philipps in which she claims that public comments I have made about my experience of anti-Black racism at York University constitute harassment of a white professor, and in which she notifies me that the administration is now taking steps to fire me, for the second time since August 2020. Again, the administration refers to an investigator who “determined your complaint…alleging race-based harassment or discrimination to be completely unfounded and to have been made falsely, maliciously and in bad faith which constituted a continuation of your harassment of [white colleagues].”
Two weeks later, on March 30, 2021, President Lenton sent me her own letter, stating her plans to fire me and similarly characterizing my outspoken public condemnation of systemic anti-Black racism at York University as “humiliating and intimidating your victims by attacking them publicly, such as by your speech at Senate in May 2017 and in the media and that such public statements constitute a continuation of the personal harassment against [white colleagues].” She further described me, a Black professor with 17 years of service at York university, as “a particularly unrepentant, uncontrollable, dangerous and predatory harasser.”
I completely and utterly reject these claims: it is outrageous to suggest that speaking out, publicly or otherwise, about anti-Black racism represents harassment of white people. It is even more outrageous that the administration would now try in private, and under the guise of “confidentiality,” to fire me for doing precisely what they claim in public, in their widely promoted “Framework on Black Inclusion,” they want Black community members to do: share their experiences so the whole community can learn from them.
That President Lenton and the senior administration are trying to fire me, despite the mounting, publicly available evidence to support my allegations of anti-Black racism, shows a level of impunity that boggles the mind. It also exposes the sheer hypocrisy of an administration that works overtime to cultivate its public image as an anti-racist institution, at the same time as continuing to inflict harm on Black employees like me who have the audacity to speak out about the racism we experience. If anyone in this situation should face discipline, it is the senior administrators of York University, including President Rhonda Lenton and Provost Lisa Philipps, and any designates who participated in the racist harassment and mobbing of me over the last five years.
York is counting on my silence, and on the silence of all of you, to get away with this behaviour. But I will not be silent. And neither should you. That is why I am writing this letter: to blow the whistle on systemic anti-Black racism at York University and to inform the public of what its administration does when Black people speak out.
So what exactly happened to me, you ask? And what did I complain about? I can’t provide every single detail in this letter, but here is an overview to get started.
On February 6, 2017, I filed a formal complaint about anti-Black racism with the senior administration of York University. My complaint was about repeated incidents of discriminatory behaviour by the Principal and Associate Principal Academic of Glendon College at the time: Donald Ipperciel and Ian Roberge, respectively. The incidents took place from May 2016 to January 2017. At first, I didn’t fully realize what was happening to me. I just noticed there was a sudden and unexpected increase in the scrutiny of my work and interaction with colleagues and students, and a flurry of complaints about me by the Associate Principal. Until around the time he had begun his appointment on July 1, 2016, the first two years of my three-year appointment as Chair of French Studies had been fairly pleasant and productive, much like my previous 12 years of employment at York University.
In response to this treatment, I complained that these acts were discriminatory, but I worried about what would happen if I labelled it “racism” right away. In retrospect, I was in disbelief that this could happen in a university environment and hoped that it would just go away. But it didn’t. In fact, the more I objected to the behaviour, the more it continued and intensified.
One early incident was a formal rebuke I received from the Associate Principal for asking an upper-year student to communicate with me in French. In early July 2016, I received an email request from a fourth-year student who had requested, in English, a waiver from the Department for a course requirement. It is a widespread and long-standing practice among colleagues in French Studies at Glendon to encourage students, especially those in their third or fourth years, to communicate with us in the Department in French. I politely asked the student to make her request in French, which she did. I then responded to her by agreeing to waive the requirement. It was a normal, uneventful communication. Weeks later, the Associate Principal emailed me to say the interaction was rude, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable. I didn’t understand why he was saying this: no other colleague had been rebuked for this practice and the student didn’t complain about it. I was also perplexed about how he knew about the interaction. In his rebuke, the Associate Principal revealed that he was surveilling my email communication, as if I needed to be watched. As the first Black Chair of French Studies, I found this highly insulting. Why was this kind of surveillance underway when the Chair is a Black colleague? Why was a widespread practice suddenly a problem when a Black colleague does it? And why was the Associate Principal doing this now, just weeks after starting his appointment?
This wasn’t the only incident, but as they began to repeat themselves, I started to feel as if a smear was underway. I knew I was sometimes a thorn in the side of the Principal’s Office, as an outspoken critic of some of their long-standing plans, but I never thought they would target me this way. Months earlier, the Principal casually mentioned to me at the end of a Sunday evening phone call that a colleague from a department outside my own had filed a formal harassment complaint against me. I was in shock. I had had no contact with the colleague for months and only ever interacted with her on a professional basis. Three months would pass before I finally saw the content of it, itself a violation of collective agreement timelines. In the meantime, the Principal and the Associate Principal didn’t hesitate to invoke the complaint (even before I received it) to try to exclude me from Glendon-wide committees. This is the moment I contacted the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) for support. Days later, I met my union representative, James Clark, who would represent me for the next four and a half years, until his resignation from YUFA in December 2020. The Principal, an Employer designate, eventually dismissed the complaint against me (which Faculty Relations confirmed in writing), after seeing there was no evidence to support it. But he continued to raise it with me months later.
The breaking point came in January 2017. Faculty Relations summoned me to a meeting with the Principal and Associate Principal to discuss what they claimed was a petition by 28 of my students complaining about my conduct in class. Again, I was in shock. For me, teaching is the most important part of my career. It gives me life. I love my students as I love my own children. As some of my colleagues are aware, my students have come to call me “Papa Avolonto” over the years and many of them have stayed in touch with me long after leaving York. Some of them recorded video tributes to me in the “Black on campus” broadcast.
I met the Principal and Associate Principal on January 19, 2017. During the meeting, the Associate Principal made one outlandish allegation after another: that I was homophobic, Islamophobic, and sexist; that I made students cry and humiliated one with a disability in front of the whole class; that I did no preparation for the course and announced surprise tests at the last minute; that I referred to myself as “God” and threatened retaliation against anyone who dared complain. Who was this monster they were describing? The Associate Principal then claimed that seven of my students were “in tears” in his office, half-way through the semester, as they described my alleged treatment of them. He suggested they feared for their safety. My union representative asked why the Employer waited for months to do anything when the normal practice is to intervene with the professor right away, especially when students appear to be in distress. The allegations were simply unbelievable. Despite our repeated requests to see the alleged petition, we have never received one to this date.
After the meeting, I was in a state of confusion, disorientation, and panic. How could this be happening? Not a single thing the Principal or Associate Principal claimed actually took place in my class. I had a great relationship with my students and none of them raised any of these alleged concerns with me. By the time I got my bearings again, I knew I had to complain to the senior administration. Normally, colleagues approach their Dean or Principal for help in situations like these. But in this case, the problem was in the Principal’s Office. On February 6, 2017, my union representative emailed an “[u]rgent request for a complaint-stage meeting” to then-Provost Rhonda Lenton, who was the first senior administrator to learn of my complaint. Her response to my plea for help would set the pattern for the administration’s response to every other complaint I would make in the next four years.
Despite the urgency of my plea to Provost Lenton, she failed to answer it for almost three weeks. As each day passed without a response, my sense of anxiety deepened. Why aren’t they responding? Don’t they take this issue seriously? My representative continued to press her and Faculty Relations for a response, but none came. Sixteen days after the initial request, YUFA filed a grievance over the Employer’s failure to act. Only then did Provost Lenton finally respond, 18 days later. A meeting was scheduled for March 15, 2017 and a follow-up meeting took place on April 7, 2017.
In the first meeting, Provost Lenton initially expressed surprise at my allegations, saying she had never heard any complaints about me. But then she expressed concern, not for my well-being, but for the potential harm my allegations would have on the Principal and Associate Principal. In the second meeting, she explained to me that she had personally asked them “if they were racist” and, because they said no, she found it hard to believe my allegations. My union representatives and I were in disbelief: as if asking such a question were a reliable measure of the existence of racism. But Provost Lenton’s approach was not a one-off. It gave us a glimpse of how she and the administration would react from that point onwards to anything I said about anti-Black racism: centering the perspectives and interests of white colleagues, especially administrators in the Principal’s Office, while denying or dismissing the lived experiences of Black complainants like me.
In light of this approach, Provost Lenton was not enthusiastic about my request for an investigation into my allegations of anti-Black racism, which at that time singularly focused on the Principal and Associate Principal. Instead, she wanted me to do mediation, as if my experience were just a misunderstanding or a “personality” conflict. In both meetings, I insisted on an investigation. By the end of the second meeting, Provost Lenton had agreed to my request, and later confirmed it in an email message from Faculty Relations. Despite my initial sense of relief, I would pay a very big price for making this request and for not agreeing to back down.
Indeed, the retaliation began even before my first meeting with Provost Lenton or my formal request for an investigation. Hours after my January 19, 2017 meeting with the Principal and Associate Principal, I returned to the Principal’s Office to follow up on other matters, primarily the question of my renewal as Chair of French Studies. Two months earlier, my colleagues voted in a secret ballot to renew my mandate as Chair for another three years. The vote included both full-time and contract faculty: I received 24 votes out of 26 eligible voters, or 92.3% of the vote. Although the ballot concluded in November 2016, the Principal had not ratified it until January 5, 2017. Normally, it would have been ratified within a few weeks. The next step in the ratification was for me to sign it.
When I met the Principal, I told him that the way he and the Associate Principal had treated me in the meeting earlier that day was discriminatory. This time, I was confident to point out that their behaviour was racist. I asked him: “Is that the reason you were delaying my renewal? Because I’m Black?” He first said: “No, it’s because everybody is complaining about you.” I was stunned. Who was complaining about me? I had just received a 92.3% endorsement from my colleagues. I’ll never forget what he said next. He returned to my allegation of racism and warned me not to pursue it: “If you push this, you need to know that I will destroy you. All the power is on my side and I will use it to stop you.” He continued: “And if you think about going to the Tribunal [the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario], it won’t make any difference. It won’t be anything that money can’t solve.” The Principal’s reference to the Tribunal wasn’t out of the blue; it first came up in a discussion with him the previous summer when I asked him to get the Associate Principal off my back.
At that moment, I thought I understood what the Principal meant, but I had no idea the extent to which he would act on it. I would soon find out, however, in the wave of retaliation that followed my formal complaint to Provost Lenton. It would take two forms. The first was a series of acts carried out by the Principal and Associate Principal, which were only possible because the senior administration took no steps, despite my repeated pleas, to remove them from positions of power over me until my complaint was resolved. In one example, during the Glendon Open House on March 5, 2017, where each of the College’s departments promoted their programs to prospective students and their parents, the Associate Principal had privately arranged for the previous Chair to give a speech on behalf of the Department of French Studies, snubbing me, the current Chair at the time, in front of my colleagues. During public events, it is customary for Chairs to speak on behalf of their departments. I only found out, in an email communication hours beforehand, that my predecessor would be giving the speech. This might not sound like a big deal, but it was part of a long-standing pattern in which the Principal’s Office repeatedly engaged my predecessor as if she were still the Chair, a pattern observed by one of my colleagues as early as the first year of my appointment. The incident was compounded by the context of my complaint; I experienced it as an exercise of power by the Associate Principal and, in light of his earlier acts, as retaliation for having complained about him in the first place.
At the same event, I discovered that the Principal’s Office had arranged an accommodation for the colleague whose complaint against me had been dismissed by the Employer almost half a year earlier: the table for her unit was the only one removed from the room in which all other tables had been arranged, and instead was set up in a completely different building. I later learned that the Principal’s Office reportedly conveyed to staff that the colleague couldn’t be near me for her own safety and security. I was humiliated when a staff person who had been instructed to move my colleague’s table asked me what had happened between the colleague and me, as if I had done something terrible to her.
That same month, on March 26, 2017, the Principal emailed me to admonish me for my use of a water fountain and refilling station near my office, claiming that a student complained I was washing my hands and coffee mug in it and making it dirty. I couldn’t believe his insensitivity to the history of segregated water fountains and restrooms, which was for many decades justified on the racist belief that Black people were unclean and unhygienic and needed to be separated from white people. I have seen many colleagues and students empty their mugs in that fountain, but none would have been admonished for it. But why the Black professor? Imagine my humiliation receiving a complaint, in writing, from the Principal that, according to an anonymous student, I might be making the fountain dirty! Anytime I have to talk about this incident, I am immediately filled with shame.
These acts continued for months. Days after I started teaching my Spring courses in April 2017, the Associate Principal instructed IT Services at Glendon, without ever consulting me, to remove from me the classroom I had been assigned, even though it was the only one big enough and with enough computers for the number of students enrolled. IT staff protested and said there was no need to remove the classroom from me. It was removed anyway. When I complained to senior administrators, they claimed that renovations were planned for the classroom, but renovations didn’t begin until months later and the classroom remained empty during the time I needed it. Around the same time, the Associate Principal began to alter my ARMS record, repeatedly erasing courses that were part of my teaching history. That interference continues to this day, despite countless requests to senior administrators to remove the Associate Principal’s access to my ARMS, and the record still does not accurately reflect courses I have taught in recent years. This harassment became so intense that, after teaching only one class of my two Spring courses, I had to take an immediate stress leave. The impact on my mental health was severe. I remained on leave for six weeks and was unable to teach either of my courses.
On the surface, and especially to non-Black colleagues, these might seem like minor transgressions, but they were incessant, had a cumulative impact on me, and served to undermine me in my position as Chair, the first Black faculty member to hold the position. I had--and should still have--the right, like all other colleagues, to be treated the same way other Chairs at Glendon are treated and the same way previous Chairs in French Studies have been treated. There was no reason whatsoever to justify these arbitrary, punitive, and retaliatory acts. I just wanted to do my job and do it well, without undue interference from the Principal’s Office and on the same terms everyone else faced. But the Principal and Associate Principal went out of their way to demonstrate their power over me, frustrating my work and personally harassing me. It was a way of constantly reminding me that, no matter how much I complained, no one would ever find out what was happening to me and no one would ever stop them.
Anti-Black racism is often much more subtle than someone saying the n-word, making racist jokes, or openly insulting a Black person. It is mainly about treating Black people differently from non-Black people: showing suspicion of them, not giving them the benefit of the doubt, not acknowledging or valuing their experiences, holding them to a higher standard than others, applying more scrutiny to their work, insisting on a stricter interpretation of the rules despite normal practices, or treating them as trouble-makers if they ever make a complaint about anything--and then pretending that all of this exceptional treatment, which Black people notice immediately, isn’t actually happening to them and is just business as usual. This is called gaslighting: trying to make us think that we are only imagining things and that the differential treatment, in whatever form it takes, isn’t real. These are the kind of things that led to my complaint in the first place, and the same kind of things that intensified in retaliation.
The worst of them, however, were acts of omission: in a number of instances when the Principal was a witness, either in person or in email communication, to acts of discrimination against me, he failed to intervene and meet his responsibilities as an employer designate to provide a safe, healthy, and harassment-free environment for all employees at Glendon College. In fact, as time passed, he not only ignored these acts, but also encouraged them as a means to deflect attention from my complaints against him and the Associate Principal and to discredit me as a credible complainant. It was this failure to intervene, in particular, that created the conditions for a racist smear campaign to emerge against me. When people commit an act of harassment, and see there are never any consequences, it encourages them to keep doing it. It emboldens them. It also signals to others that the person being targeted is fair game, and perhaps even deserves it. Before long, people just end up going along with the behaviour without even fully realizing what they are doing or what the impact is on the target.
In just a matter of months, I went from a popular Chair with 92.3% support of my colleagues to someone they increasingly perceived, and feared, as a threatening figure. It breaks my heart to think about the happy interactions I had with many of them, and of our last pleasant meetings together before I was driven out of the Department. In my physical absence, an imaginary Aimé Avolonto has appeared to take my place, strengthened by rumour, gossip, and innuendo, but that is not the real Aimé.
The second form of retaliation that followed my request for an investigation was the sudden emergence of harassment complaints against me. The first complaint was filed by the colleague who had been invited to give my speech at the Open House in March. She filed it on April 8, 2017, the day after the senior administration confirmed an investigation would proceed. The colleague’s complaint was processed by the Principal, who was the person I had named in my original complaint of anti-Black racism. Months later, the senior administration decided to re-investigate the complaint against me that had been dismissed by the Principal, with confirmation by the Employer, eight months earlier. In June 2017, during my six-week stress leave, the same Principal helped file two more complaints against me: this time, by two staff members in the Department of French Studies. By the time the investigator, Roger Beaudry of Aptus Solutions, began his work in July 2017, the investigation had already shifted its focus from my complaints of anti-Black racism against the Principal and Associate Principal to four separate harassment complaints against me. At the time, each of these complaints were allegations of personal harassment. Again, all of them emerged following my request for an investigation. Although I didn’t know it then, this shift in focus would determine the direction of the investigator’s work over the next four years: instead of looking into my complaints about anti-Black racism, the investigator turned his attention on me. As I will explain later in this letter, his so-called “investigation” turned out to be a prosecution.
A turning point in this awful history came at the end of April 2017, just before I started my stress leave. At that time, my colleagues and I in French Studies had completed a successful multi-day planning retreat together. I felt so optimistic about the outcome of the retreat, despite the ongoing retaliation from the Principal and Associate Principal. In the days afterward, I received many heartfelt notes of congratulation from my French Studies colleagues, thanking me for the role I played in helping organize and lead the retreat. I often read and re-read these messages late at night when I can’t sleep, and I continue to wish we could all return to that time. On April 28, 2017, in a sign that my colleagues still had confidence in me, I put forward a motion at Faculty Council to oppose an initiative from the Principal’s Office that perpetuated negative stereotypes about Black people, especially students and young people. The motion carried overwhelmingly. On April 29, 2017, I emailed the Executive Committee to announce that the top choice of the Department’s hiring committee, which had successfully completed its months-long search in February 2017, had accepted the Principal’s offer of a full-time appointment. The successful candidate was a Black woman. The turning point was set in motion by a colleague on the Department’s Executive who responded to the announcement by saying the hiring committee had made the wrong choice and by threatening that the hiring, if it were to proceed, would “create chaos” in the Department.
The Principal, as described above, was part of this communication, but he didn’t intervene in it. His failure to speak up and defend the hire was significant: it was the Principal and, ultimately, the Provost who were responsible for deciding whether they would accept the recommendation of the hiring committee, which they did. It was they who approved the recommendation to hire the Black woman. But anger about the hire was not directed at them; nor did the Principal take responsibility for his decision. Instead, he allowed me to become the target of the colleague’s anger, as if I alone directed the hiring committee and had power over the Principal and Provost.
In the days that followed my announcement, on email threads and in private conversations, there were attempts to blame me for the “wrong choice” of the hiring committee and to suggest I lied about the committee’s decision. In response to my announcement about the committee’s “unanimous recommendation” to hire the Black woman, the colleague who threatened chaos if the hire proceeded accused me of lying about the composition of the vote that led to the endorsement. This was a bad-faith accusation, as colleagues well know the difference between the vote to rank the top candidate and the common practice, once the outcome of the vote is known, for the entire committee to recommend the top candidate unanimously.
The allegations and accusations that began to fly, which was around the time I had to take a six-week stress leave, increasingly targeted me and me alone: the only Black professor on a hiring committee where all other colleagues were white or non-Black. I only became aware of the appallingly racist content of these complaints in a document I would later receive from the investigator: that the Black woman was not actually qualified to be hired; that she was only recommended because the Black professor on the committee single-handedly bullied everyone else to endorse her; that everyone else feared an allegation of racism by the Black professor; that the Black professor only endorsed the Black candidate because she, too, is Black; that the Black professor and the Black candidate probably know each other (because they are both Black); and so on. That the top candidate had outstanding qualifications, an impressive research and funding record, extensive teaching experience at the undergraduate and graduate levels, impeccable spoken and written French, two doctorates, and a successful job talk and interview didn’t matter. Indeed, most of the complaints were coming from colleagues who were not on the hiring committee, including some who missed the Black candidate’s job talk, but nevertheless repeated their views that another candidate, a white woman, should be hired.
What happened in the next few weeks was critical: during my sick leave, I was largely unaware of the discussions underway about me, although I did engage in some email communication with colleagues. On May 25, 2017, I attended a meeting of the Senate, in my capacity as an elected Senator for Glendon College. At the previous Senate meeting in April 2017, there had been some discussion about the widely reported incident at Shoppers Drug Mart in York Lanes on the Keele campus where a Black student had been tackled by store security who thought the student was shoplifting. The student sustained a broken leg. Black students, their allies, and the York Federation of Students rightfully raised an outcry. During the Senate meeting in April, I was upset that the topic received so little attention and I insisted on more time to discuss it at the next meeting. Then-President Mamdouh Shoukri addressed my concerns and assured me the issue would get more attention the next time.
When I arrived at the Senate meeting on May 25, 2017, I soon realized that no time had been scheduled for a meaningful discussion of this topic. I was outraged. The whole campus was talking about this shameful incident, but it had barely a mention on the agenda, despite President Shoukri’s assurances in the previous meeting. I took the floor when I had the chance and talked about anti-Black racism, including my experience of it, for almost 18 minutes. I have no doubt some Senators were annoyed or uncomfortable, or perhaps both, but I was right to speak out at that time, especially in light of the discussions that, three years later, are now underway in almost every institution everywhere about systemic anti-Black racism. It is our duty to speak out against injustice at the moment it happens, and not hesitate because speaking out might be disruptive, inconvenient, or unpopular.
In my speech, I disclosed I was on a sick leave, in part, as a result of the racism I was experiencing at Glendon. But I didn’t name a single person in my speech, neither the Principal nor the Associate Principal. Nevertheless, the colleague who informed me, just a few weeks earlier, that the hiring committee’s decision to hire a Black woman was the “wrong choice” was in attendance at the Senate meeting where I spoke. When he returned to Glendon, he began to generalize that I had “accused everyone at Glendon of being racist.” I did no such thing, even though I would have had the right to do so if that had been my experience. In this case, it had not. Although I had always experienced various forms of low-level racist micro-agressions over the years, which all Black people learn to live with, my complaint at that time was with the Principal, the Associate Principal, and more and more the senior administration for failing to reel them in. Between the start of my sick leave, which began in early May, and the start of the Fall 2017 semester in September, I only appeared on campus a few times: three times at Keele and twice at Glendon after I returned from my sick leave in mid-June, and a few more times on both campuses in late August. During the sick leave, I made no appearance at Glendon at all. After my return, I was in France for most of July and for two weeks in August. It was during this long absence that the rumour that I had “accused everyone at Gendon of being racist” began to take root.
At the end of that critical Senate speech on May 25, 2017, I was in tears and feeling overwhelmed. As the meeting ended, then-Provost (and soon-to-be President) Rhonda Lenton approached me and attempted to comfort me. She proposed that I continue my sick leave indefinitely, until the investigation had been completed. But the investigation had not yet begun and I knew I would want to return to work as soon as I felt better. The incoming Provost and Vice-President Academic Lisa Philipps repeated this offer to me a few days later. I declined. Shortly after that, and just before I returned from my sick leave on June 16, 2017, the Principal, who was still facing my allegations of anti-Black racism against him, processed the two staff complaints against me. These complaints came out of nowhere, as my last in-person interaction with the two staff members was almost two months earlier, before my sick leave began, when we met for a small celebration in my office to wish one of them bon voyage for a long-planned holiday. Within days of returning to work, Provost Philipps summoned me to a meeting with her where she notified me of the two staff complaints and immediately removed me from the position of Department Chair and of Language Course Coordinator.
In that moment, the administration’s vastly differential response to complaints became crystal clear to me: I had been pleading for months for senior administrators to reel in the Principal and Associate Principal, but nothing ever happened. There was never any check on their behaviour towards me, just excuses trying to justify it or explain it away. But the minute someone complains about a Black colleague, senior administrators take swift and decisive action. Indeed, Provost Philipps even proposed moving me out of my departmental office to another building on campus, until my union representative pointed out to her the racism of segregating the only full-time Black professor in French Studies from all his colleagues and of taking steps to contain the only Black complainant (at that time) in the case. She relented, but still stripped me of my position as Chair. Meanwhile, the Principal and Associate Principal faced no serious interim measures, if any at all.
By the time the investigation began in July 2017, the stakes had become extremely high for me. I could get no hearing from senior administrators, who were clearly lining up to protect the Principal and Associate Principal, and not just allowing the retaliation to continue, but also trying to defend it. I could also see the sharp contrast between how the administration was going to handle complaints by me versus complaints against me. I accordingly put all my hope--and trust--in the investigation. In a matter of months, however, I would discover that it was never really intended to investigate my complaints, but was just another tool of the administration to discredit me, to deny and dismiss my allegations of anti-Black racism, and, in the end, to provide cover for firing me.
The experience of never being believed, of never being heard or listened to, of never being taken seriously, or of never being acknowledged is utterly exhausting and debilitating. It is something that Black colleagues feel all the time and in the most commonplace situations: in daily interactions with non-Black people, in committee meetings or group discussions, when we try to share our insights or knowledge, and especially when we try to talk about what anti-Black racism feels like. It’s even harder when you try to make a complaint. This is why I was so desperate to talk to the investigator who had been hired following my formal complaint: except for my union representative, no one wanted to hear what I had to say about my experience. I felt like I was going to burst. I just needed to talk to someone who would hear my story.
Sadly, my hopes would soon be dashed. I only ended up having two sittings with the investigator: two and a half days at the end of August 2017 and two and a half days in mid-November that year. That was three and half years ago! Those two sittings would be the only times I was able to discuss my complaint with him, and not a minute of it provided any semblance of relief for me. At times, the investigator didn’t hide his disbelief, impatience, or even boredom during my testimony. He claimed he was only interested in allegations, and didn’t want to hear about any of my evidence, even though this made it harder to tell my story. In my first meeting with him, when my union representative asked him how he understood anti-Black racism, the investigator said something like: “Don’t worry, gentleman! My ex-wife is racialized.” This failed to reassure us. Things got worse every time he would attempt to summarize my testimony: either framing what had happened to me as a completely normal practice (and not as differential treatment) or describing my allegations in over-the-top terms that would be impossible to believe, never mind prove. His distortions of my complaint would have serious consequences for me, especially his summary, echoing my colleague’s unfounded report, that I “accused everyone at Glendon of being racist.” Every time he said this, I tried to correct him, but to no avail. I was soon battling him to represent my complaint accurately and sensitively. My trust in him would wane after every interaction with him.
The investigator’s conduct towards me was the same for other Black colleagues and staff who had their own complaints of anti-Black racism, some of whom were also witnesses to my experiences, and for anyone who showed the slightest bit of sympathy for my case. Before he would interview them, he would inform them of the allegations facing me (even before I was aware of them), as if to discourage them from testifying or having any association with me. Both in written communication and during interviews, the investigator also misrepresented my complaint in the same way he had done during my sittings with him: that I had “accused everyone at Glendon of racism,” for example, and that I alone held this view, while every other faculty member he interviewed believed that I was the problem. It had the effect of isolating me, undermining my allegations, depicting me as a threat to everyone, and generating feelings of hurt and betrayal among colleagues against whom I had no actual complaint. Imagine the impact it would have had on their testimony, if they truly believed I had falsely accused them of racism. The investigator also used the same tactic on other participants as he did on me: summarizing their testimony in a way that normalized the differential, race-based behaviour towards me that they attempted to describe to him; and framing their testimony in a way that made it incomprehensible, often repeating the lines “I am just trying to understand” or “help me understand” as a way to signal that what they were saying was not clear or understandable. It left some of my witnesses in tears afterwards.
As a person of authority, the investigator would have enjoyed the unquestioning trust of the colleagues and staff he interviewed, who would have had no reason to disbelieve him or question the accuracy of his depiction of me and my allegations. And in most cases, because of his insistence on the need for confidentiality, I would have had no way to find out what he was saying about me in those private interviews or email communications, except that some colleagues, who were disturbed by his conduct towards me, revealed it to me and complained to the Employer about it. This reveals a serious blind-spot in the investigation process: participants must put all their trust in the investigator, who is hired and paid by the Employer, to do the right thing. There is no mechanism to hold the investigator to account, to compare his conduct from one participant to the next, to hear what he says about complainants like me before he interviews witnesses, to understand why some witnesses say the things they do, and so on. Complainants like me, whose complaints are directed at Employer designates, must put their fate in the hands of an investigator who is contracted by the Employer and who, presumably, hopes to be hired by other employers in the wake of his investigation. On this level alone, it is a deeply flawed process.
The investigator’s conduct towards Black witnesses and potential complainants who are Black was even worse, and should be seen as racist acts in their own right. I am aware of Black faculty and students who contacted the investigator to share their own experiences of anti-Black racism at Glendon College, which would have corroborated or strengthened my allegations, but he never returned their calls or email messages. One Black witness, who had documented numerous incidents of anti-Black racism that she had experienced during her time at Glendon, and with many of the same people who had targeted me, was discouraged by the investigator from continuing in the investigation altogether. He warned her that having any association with me would be bad for her career and she should consider mediation instead. During his interview with her, he was mainly interested in the nature of her relationship with me: how did she know me? Since when? How often did we talk? Did we have a relationship outside of work? Did I put her up to this? And so on. Although the witness had prepared in advance a nine-page document about her own experiences of racism, the investigator barely asked her about any of them. In the end, she was excluded from the investigation. Another Black witness, a female staff person, was asked repeatedly by the investigator about the nature of her relationship with me: again, how long did we know each other? What was our relationship outside work? Did I put her up to making allegations of anti-Black racism? He even asked her if we were having a sexual relationship. It was, and remains, completely humiliating. The overall effect of this conduct was to exclude the perspectives, experiences, and allegations of Black people from the report. Where they were included, their testimony was dismissed, disbelieved, or discredited.
Throughout these interviews, the investigator would warn my witnesses and other potential complainants that the process was strictly confidential and that they weren’t permitted to speak to anyone except their union representative about what had happened to them or what they said or learned during their interviews with him. What should have been assurances to encourage people to participate in the investigation instead functioned as threats to say nothing about any problems they observed about the investigator’s conduct, especially in the way he argued a case against me, as if acting as a prosecutor and not as an independent, fair-minded, accountable reviewer. I documented as many of these breaches as I could and brought them to the attention of the administration, which did nothing in response. At one point, my union representative broke down in tears in front of an employer designate when he explained the devastating impact of the investigator’s conduct on one Black woman in particular. Still, the administration did nothing except attempt to justify the investigator’s decision to conduct the investigation as he saw fit, regardless of its harmful effects on Black people and of its failure to meet the minimal expectations of natural justice.
As the investigation process itself developed into an independent source of harm for me and other Black people, I was still contending with the unchecked retaliation of the Principal and Associate Principal. It was June 2017 that I realized that messages from my Glendon email account were being forwarded to the Associate Principal, who was surveilling my communication with colleagues. Later that month, I discovered that all my sent email messages in my Glendon email account were rapidly being deleted. I was in a total panic. Since starting at York in 2004, I have meticulously managed all my email communication and regularly tracked email, so it wasn’t long before I noticed my disappearing messages. A huge part of the documented evidence of my allegations was in that correspondence: literally thousands of email messages that corroborated without question or ambiguity my version of events, what others were saying at the time, when and how I first complained about anti-Black racism, how the administration responded to me, and so on. The administration claimed that this allegation about deleted emails was impossible and that Glendon’s IT systems didn’t allow for such interference. I asked a staff person in the Glendon IT Office to help me recover all my disappearing email messages. He successfully recovered all of them and returned them to me on a USB key, which forms part of the mountain of evidence I have to corroborate my version of events. This surveillance and interference continue to this day.
As I struggled to get a hearing with the investigator, I also sought every public opportunity I could to set the record straight about what was happening to me and to dispel the rapidly spreading rumours about me. Two important occasions came in September 2017. At the General Assembly of the French Studies Department on September 15, 2017, I took on the rumour that, months earlier, I had failed in my capacity as Chair to deliver to the Principal’s Office the list of French Studies colleagues recommended for the Research Release Program (Article 18.15 in the YUFA Collective Agreement). I reminded everyone that the entire Executive Committee at the time was aware that I had already confirmed with the Principal’s Office the list of recommended colleagues. My union representative forwarded corroborating correspondence to Faculty Relations, but the rumours persisted and colleagues were privately warned they may lose their research releases because of my alleged incompetence. I also returned to the debate about the unresolved relationship between French Studies and the Centre for French-language Instruction, which is a separate unit from ours. My position throughout this debate, on the public record and in private correspondence, was to oppose ongoing attempts by the Principal to merge or combine the two units. I audio-recorded this discussion at the General Assembly, in which numerous colleagues spontaneously corroborate my version of events, and include it in my evidence.
The second occasion came ten days later, during the Glendon-wide Faculty Council meeting on September 25, 2017. By that time, I had become aware of how widespread the rumour was that I had “accused everyone at Glendon of racism.” A number of colleagues from units outside French Studies asked me directly if I had made such an accusation during my Senate speech. I dispelled these rumours as soon as colleagues told me about them, but I knew I also had to address them publicly, which I did at length in the Faculty Council meeting and which I also audio-recorded. Sadly, these rumours continued to spread.
Again, at every turn, I brought my concerns to the administration, which refused to act. In some instances, they instructed me to tell the investigator, but when I tried to do that, he would respond by saying it wasn’t his responsibility to deal with, and that I should notify the Employer. It was like spinning in circles. As the months passed, I could see another clear example of differential treatment: the investigator claimed he was too busy to meet me, but was apparently interviewing everyone else, even though the investigation was launched to investigate my complaints about anti-Black racism. When I objected to the double-standard, he changed his line, claiming that he was simply preparing for me a full document of emerging allegations against me. I found this confusing because he had already indicated to me in November 2017 that such a summary was almost ready. I wondered: what more is coming?
By the Spring of 2018, I had lost all confidence in the investigator, the so-called “investigation,” and the administration, and felt as if I needed to find another venue to hear my complaint and review my evidence. On June 15, 2018, I filed the first of what would be four separate complaints at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). In my first application, I named York University as the organizational respondent and six University employees as personal respondents. Two of them--Donald Ipperciel and Ian Roberge--were administrators at the time. The remaining four are either faculty or staff members. This information is publicly available and has been reported in the media. The Principal and Associate Principal had been the primary instigators of the racist harassment I was facing, while the other four employees had become involved in ongoing acts of retaliation and mobbing, which are forms of harassment. My hope was that the Tribunal would be a genuinely independent arbiter that could recognize the urgent human rights content of my complaint. Sadly, that first complaint remains stalled almost three years later, with no sign of a hearing anywhere in sight. The failure of the Tribunal to respond to my complaint in a timely manner exposes its chronic underfunding by the Ontario government and its total lack of resources, including a shortage of qualified and experienced adjudicators with lived experience of anti-Black racism and/or expertise about it. At the same time, I can’t help but remember the words of the Principal, during my meeting with him in his office on January 19, 2017, when he told me a human rights complaint against York “won’t make any difference. It won’t be anything that money can’t solve.” Similarly, I also recall the words of the investigator who, on more than one occasion, told me about his professional connections with people at the Tribunal, many of whom he claims to have trained. I have no evidence to prove a deeper connection than this, but these unreasonable delays are nevertheless a constant source of worry for me.
In August 2018, Provost Philipps summoned me to a meeting with her where she informed me I would no longer be permitted to perform any service in the Department of French Studies. My union representative objected, saying there were no reasons for further, discriminatory measures against me. Were there any new allegations, he asked. She confirmed there were none, but that, in her view, it was still in the interest of the Department for me to perform my service elsewhere. Just six weeks earlier, I had resisted the Provost’s offer for me to start a six-month sabbatical on September 1, 2018. I felt as if her sudden and unwarranted decision to remove me from the Department this way was an attempt to achieve the same outcome by others, and I experienced it as retaliation for not agreeing to accept her offer.
In the August meeting, the Provost also notified me that a colleague facing allegations of anti-Black racism (the colleague who continued to generalize that I had “accused everyone at Glendon of racism”) would now serve on the Executive Committee, a key decision-making body, and be in a leadership position. My union representative pointed out the racist nature of a decision that, on the one hand, imposes additional restrictions on a Black complainant, despite no new complaints, while promoting and advancing a white respondent. It didn’t change her mind.
At this point, nineteen months had passed after I first requested an investigation into my complaints, yet the investigator still couldn’t find time to meet me. I requested an emergency meeting with him. We met on October 10, 2018. The focus of our meeting, however, was not my complaint. It was the countless defects of the investigation I had documented over the previous year and the harmful impacts they were having on me and other Black people. I pointed out that his so-called “investigation” was fuelling rumours and generating complaints against me, including one by a staff person who filed a complaint against me after the investigator falsely informed her I was filing a complaint against her. In fact, I had clearly indicated to the investigator I had no complaint against the staff person. He shrugged it off and claimed she would have complained about me anyway. I also pressed him on the continued delay of his summary of allegations against me. In response, he suggested there was nothing substantively new in the summary and that it would be ready in a week or so. I wouldn’t receive it for another 51 days, over seven weeks later.
On November 30, 2018, the investigator emailed my union representative a document nearly 700 pages in length, which summarized the full allegations against me. Less than a day later, Provost Phillips put me on leave, removed me from all teaching, and informed me I could not attend anywhere at Glendon College or on Keele campus. The document was not simply a summary of the four complaints filed against me in the wake of my request for an investigation. Those complaints had evolved into something much more serious. Even worse, new complaints, going back more than ten years, suddenly appeared. One of them was what I feared most, as a Black man, the whole time I had been waiting for the summary: an allegation of sexual assault.
Before I continue, I want to make this absolutely clear: I support and defend the right of all women to come forward with complaints about their experiences of gender-based discrimination, harassment, or violence. Those complaints must be treated seriously; handled with sensitivity, care, and support for the complainants; processed in a timely and urgent manner; and fully investigated through well-established procedures that have integrity, accountability, and the confidence of all participants. However, this complaint against me was not treated in this way, although the colleague who brought it forward, like all members of the York University community, deserves nothing less than this rigorous standard.
This long-held view of mine is not at all counterposed to my right to defend myself against this colleague’s allegation against me and to insist on due process. To that end, and for absolute clarity, I completely reject every single allegation made against me in that report and in all other subsequent reports prepared by the investigator. In fact, I allege, and will prove with my evidence, that these are false, malicious, vexatious, and bad faith complaints and that they were filed with the knowledge of senior administrators at York University who endorsed and/or facilitated the recruitment of faculty and staff to participate in a smear campaign against me in order to deny, dismiss, and cover up my original allegations of anti-Black racism. I never thought I would see this day in my own workplace, but it has come to this. And all of you, my colleagues, deserve to know exactly what our employer has done over the last four years and what it continues to do to this day. This is the sad and shocking reality of York University today, at least for Black people like me.
I will also add, for the benefit of non-Black readers, that Black colleagues are painfully aware of the racist tropes about Black men that are widespread in the world we live in: that they are hyper-sexualized beings who prey on women, especially white women, and who can’t control themselves, as if they are animals. As Black men, we accordingly and continuously, in all our social interactions, worry about the possibility that a white person will somehow misinterpret our conduct in this light, no matter what it is. We constantly worry about the threat of allegations of inappropriate behaviour, in the same way that Black parents constantly worry about their Black sons every time they leave the house. For example, it is a common practice among some colleagues in French Studies (at both Keele and Glendon campuses) to greet each other with a light kiss on both cheeks: or faire la bise, as it is described in French-speaking cultures. But I have always been uneasy about it, in light of these fears that Black men carry and of the racist tropes that may live in the heads of some non-Black colleagues or staff.
Indeed, I raised this fear with the investigator when I met him on October 10, 2018. I could already see a pattern of increasing retaliation against me at every moment I refused to back down. The more I continued to press ahead with my allegations, the more serious the allegations against me would become. The trajectory was obvious and predictable. Again, he gave no indication that such an allegation was forthcoming or had been made already.
Just two days after this meeting with the investigator, on October 12, 2018, a pivotal event occurred: the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario formally notified York University and six of its employees that I had filed a human rights complaint against them. Although I filed the complaint months earlier, on June 15, 2018, the backlog at the Tribunal means that respondents don’t usually get notified for many months afterwards. More than anything else I had done thus far, my human rights complaint would have signalled to the administration that I had no intention whatsoever of backing down or going away. In fact, it would have signalled my willingness to take the matter outside of York University and into the public realm. It was in the wake of this notification, and of my October 10, 2018 meeting with the investigator, that I had been expecting to receive within a week the long-promised summary of allegations against me. But it wasn’t ready in a week. The investigator suddenly needed more time. It would be ready at the end of the month, he said. But it wasn’t ready then, either. Nor was it ready two weeks after that. In the end, it wouldn’t arrive for another seven and a half weeks.
Like the investigation itself, this report deserves a discussion all its own, but I will limit myself to just a few observations. First, this was much more than “a summary of allegations,” as had been promised for many months. It was a full report, with chapters, appendices, preliminary conclusions, and what it claimed to be “evidence”--approaching 700 pages in total. Although the investigator discouraged me from providing evidence during my only two sittings with him (in August and November 2017), he had clearly sought “evidence” from everyone else he interviewed. It was clear that the size and scope of the document were meant to demoralize me, but this was no longer about getting me to back down: the administration was laying the groundwork to fire me. The leave of absence the administration imposed on me was just the next in a series of connected steps to get me out of the Department, out of Glendon College, and, eventually, out of York University.
Second, while new complaints appeared in the report, which were different from the four complaints filed against me in the wake of my request for an investigation, the investigator repeated and referred to them so frequently, from one chapter to the next, that I could barely keep track of how many allegations I was facing. They became indistinguishable from one another. Every possible incident or interaction, in which I might have disagreed with a colleague at one time or another, was listed as if they represented complaints. It was completely overwhelming and created the impression that almost no one at Glendon College had ever had a positive experience with me. Apparently, the College was under siege by me from the first day I arrived in 2004. I even learned that the investigator inquired about the circumstances of my original hiring, to see if I intimidated York colleagues into hiring me! In addition, the investigator claimed that my alleged reign of terror included my conduct on the hiring committee in French Studies, which endorsed a Black woman as the top candidate, as I have already explained. In his report, no fewer than 32 separate allegations of misconduct were directed at me and me alone, the only Black faculty member on a committee where all other colleagues are white or non-Black. I am still amazed at the imagined power that I apparently wielded over all my colleagues who, according to the investigator, still live in fear that I will maliciously accuse them of racism at any moment.
Third, the kind of “evidence” included in the document was shocking. In one whole section, the investigator included pictures that show some of the people who face allegations of anti-Black racism interacting with Black or racialized people, as if such relationships rule out the possibility that they could engage in discriminatory race-based behaviour towards me or other Black people. Drawing this conclusion is simply another version of the line, “I’m not racist. Some of my best friends are Black!” Other forms of “evidence” were outright lies or total fabrications. In another section, the investigator included two long email threads from June 2017, each of which showed the correspondence between a student and various Departmental staff and employer designates who were discussing my conduct as a teacher. The email messages represented formal complaints by the students about me, one of them in English and the other in French. The messages were incredibly detailed, listing all the dates of the alleged incidents, the name of the courses, and almost all the same allegations that the Associate Principal first levelled against me in that fateful meeting in January 2017: that I was sexist and homophobic, that I thought of myself as God, that I terrorized students and made them cry, and so on.
The only problem is that I didn’t teach those courses! After only one class, I was forced to take my six-week stress leave at the beginning of May 2017. One of the courses was cancelled, and the other was completed by a contract faculty member. But I didn’t teach either of them, and was on stress leave during that entire period.
Yet here were two long, detailed email threads, remarkably similar to one another, with the students’ names redacted, describing my conduct in classes that I never taught, all purporting to prove that I had engaged in this conduct. It was an outrage to see fabrications like this, in writing: that such sloppy and obvious fabrications were cited as evidence spoke to the overwhelming sense of impunity that my persecutors have in advancing these kinds of baseless and unfounded allegations.
Perhaps they genuinely believed that all my evidence (email correspondence, text messages, meeting minutes, etc.) had been successfully deleted from my Glendon email account or other devices, that it would be their words against mine, and that I would have nothing but my word to make my case. Or maybe they thought that none of this, including the glaring contradictions and falsehoods in the reports, would ever see the light of day because of the “need for confidentiality.” Or maybe my complainants were assured they would face no challenges whatsoever to the allegations they brought against me. Regardless of what built their confidence to act this way, there is no doubt that the more impunity they felt to act, the more indiscreet they became in their actions.
Fourth, the report largely excluded, minimized, and even demeaned the perspectives of Black people at Glendon College, who either attempted to advance their own complaints or who tried to corroborate my own. In one reference to a Black staff person, the investigator attempts to minimize her credibility by saying she has been complaining about racism for 20 years. Without even elaborating what her experience might have been, the investigator simply dismisses her like a broken record that repeats an unpleasant refrain. The most obvious exclusion of Black people is the investigator’s almost singular reliance on the experiences of white people, most of them facing allegations of anti-Black racism, to determine whether racism exists at all at Glendon College or whether they have witnessed it themselves. Indeed, the investigator “corroborates” the testimony of white or non-Black people facing allegations of anti-Black racism by referring to the testimony of other white or non-Black people facing allegations of anti-Black racism. In particular, the investigator turns to the Principal and Associate Principal more than anyone else to say that my allegations are false and that the allegations against me are true. As a result, the investigator draws the preliminary conclusion in this report that I am lying about every single thing I have experienced and simply making up allegations to deflect long-standing complaints about me, even though the record shows that my complaints long predate complaints against me, which only emerged after I complained in the first place.
This report would provide the template for all other reports that the investigator subsequently generated: each one over a thousand pages and, in large part, it seems a cut-and-paste job of the one that preceded it. The approach is also the same: exclude, minimize, and demean the perspectives of Black people, while relying almost entirely on the unsupported and untested testimony of white people facing allegations of anti-Black racism. These subsequent reports, which President Lenton and Provost Philipps have cited as justification to fire me, also replicate the same sloppiness in their fabrication of “evidence,” the same sense of arrogance and impunity, and the same over-the-top conclusions as the first one: that there is no evidence of racism at Glendon College and that I am making it all up to harm white people who have legitimate complaints against me. In the current context, in which the whole world is engaged in a discussion about the widespread and systemic nature of anti-Black racism in all our institutions, it is beyond belief that anyone would take such claims seriously, even for a moment. It is a scandal that President Lenton and Provost Philipps have read these reports (or so they claim), have accepted and endorsed their conclusions (in the face of overwhelming and publicly available evidence to the contrary), have publicly generalized the conclusions to colleagues and staff at Glendon College, and have acted on them to fire me.
For the sake of my colleagues in French Studies and at Glendon, where the rumours about me continue to circulate, I will attempt to summarize the most serious allegations against me and show you how they cannot be true. First, let me address the number and nature of formal complaints. As I have indicated above, there were four complaints filed against me in 2017, all of them in the wake of my request for an investigation: two were filed by faculty members (one of these complaints had already been dismissed) and two were filed by staff members. The first faculty member accused me of personal harassment in response to an email message I sent to her in which I asked her to stop publicly and repeatedly needling me and in which I asserted my union rights. In other words, my request for her to stop unwelcome behaviour towards me was characterized as an act of harassment towards her, a threat to her safety and security. The second faculty member also accused me of personal harassment, in the exact same complaint she had filed against me the year before and which, at that time, had been dismissed by the Employer eight months previously. As I have already discussed, there was a gap of three months between the time the Employer informed me of this complaint in May 2016 and the time I learned its contents in August 2016. At that time, the Employer also made clear to me, in writing, that the complaint was not Code-based, following advice to the colleague from the Centre for Human Rights. That would all change by the time I received the November 30, 2018 report. The complaints by the two staff members, which the Principal processed, were nearly identical in length, structure, writing style, and nature of the allegations: essentially, that I had been terrorizing them for years and that they had been living in fear of me throughout that time. Again, the documented record of my communication and interaction with them showed a completely different story, but I was still amazed that they would feel confident at making allegations that could so easily be challenged.
Aside from these four original complaints, there was a fifth complaint, which only appeared in the November 30, 2018 report: the allegation by a faculty member of sexual assault. It was clear that this was a formal complaint and it appeared in a chapter all its own in the report. It wasn’t always clear to me, however, whether the other new “complaints” that appeared in the report were actually formal complaints or attempts by the investigator to “corroborate” the four complaints filed in 2017.
In any case, there are three broad allegations, in general, around which all other allegations are clustered. In each report the investigator has generated, he makes repeated reference to them and concludes that they are true--even without my having been able to respond to them, provide my version of events, or challenge them with my evidence. His first main conclusion is that I have never actually experienced any forms of anti-Black racism at Glendon College, that my complaints are malicious and vexatious, and that I only filed them to deflect attention away from the supposed long-standing complaints against me. My Senate speech on May 25, 2017 is repeatedly cited as the smoking gun: where, according to him, I made up false claims to hide my own abusive behaviour towards others. In other words, the best defence is a good offence. The investigator claims that I had no business raising this issue in the Senate, even though it was on the Senate agenda and other non-Black Senators also addressed it. As President Lenton and Provost Philipps are well aware, the Senate is a deliberative body and the speech of Senators is protected. Yet they have accepted the investigator’s claim that my speech was “malicious” and “vexatious.” The investigator further concludes, largely as a result of this speech, that, by July 2017, I had single-handedly poisoned the Department and that my colleagues were living in fear of me.
A cursory glance at the documented timeline shows, as I have demonstrated throughout this letter, that the complaints against me emerged in the wake of my request for an investigation, and continued to intensify the more I insisted on pursuing it. It also shows that I named no one in my Senate speech. In any case, it is not a crime to speak publicly about what it feels like to be a Black person at York University. And as I have also discussed above, I enjoyed widespread public support from my colleagues, at both the multi-day retreat and the Faculty Council meeting that took place in late April 2017. That was my last real interaction with my colleagues before I went on a six-week stress leave. About three weeks after returning from the leave, I was overseas for seven weeks. How was it possible, according to that timeline, that I single-handedly poisoned the workplace by July? If colleagues did indeed fear an allegation of anti-Black racism from me, it certainly wasn’t because of any threats by me. This false perception was cultivated by the colleague who generalized that I had “accused everyone at Glendon of racism” in my Senate speech, and by anyone who uncritically accepted, and then repeated to more people, his version of events.
The investigator’s second main conclusion is that, for many years, I had been secretly pursuing the colleague whose May 2016 complaint about me had been dismissed by the Employer in September 2016. For my Glendon colleagues who followed the debate in late 2015 and early 2016 about what kind of organizational relationship should exist between French Studies and the Centre for French-language Instruction, you will recall that my consistent public position (and private position, for those of you in correspondence with me) was opposition to a merger of any kind and support for keeping the units separate. Despite all the documented evidence to confirm this, the investigator nevertheless concludes that I was actually campaigning in secret the whole time for the opposite outcome: to merge the two units as the means to bring the colleague closer to me and under my control. The investigator drew on three sources to confirm his theory: the colleague herself, the Principal, and a once close French Studies colleague of mine who allegedly told the investigator that I secretly confessed my sinister hidden plan to him.
I am still in disbelief at my French Studies colleague’s testimony: that I confessed some kind of secret plan to him. Did he really say this to the investigator, despite all the correspondence between us to the contrary? Or was it convenient for the investigator to depict his testimony this way, assuming my unwitting colleague would never know about it? The Principal, for his part, told the investigator that, as Chair, I was incompetent, “needy,” always in his office, always seeking his help and guidance, and trying to insert myself into discussions about the future of French Studies and the Centre, when I had no reason to participate in the discussion. Apparently, none of the correspondence from the Principal to me, in which he invites me, often publicly, to participate and thanks me for my service, matters anymore. Whatever the two white people facing allegations of anti-Black racism have to say is all the investigator needs to draw his conclusion.
More troubling about the investigator’s conclusion is that he failed to conduct even the most basic review of the readily available documentary evidence. For example, the colleague who alleges that I was secretly pursuing her for years told the investigator that she was fearful of answering her phone because of how often I allegedly called her. She claimed that I always called her on her personal cell phone; that it was not normal for colleagues to call each other on anything other than their Glendon office phone numbers; and that I always called her late at night, outside normal business hours, and on weekends. In her testimony, she complained that my calls had an “unnecessarily abusive frequency” and that her boyfriend at the time was a witness to this alleged harassment. From this testimony alone, the investigator concluded the following: “The evidence establishes that a reasonable person in Avolonto’s position… would have understood that reaching __________ on her personal telephone late in the evenings at the frequency described would be experienced by her as vexatious…. The conduct was vexatious and it was part of the continuing course of harassing conduct Avolonto perpetrated on __________.”
I attempted to share my phone records with the investigator, but he was not interested in my evidence, only in allegations. If he had reviewed my phone records, he would have seen that, over a three-year period, there were only five dates in total on which I called this colleague. The calls only ever took place on a Monday, a Wednesday, or a Thursday (not a single one was on the weekend). All the calls except one took place during normal business hours (one short phone call took place at 8:44 p.m. and lasted one minute). And the Principal and a different Associate Principal at the time were aware that I was in contact with this colleague for ongoing discussions about a work matter, which all of us were frequently discussing. The record of my email communications to them shows this, including the scheduling of meetings to talk about the outcome of my discussion with the colleague about a proposal that the Principal and Associate Principal encouraged me to raise with her.
By contrast, the colleague who accused me of harassment failed to indicate how many phone calls that she had made to me during this period and how many were on my cell phone, outside of normal business hours, or on weekends. She also failed to acknowledge that she had long been texting me throughout this period, including into the Winter 2016 semester, and that every single text exchange I had ever had with this colleague had been initiated by her. She also failed to clarify that colleagues at Glendon and, indeed, at the rest of the University, frequently communicate with each other on their personal cell phones, including with the Principal’s Office, and that it is not at all an unusual practice. Why then attempt to depict it in this manner when describing the conduct of a Black colleague? This is completely racist. So, too, is failing to take even a cursory glance at the documentary evidence, which remains readily accessible and would show these allegations are totally false, but still proceeding to draw devastating and unfounded conclusions about me based solely on what one white woman claims, with the backing of the Principal who himself is facing allegations of anti-Black racism. It is a total scandal, and an expression of white supremacy and systemic anti-Black racism, that these allegations have gone this far and are contributing to my defamation and demise despite the obvious records that show they are false. Yet this is the general approach the investigator took to almost every single allegation against me. This unethical, immoral, and racist conduct warrants its own investigation by the Law Society of Ontario into the potential professional misconduct of Roger Beaudry of Aptus Solutions.
The investigator’s third main conclusion is about the allegation of sexual assault. I find it extremely demeaning and humiliating even to talk about it. It is especially upsetting because the allegation was made by a colleague with whom I had closely collaborated for many years and whom I considered a friend and ally. In her allegation, she claimed: that I forcibly kissed her on the lips during a meeting in my office at Glendon College on September 22, 2016; that before I kissed her, I ranted wildly for ten minutes without interruption about all the extra-marital affairs I allegedly have and that I similarly wanted to have an affair with her; and that when she declined my overtures, I told her: “I am a very strategic person and always manage to get the better of my victims. I am like a snake in the Savanna that waits silently for his prey to approach.” She further stated that she was so fearful of me after this meeting that she avoided all contact and interaction with me from that point forward and never allowed herself to be alone with me. The Principal corroborated the colleague’s allegations, by claiming she came to him at the time to report it, but declined to file a formal complaint.
I will make it clear again that I completely reject every word of this allegation. I am a Black man who was born and raised in Benin, a small country in West Africa where I lived until 1990, but I do not liken myself to “a snake in the Savannah” or to any other predatory animal. Such words belie common racist projections about Black people. If that is not enough to call into question this allegation, please consider this evidence. First, the colleague who claimed to be living in fear of me as of September 22, 2016 continued to work closely with me in a completely normal professional and personal capacity for the next nine months, during which time we exchanged hundreds of text messages, made dozens of phone calls to each other, met on campus and off campus with others and by ourselves to conduct our shared work, and in all other respects had a pleasant relationship as colleagues, which was publicly visible to everyone who knew and worked with us. Indeed, just two days after the alleged assault, the colleague came to my house for Sunday brunch with my wife and me, and spent the rest of the day working with me on a shared file. Her text messages to me in the weeks and months that followed included requests to pick her up or drop her off at the subway, to run errands for her, to help her organize meetings in her own department and mobilize colleagues to attend, to seek my advice on countless questions, to complain about her colleagues in her department and about Principal Ipperciel, and so on. She even suggested we have dinner to celebrate the resounding success of the April 2017 retreat. All of these messages are part of the documented evidence I have been waiting to share.
Second, although I did have a meeting with this colleague on September 22, 2016, it was not in my office at Glendon College. It was in her office at the Keele campus, over 14 km away from my office. The record of text messages shows that her claim about trying to escape from my office and fleeing afterwards cannot be true. Her texts to me before the meeting announce that she was running late and ask me to bring her a coffee, which I happily did. After a completely normal meeting with her, it is I who left her office, not the other way around. Her texts, emails, and phone calls to me in the days and weeks after the meeting continued with the same frequency and friendly tone as before. None of this evidence is taken into consideration in the investigator’s report.
Third, although the Principal claims he knew of the alleged assault at the time, it is simply unbelievable that he would do nothing about it. If her allegation were true, it would have meant the Principal, an employer designate, failed to act following the disclosure of a sexual assault. In fact, my email records show that, far from trying to keep the two of us separated, the Principal repeatedly encouraged us to work together, on the hiring committee, on deepening the collaboration between French Studies at Glendon and French Studies at Keele, and on other initiatives. What brought to an end my communication with this colleague was not our meeting on September 22, 2016; it was her sudden promotion to a position in the Principal’s Office nine months later and her decision shortly after that to participate in the Principal’s retaliation against me. I am still in disbelief at the outrageous nature of this allegation, and deeply hurt by it, especially in light of the documentary evidence that undermines every aspect of it. How could they think, for even a moment, that they would get away with this?
Again, none of my documentary evidence is considered in this or subsequent reports, which the Principal and the administration may have assumed had been successfully deleted, following the invasion of my email. Perhaps they also assumed I would no longer have any record of the hundreds of texts this colleague exchanged with me right up until June 2017. Fortunately, I have not only preserved all my communication from this entire period, but also copied it, secured it, and will rely on it in each of my four applications to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, once the disclosure and hearing processes get underway. My applications are publicly available to anyone, including the media, who requests them from the Tribunal.
The allegation of sexual assault is particularly offensive to me in the way it appeals to the growing sentiment to support survivors, while at the same time marshalling the racist trope about hyper-sexualized Black men. In the wake of the long overdue #MeToo movement, we have witnessed an improving public attitude toward survivors of sexual assault. As more women have felt confident to speak out about their painful experiences, they have created a better climate for others to come forward, to be believed, and to secure some form of justice. As I have already indicated, I have always supported this movement and, in fact, have a record of supporting survivors who have disclosed their experiences to me. I have similarly defended the right of all community members to bring forward complaints, to have them treated seriously and in a timely manner, and in a way that protects them. I likewise believe that such a right extends to complaints about racism and discrimination as much as they do about gender.
But combining this genuinely positive sentiment with the racist trope about hyper-sexualized Black men has the effect of weaponizing a hard-won progressive attitude towards racist ends. The authors of this allegation against me would have to have known how it would isolate me and demobilize any support for my allegations, especially among progressives who may be sympathetic to my situation, but who rightly want to be seen to be in support of anyone who comes forward about any experiences of gender-based discrimination, harassment, or assault. Despite all its talk about the need for confidentiality, the administration never took steps to prevent the spread of rumours, gossip, and innuendo about me in relation to these allegations: specifically, that I was a sexual predator who represented a threat to all women at Glendon College. Sadly, some colleagues appeared to accept these rumours as true. One of them, while passing me in the corridor at Glendon, spat in my path. Others just stopped talking to me. It remains deeply humiliating to me and is an affront to my dignity as a human being.
I have no doubt my accusers thought I would be too embarrassed or ashamed of an allegation like this one to keep fighting, and that I would be more afraid of its becoming public than not having the chance to have my complaint heard. But they are wrong. I did not commit those acts. I have done nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about or to apologize for. But I do have the right to defend myself and challenge this unrelenting defamation of my personal character and professional reputation. And my attempt to do so should not be seen as an attack on the rights of women to bring forward their own complaints. That the rights of women and survivors have been so cynically--and falsely--counterposed to my rights as a Black man to work in an environment free from racist harassment and retaliation is unconscionable. To be clear, both sets of complaints--the one about gender, and the one about race--should have been investigated. Unfortunately, neither was properly investigated.
It is to the gender-based allegations against me that President Lenton, Provost Philipps, and other administrators and employer designates repeatedly refer when they cite “gender concerns” about my case. During a recent student-led town hall that took place the day after the “Black on campus” broadcast, President Lenton responded to questions about my case by saying she was trained as a sociologist and cannot ignore the “gender issues” that my case allegedly raises. Curiously, President Lenton’s concern about gender doesn’t appear to extend to the multiple complaints about anti-Black racism that have been filed by Black women at York University, including complaints by full-time faculty, contract faculty, and staff. Those cases face similar attempts by the administration to deny and dismiss them and to discredit the complainants, but they do not enjoy at all any of the professed concerns for gender that President Lenton has for my white accusers.
And if any of you think it’s controversial, inappropriate, or unimaginable to allege that white women (or the police, the State, or large institutions) could make false allegations of sexual harassment or assault against Black men, I invite you to review the cases of Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys, the Central Park Five, and Christopher Cooper, and the countless others that have been widely documented over literally hundreds of years. The experience of Christopher Cooper is particularly timely and shows an awareness among some white people of the impact it will have on Black men to accuse them of something they have not done: that the white accusers will immediately be believed and the Black accused will immediately be assumed to be guilty. Christopher Cooper’s accuser, Amy Cooper (no relation), not only made that threat, but also acted on it, calling the police twice and filing a false report. The police responded and, without the video evidence that Christopher Cooper provided of the entire episode, he could have faced a completely different, and possibly fatal, outcome.
If you have read this far, you are probably feeling overwhelmed by everything I have talked about. That may well be the case, but I want you to think about what the last five years of my life have been like, not only for me, but also for my family. My wife, a Black woman, has worked at Glendon College as long as I have. Our three children, now all in their late teens and early twenties, have either graduated from York or are just finishing up. They have been witnessing this whole time the debilitating impact this experience has had on me. They live this nightmare as much as I do. But as much as my wife and I try to protect them from it, they cannot help but see what has become of their father. On a daily basis, I experience a gamut of emotions: anger, fear, anxiety, panic, shame, humiliation, desperation, and helplessness. Over time, these emotions have manifested physically in the form of panic attacks, breathlessness, throat and chest constrictions, migraine headaches, body aches, insomnia, fatigue, nightmares, night sweats, and exhaustion. In recent months, my children have also begun to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks.
The most shameful experience I feel is my frequent sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair: that no matter what I do, how much I complain, or whom I tell, none of this will ever stop and nothing will ever change. The decline of my mental health has required regular treatment and intervention by my family doctor and a psychologist. My entire family has my doctors’ phone numbers and my union representative’s phone number in their phones and know the protocol to support me in an emergency situation. On a number of occasions, I have been suicidal and at imminent risk of self harm. When President Lenton first initiated termination procedures against me, in August 2020, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way she described me in her dismissal letter to me: as a “dangerous” and “unrepentant” offender and a threat to the York University community. Early one morning, I left my house and wound up at a walk-in clinic where I was rushed by ambulance to the hospital for an emergency psychiatric assessment. The hospital kept me for hours before releasing me.
In response, my union representative sent an urgent email message to the Employee Well-Being Office, indicating that I had been at risk of self-harm, following an incident of suicidal ideation, and could not attend the meeting where President Lenton was planning to fire me. He included the discharge note from the hospital, but didn’t get a response from the Employer for three days. At that time, Dan Bradshaw, the Assistant Vice-President Labour Relations, and head of Faculty Relations at York, wrote back to my union representative to say the Employer was unconvinced of my need to delay the meeting, that I had provided insufficient evidence of any need for accommodation, and that the administration expected me to be present at the meeting. This response--of similarly denying the urgent healthcare needs, concerns, and experiences of Black people--was an echo of the Employer’s failure to accommodate a mental health disability that I developed during the course of harassment, retaliation, and mobbing I have experienced over the last few years and that, in the last two years, has made it impossible for me to have any interaction with the investigator. Up until he delivered his first report, on November 30, 2018, I had been requesting opportunities to be interviewed by him. But in the months that followed the report, my mental health condition worsened dramatically: the thought of even engaging him, or of knowing that he held my fate in his hands, was literally debilitating for me. Despite the medical documentation that both my doctors provided to confirm this disability and my subsequent need for accommodation, and despite a third, corroborating opinion by the Independent Medical Examiner requested by the administration, the Employer has repeatedly refused to accommodate my disability-based restrictions and support me. Consistent with that approach, they instructed the investigator to conclude the investigation without any input from me. This failure to accommodate my disability is yet another human rights violation in and of itself and the subject, among other complaints, of my second human rights application. As shocking as this seems, all signs leading up to that moment were predicting this outcome: the administration had no interest in hearing what I had to say about my experience and only wanted it to go away. They refused to do anything that would make my meaningful participation in the investigation possible and in a way that would not cause further harm to my health and well-being.
But as long as I can stay alive, my complaint won’t go away. And neither will I.
In every situation where I have tried to sound the alarm about what was happening to me and to other Black people, I have had little success. The administration has actively tried to cover up my complaints and, with the investigator, has successfully excluded my perspective from the investigation. The recent broadcast of “Black on campus” by The Fifth Estate, however, marks a significant turning of the tide. Hours after the broadcast, I started to receive messages of support from many of you, my colleagues at York, and from many more colleagues at other institutions. I will always be grateful to you for this. The broadcast also represents a major contribution to the deepening discussion about the experiences of Black people in the world today, a discussion that exploded in the protests that followed the racist murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020. Like so many other Black people, I am haunted by that eight-minute video of George Floyd’s death, and of his final, desperate words: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Shortly after his death, and at a particularly painful moment for me, I wrote to the administration to make another plea for the harassment to stop, letting them know that I couldn’t breathe anymore, either. The only thing they said in response was to remind me to say nothing about my experience and to respect the need for confidentiality. Regarding my actual complaint, they indicated they would respond “in due course.” That response came months later with a letter to initiate termination procedures against me.
The Employer’s insistence on the need for confidentiality throughout this entire period deserves more discussion. Confidentiality is meant to protect the integrity of an investigatory process and ensure the safe participation of complainants, respondents, and witnesses without the threat of retaliation. It is also meant to create conditions of de-escalation in the workplace while the investigation is conducted. While my tormentors freely repeated false allegations against me, without any regard to confidentiality, my supporters and I experienced an entirely different kind of confidentiality: a weapon that the administration used against us, effectively preventing me and my supporters from speaking out and, more critically, from exposing the conduct of the investigator and the defects of his so-called “investigation.” In effect, the administration’s repeated “need for confidentiality” has become a shield behind which it can hide to avoid any scrutiny of its behaviour and, by extension, any accountability to the York University community. Confidentiality should never be used to cover up behaviour that, in normal circumstances would be denounced and opposed. Nor should it be used to silence complainants or witnesses, who must have some kind of recourse to these kinds of acts. That is why, after almost five years of constantly being told to “respect confidentiality” and three years of waiting for the Tribunal to respond to my situation, I have no other choice but to blow the whistle as loudly as possible about what is happening to me and to other Black people at York University. All I have left is my voice and any of you who is willing to listen.
I will now share with you a few observations about this years-long experience of systemic anti-Black racism and retaliation at York University, in the hopes that other Black people in situations like mine will feel validated about their own experiences and that non-Black colleagues, who have likely never experienced or witnessed anything like this, will open their eyes to the reality of the Black colleagues around them. First, and probably the most urgent observation is this: for white administrators, an allegation about anti-Black racism is worse than the act of anti-Black racism itself. There is lots to say here about “white fragility” and about the expectation of Black people to “suck it up” in order not to offend or upset white administrators or colleagues who see themselves as enlightened, progressive, and/or anti-racist, even when they may be engaging in discriminatory acts based on race. In one recent phone conversation, for example, a white colleague casually informed me, as if doing me a favour, that people at the College are embarrassed by my “African clothes,” referring to the traditional Beninese shirts I sometimes wear. Although I found this offensive, I worried that my colleague’s sense of offense, if I showed any objection whatsoever, would be greater than mine and not worth the turmoil it would cause. So I said nothing. But in other instances, when Black people do object, they challenge the image of a social justice university that the administration cultivates. As our website says, we are “[a] community of changemakers working for a better future.” For the administration, it seems the brand of York University is more important than the lived experiences of Black community members.
Second, there is no correlation whatsoever between what the senior administration promotes in its widely circulated “Framework on Black Inclusion” and what Black community members experience on an ongoing basis. As I have indicated above, most of the active complaints about anti-Black racism at York University come from Black women, but many of them are not yet public. Many more have not been filed because of the fear of retaliation. Indeed, York’s very public treatment of me, especially its unashamed announcement that it considers my Senate speech on May 25, 2017 and my talking to the media about anti-Black racism as grounds for termination, has had the effect of silencing many others who would like to come forward. These particular practices of the administration, all of them expressions of systemic anti-Black racism and white supremacy, have created a climate of fear at the University, where even prominent, long-tenured professors, who are outspoken leaders in their fields, choose to keep their heads down when it comes to speaking out at York because of their perception of what it will mean for their careers. We are among the most privileged and protected of academic workers, yet it appears the current regime under President Lenton has disciplined academic freedom, our sense of free speech, and now our sense of justice. It is a truly sad state of affairs.
Third, the retaliation I have experienced is real, lasting, and debilitating. I hesitated to say the word “racism” in July 2016 because I had a sense of how administrators would react. But I completely underestimated the extent of their reaction until I made a formal complaint about anti-Black racism in February 2017. Although I have no regrets, and remain committed to this struggle until the end, I have a much deeper understanding of why so many people who experience anti-Black racism do their best to come to terms with it and live with it: if the administration pushes back and you don’t back down, they keep pushing back harder until you do back down or until you die. You might think that sounds hyperbolic, but I never in a million years would have thought my job, my conditions of work, and the behaviour of my colleagues would push me to the brink of suicide, a brink over which I have nearly passed more than once. Regardless of my own experience, I have so much respect and admiration for the Black students and staff, in particular, who enjoy none of the protections that faculty do, but who nevertheless are the most outspoken, the most principled, and the most solidaristic in their approach to the fight against anti-Black racism. I am inspired by them and want to be more like them, especially the students. And I think all of us should strive to do the same. They really are the future and they are already leading the way.
Fourth, the administration really has shown no interest in conducting a fair, impartial, or objective investigation. The longer it has dragged on, the more the administration has been able to use it as a weapon against me, gradually expanding the number, type, and seriousness of complaints against me--to the point that no one remembers that I was the original complainant in this process. And as more time passes, witnesses may struggle to remember what they saw or heard and begin to feel less urgency as I slowly disappear from their view. Ever more worrying is the deepening climate of fear and retaliation that the investigation has created in French Studies and at Glendon College. A common refrain I hear is this one: “If they can do this to you, Aimé, then imagine what they’ll do to me!” I used to hear refrains like this all the time, when I lived under a brutal dictatorship in Benin. What a disgrace that these colleagues are describing a modern, liberal arts College at the third largest university in Canada!
I will now conclude with two final thoughts. The first is a message to my colleagues at Glendon. Despite all that has happened in the last few years, and everything you have heard about me, I want you to think back to your last in-person interaction with me and remember the Aimé Avolonto who was part of our community for 13 years, and not the invisible monster who haunts your brains now. In the wee hours of the morning, when I cannot sleep and feel in a state of panic, I try to calm myself by reading your last emails to me, when we were all still friends and colleagues, and when going to work was something to look forward to, not something to dread. It sometimes helps, but I often end up in tears thinking about the impossibility of our current situation and how far away from all of you I feel.
Despite the retaliation I have experienced, including by colleagues and staff members, the blame for all that has happened to me lies with the Principal and Associate Principal, for their discriminatory race-based treatment of me in 2016 and for the years of their retaliation that have followed, and, ultimately, with President Lenton and Provost Philipps, for their failure to act at so many opportunities over the last few years and for deciding that protecting the reputations and career aspirations of the Principal and Associate Principal was worth the cost of destroying the Department of French Studies and, more seriously, the public reputation of Glendon College and York University. Some of you, my Glendon colleagues, were needlessly caught up in this retaliation, either wittingly or unwittingly, because the administration created the conditions in which you had to choose between two impossible choices: either backing my complaint and, as a result, facing similar forms of retaliation, or backing the administration or staying silent, in order to preserve your own careers and avoid facing what you perceived to be imminent allegations from me about anti-Black racism. It is truly a tragedy that it has come to this, especially the role the senior administration has played in cultivating this kind of climate.
If any of you found yourself in this situation, under pressure from the Principal, the Associate Principal, or any Employer designate, to participate in any way, either wittingly or unwittingly, in the harassment and retaliation I suffered, I strongly encourage you to notify YUFA (or YUSA) as soon as possible. It is the Employer’s responsibility to provide a workplace that is free from harassment for everyone, and that means taking steps to prevent the kind of mobbing activity that can so quickly and easily emerge, and get out of control, when employer designates fail to intervene at the earliest moments when discriminatory Code-based acts are reported. I also encourage colleagues who participated in good faith in the investigation process to request to see how your testimony appeared in the investigator’s reports. I am aware that, for some of you who genuinely believed that your testimony would help me, it was either distorted, misrepresented, or completely excluded. I know of one colleague whose critical perspective was shared over several hours of an interview with the investigator, but the investigator only included a single reference to this colleague in one of his 1,000-page reports and left out the testimony he shared that backed my version of events. I know of another colleague who resisted the investigator’s attempts to twist her words about racist acts she witnessed. After many hours of being interviewed, she could no longer continue and complained to the Employer. By contrast, the investigator falsely claimed, in writing, that this colleague declined to participate further once she learned of the damaging allegations against me. YUFA and YUSA should be deeply concerned about the rights of their members who engage in good faith, and trust the Employer to do the right thing, but who have no recourse whatsoever to test whether their statements appeared accurately or were manipulated in a way that causes real harm to other members.
The second and final thought that I will share with you as I conclude this letter is to invite you to take seriously the expectations the administration has raised in its “Framework on Black Inclusion.” Many Black colleagues have worked tirelessly to produce this document, building on years of often thankless, invisible, and unrecognized work that is only now beginning to get the credit and support it deserves. Those colleagues deserve our backing and encouragement as they navigate an environment in which they are painfully aware of cases like mine, and doing what they can behind the scenes to bring about some form of justice for me, but must also contend with the limits of working inside a system in which the day-to-day practices of the administrators above them don’t at all resemble the practices they claim to support in the Framework.
As much as President Lenton emphasizes her desire “to move forward,” as she did repeatedly in the student-led town hall on anti-Black racism on February 26, 2021, we can’t build a better future by denying or erasing what happened in the past or what continues in the present. Every meaningful struggle for justice has required an honest and sometimes painful reckoning: what is often described as truth and reconciliation.
If the administration’s “Framework on Black Inclusion” is to have any meaning or consequence whatsoever, it must include Black people like me and all the other Black people at York University whose experiences are not elevated in yFile or celebrated in faculty-wide memos or news releases, and whose experiences will be difficult and painful to acknowledge and discuss. At this moment in time, while every other institution in the post-secondary sector, and in society at large, is grappling with all the ways they have given expression to anti-Black racism and white supremacy, York University must also be a serious contributor to that discussion and in ways that build the confidence of every single member of our community, especially its Black members. It must not be a place of exception, however, where it adopts significantly lower standards of accountability than other post-secondary institutions, the rest of the public sector, or society at large.
It is not lost on me that I write this letter to you in the midst of the murder trial for Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police office who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for 9.5 minutes, killing him. It is devastating and traumatizing to watch one witness after another recall their repeated attempts to intervene, to get Chauvin’s knee off Floyd’s neck, to save Floyd’s life, and then to watch them describe their pain and guilt, almost a year later, about failing to stop Floyd’s death. I often wonder if a similar fate awaits me: that no matter how much I beg and plead for this to stop, or how much you do, it will just keep going until I can’t take it anymore.
What happens next in this process, and at this crossroads in history, will largely depend on how all of us respond, including the wider public. As colleagues, we face a choice about what side of history we want to be on. And whether we will be among those who speak out for what is right and just, despite how uncomfortable or unpopular it might be, or those who decide to say nothing.
Whatever we decide, we will have to decide soon.
I end this letter by thanking you for reading this far, and for taking whatever time you need to reflect on what I have shared with you. In the end, my appeal to you is a simple one: for you to see my humanity, to treat me as a human being, and to ensure the administration treats me, a Black man, as a human being, too.
Please sign this petition in support of Prof. Avolonto. The demands include:
York University cease all attempts to terminate Prof. Avolonto’s employment
York University facilitate Prof. Avolonto’s immediate return to work, including the assignment of teaching duties, and end the arbitrary and punitive leave it has imposed on him
York University take all necessary steps to stop the harassment and retaliation facing Prof. Avolonto
York University suspend the investigation by Roger Beaudry of Aptus Solutions and disclose all fees paid to him to date
York University President Rhonda Lenton, Provost Lisa Philipps, and Senior Policy Advisor Barry Miller recuse themselves from the handling of Prof. Avolonto’s case
In consultation with the community, an independent and external reviewer, with lived experience of anti-Black racism and/or a demonstrated understanding of it, be selected to develop and oversee a thorough review of the investigation and of Prof. Avolonto's original complaints about anti-Black racism
The Minister of Colleges and Universities, the Hon. Ross Romano, provide the resources required to conduct the aforementioned investigation
Disclaimer: This document contains allegations that are before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and have yet to be proven or tested.