As Quebec’s top university and one of the highest-ranked francophone universities in the world, Université de Montréal (UdeM) and its name carry weight, standing for quality education and the pursuit of knowledge. Its business school, HEC Montréal, has similarly built a strong reputation that attracts many students.
But for many Asian students, both international and local, their experiences at HEC and the university haven’t lived up to expectations. They have long endured blatant and subtle racism on a daily basis from other professors, staff members and fellow students.
“There are plenty of seats, why don’t you go sit somewhere else?” a white student said to Ashton, an Asian graduate student at HEC, on the first day of a group meeting. East Asian, South Asian and Black students interviewed for this article cited group projects as one area where they regularly run into hostility.
“Whenever it’s a group project, (white) classmates don’t want you to be in the same group as them. To them, you’re basically a nuisance, invisible. They think you are not smart enough to be in the same room as them,” says Ashton.
One extreme example of peer harassment occurred during a presentation on global governance. According to Ashton, an Asian student roleplaying Canada was repeatedly interrupted by a white student who was eager to make unrelated comments about China — even though the student was in fact making a presentation on Canada.
A Black student who represented China at the time was also jeered at and interrupted by the same white student. This happened in the middle of a live presentation, and no one intervened, not other students, not instructors.
And it’s not just lectures and seminars — social life at UdeM is also a nightmare for Asian students.
“People don’t see you, they don’t talk to you, they don’t acknowledge your existence,” says Daniel, an Asian former undergraduate international student at UdeM who has requested anonymity for fear of employment reprisal. “When they do, it is when they are making offensive jokes about your background, to your face.”
“I was lucky to have found a group of supportive friends. They were all immigrants, and they were really open-minded and friendly.”
In terms of the hostile terrain Asian students navigate, Ashton adds, “Some white students will openly demean you and laugh at your accent, and then they have the audacity to accuse you of not ‘integrating.’”
However, what pains these students the most is not racist remarks tossed around by the faculty and students with impunity, but the fact that no one steps up when they witness such an aggression, as if such behaviour were acceptable.
“After the public jeering [at the class presentation on global governance], not one person stood up or mentioned it, not even after the conference. People were pretending like nothing really happened,” says Ashton.
A systemic problem
Social hostility at UdeM goes beyond degrading comments made to or in front of Asian students. What’s worse is “a sense of alienation,” according to the university’s own report on campus diversity dated April 2020.
The report goes on to acknowledge that acts of discrimination were rarely reported on campus, that, in the year before the report, “only five discrimination complaints have turned out to be founded.”
The problem UdeM faces is that it has lost the trust of its students so that virtually no one bothers to file a complaint. The onus should not be on students to file a complaint, knowing it is going into a shredder, but rather on the university to recognize systemic racism and invite external auditors or the student body to transform the institution from inside, which has not happened.
Even before COVID-19, many Asian students at UdeM had to limit the time they spent on campus. “I go to class, and I immediately go home as soon as I’m done. The whole campus — staff, professors and fellow students — are all reminding me that I don’t belong here. I just want to get out of this school ASAP,” says Hwang.
At the height of the pandemic last year, the university instituted strict protocols such as restricted access at building entrances and mandatory use of hand sanitizer. As Wen, an international HEC student of Asian background, was walking into a building on campus, security approached them to ask for ID, which was expected due to COVID-19 protocols. But what they didn’t expect was the contemptuous look they were given.
The student finished their business and was on their way out when they saw three white students walk straight through the entrance past security. They weren’t stopped.
A decades-long slumber
Student associations at UdeM are also part of the problem. According to three interviewees who are familiar with the student government, leadership tasks on committees are almost always reserved for insiders, whereas minority students can only get assignments that nobody else wants. Regularly denied social life and thus networking opportunities, Asian and other minority students are deprived of a fair shot at extracurricular involvement. As for social events organized by those associations, “we never feel included in those events,” says Wen. “They were meant for people in the school to know each other, but we always ended up with other Asians, because we are practically invisible and only other Asians will see us.”
Many universities in North America, including UdeM, profit on the backs of migrant students, most of whom come from Asia, the largest continent in the world. As government funding for education dwindles, schools turn to international students to make up for lost revenue — charging exorbitant rates for students from the Global South to subsidize a lower tuition rate for the Global North. At UdeM, international students are paying up to 10 times what Quebecers and French citizens pay for the same program. As a consequence, universities see migrant students as cash cows instead of human beings, and the same attitude spills over to the faculty. Not all Asian students are migrants, but still, people ask them, “Where are you really from?”
It is time for UdeM to wake up from a decades-long slumber of denying racism, and take an all-of-university approach to combat systemic racism and mobilize all of its students to join the discussion. Simply appointing an equity commissioner and calling it a day is not enough. For a university like UdeM, unaddressed racism will further tarnish its reputation, undercutting recruitment and cash revenue, and generations of students of colour will graduate with unpleasant memories of their experience at the institution.
The 700 per cent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes reported in Canada over the first year of the pandemic and March’s Atlanta killing spree only confirm what the Asian community has known for a long time — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 and the head tax of 1885 have been rescinded, but fundamental anti-Asian sentiment was never confronted. COVID-19 is merely an opportunity for it to resurface.
“Love us like you love our culture” is a protest sign that went viral during the #StopAsianHate movement. In Canada, minority groups are seen as cultures of convenience — they might have great food, but in trying times when people need to help each other, they are thrown under the bus.
Asian migrants landed in Canada in the same period as other Europeans, with many arriving earlier than the Confederation of Canada in 1867. But they didn’t just come here before Canada was a country; they helped build it. Modern Canada was created on the backs of Chinese rail construction workers whom Canadian Pacific exploited to death. And then the state banned Chinese migrants. People might think that society has come a long way from the 19th century, but Asian Canadians are seen as “forever foreign,” as one sociologist put it, exoticized and orientalized just as they were 200 years ago.
As the saying goes, diversity means being invited to a party, inclusion means throwing the party. In the case of Université de Montreal, Asian students and other students of colour may be present, but the system is excluding them from full participation.
The first step to solve a problem is to acknowledge that the problem exists. For UdeM, it’s time to acknowledge systemic racism and then work on it. Or be remembered as a racist university in the memories of your alumni.
Alexis Zhou (she/her, they/them) is a freelance journalist and community organizer based in Montreal. You can follow her on Twitter @alex_i_s_.