The Canada Research Chairs Program’s inaugural Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity

How the determination of eight women in academia is making Canada’s research excellence more diverse

Date published: 2023-06-05 12:00:00 PM

The Canada Research Chairs Program’s (CRCP) Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity funds bold and potentially game-changing Canadian research projects that challenge the status quo and help contribute to breaking down the systemic barriers that have been part of the research landscape for decades. The inaugural awards will be announced in late spring 2023.

The award is named after two Canadian women, described by colleagues as “forces of nature,” who spent their lives fighting for equity in the Canadian research ecosystem.

Wendy Robbins and Michèle Ollivier were academics, educators, feminists, activists, colleagues, and friends. Together, they championed those who were often silenced.

“My mother knew there was no excellence without equity,” says Chimène Keitner of her late mother Wendy Robbins. “She encountered more glass ceilings in her own career than she cared to count, but it made her more aware of the inequities that did exist.”

“I remember them spending hours and hours together on different projects,” recalls Keitner, “I think their respective areas of academic expertise were really complementary.”

Robbins was a professor of English at the University of New Brunswick and co-founder of the university's Gender and Women’s Studies program. Ollivier was a well-known scholar in culture and arts and a professor of sociology at the University of Ottawa. Both made it their life’s work to improve the lives of those who were oppressed.

It was no surprise, then, when their colleague Susan Prentice received a call from Robbins back in 2001.

“I was an assistant professor, just starting out,” recalls Prentice who, over two decades later, has had an illustrious career as a sociology professor at the University of Manitoba and has advocated for policy changes to address systemic discrimination. “Wendy told me she needed my help and I think she knew I was someone who wasn’t going to back down from a fight.”

Stopping the brain drain while starting the fight

The federal government launched the Canada Research Chairs Program in 2000. The prestigious program, the first of its kind internationally, awarded Canadian universities across the country up to 2000 Chairs to support early career and established researchers. The goal was simple: invest in top Canadian researchers to help keep them in Canada.

At the time, the country was facing a crisis—coined the “brain drain”—putting in jeopardy Canada’s innovation and growth potential. Canada was losing some of its most talented scholars to big money and opportunities south of the border. Recognizing the need to address the loss of talent and economic decline in the research sector, the Government of Canada launched the CRCP.

The CRCP allocated Canada Research Chairs (CRCs) at Tier 1 and Tier 2 levels to Canadian universities to enable them to attract top university researchers. Just months into its launch, though, Prentice says a troubling trend emerged.

“As we watched the first wave of appointments, we noticed unfairness was occurring,” recalls Prentice. “It became clear that women were not getting a fair share of appointments, there was inequity for people who were racialized, who were Indigenous and for people with disabilities.”

Audrey Kobayashi saw it too. Kobayashi, a Queen’s University geography professor and equity activist, recalls sitting through a presentation hosted by the CRCP just after the program was launched. At the end of the presentation, Kobayashi raised her hand and asked, “How have you built equity into the program?’ The program representative just looked at me and said, ‘It’s not about equity it’s about excellence.' I was shocked.”

Wendy Robbins was at that same presentation and decided that something needed to change. She immediately asked Kobayashi to join her, Ollivier, Prentice and a team of women to challenge the CRCP on its lack of equity.

Kobayashi agreed. So too did Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Louise Forsyth, Glenis Joyce and Shree Mulay. And so, eight bold and determined academics decided to take decisive action to rectify this troubling situation.

“Wendy wanted women on board who were of different ethnicities and at different professional levels,” says Mulay, who is a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University in Newfoundland. “The most important thing when creating this team of women was that everyone had to be tenured or on tenure-track. We all had to be at a sufficient level in our careers so that we would not face backlash from our universities. We could not be fired over this fight.”

The women launch a human rights complaint

Now rallied and organized with the legal backing of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, in 2003, the eight women launched a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission citing an imbalance of gender, persons with disabilities, Indigenous and racialized people within the ranks of Chairs held at Canadian universities. The demands were simple: CRCP appointments made by institutions must be fair, open, transparent, and equitable for all eligible individuals. Simply put, they wanted the Chair positions to reflect the Canadian population.

“It was absolutely imperative that these positions should be distributed through fair processes,” recalls Prentice. “The pipeline had to be fair. People had to know about the opportunities for which they could apply. Their applications had to be seriously considered for the Chairs positions so that at the end of the pipeline there would be procedural fairness. This couldn’t be an old boys club.”

The Commission agreed and asked the complainants and Industry Canada (the federal department now known as Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and whose portfolio the CRCP falls within) to begin mediation. In 2006, a settlement was reached.

At the time of the 2006 settlement, equity was a major challenge within Canadian universities. Women represented just a fraction, about 20 percent, of the full-time, tenured professors at Canadian institutions—making equity in the CRCP even more difficult given the limited number of Canada Research Chair positions. The same went for Indigenous Peoples and racialized individuals, as well as researchers with disabilities and those from the 2SLGBTQI+ community.

The complainants quickly noticed that despite the 2006 agreement, the CRCP was not forcing the changes in the program that they had hoped for, such as greater fairness, transparency and accountability. They say the settlement did not have a process set up to address and deal with the inequities within the allocations held by Canadian institutions and there was no appeal process to ensure universities would follow the terms of the agreement, as well as no repercussions for those that didn’t comply.

Prentice knew she and her colleagues had to continue to speak up. “Unless you want to start making arguments that Indigenous Peoples, or people living with disabilities, or racialized people are somehow not as talented as other Canadians, then there really is no reason why you shouldn’t see Chairs awarded in the natural representation of the population.”

New era, new agreement

As time went on, the group remained determined in the face of adversity. Michèle Ollivier passed away in 2010, after a lengthy illness, at the age of 53, and Wendy Robbins died suddenly from complications due to a brain aneurysm in 2017, at the age of 68. The rest of the group was left to continue the fight in honour of the two women who first stepped up against inequity in the program.

In 2017, the now team of six put forward a motion to make the 2006 settlement agreement a federal court order, essentially forcing the CRCP to accelerate its efforts to work with universities and implement the agreement. The women’s resolve coupled with the government’s commitment to increasing equity, diversity and inclusion within the research ecosystem, first led by the Minister of Science and Sport at the time, the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, and the tri-agency—the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)—led to an agreement to remediate the settlement.

“Looking back, we fully recognize that not enough progress had been made in the decade following the original settlement,” says Ted Hewitt, president of SSHRC, the agency that administers the program. “In 2017, the time was ripe to step up concrete actions the program could take to truly build in equity, diversity and inclusion in full recognition that such changes could only strengthen research excellence across all research disciplines.”

A performance, equity and diversity team, within the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat (TIPS), housed at SSHRC, was formed and headed by Marie-Lynne Boudreau, now director of Policy, Performance, Equity and Diversity. TIPS’ governance committees knew the program and participating universities needed to do better in addressing the inequities in the program and wanted to see a much more diverse group of CRCs across the country. In 2018, Boudreau led the team at the mediation table along with then SSHRC Vice-President, Research, Dominique Bérubé. A year later, the two sides agreed on what is now referred to as the 2019 Addendum: a new settlement agreement tied to the 2006 agreement that requires a number of actions on the part of the CRCP, including that all universities be required to follow a transparent evaluation process to identify candidates based on Canada’s population and to set firm equity targets that include women, racialized individuals, Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities when awarding a Canada Research Chair. The addendum incorporated many of the actions that the program had already started adopting as part of its EDI action plan that had been launched in 2017 in response to the program’s 15th year recommendation.

“If it wasn’t for this strong and determined group of women, we would not have seen the pace of change in the level of equity we see now within the program,” remarks Boudreau. “In the last few years, the representation rates for women, racialized individuals, Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities have increased such that they have set record-breaking precedents within the program. Given that the high excellence and merit criteria for Chair nominations in the program remain unchanged, this demonstrates in very real terms that the previous low levels of nominations for individuals from these groups was not due to a lack of excellence as some have and still imply, but rather because of systemic barriers such as bias in policies and decision-making.”

Equity policies pave a new path forward

Now, every university participating in the program must develop and implement their own EDI action plan to identify and address the systemic barriers within their own institutions that have led to the historic inequities in the CRCP. Universities, the program and its external EDI advisory committee have worked closely together in recent years with the common goal of addressing the barriers in the program that have prevented the full participation of women, racialized individuals, Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities.

“What we have confirmed in all of this hard work is that diversity is an integral component to research excellence, and that it cannot be attained without the strong participation from individuals with different backgrounds, cultures and ideas,” adds Dominique Lalonde, director, Institutional Programs, of TIPS. “Change can happen with the right approach, determination and an openness to address the wrongdoings of the past. We hope that the CRCP sets a precedent for achieving a fairer and more equitable research ecosystem.”

Honouring the equity game-changers

As a recognition of the challenging work and the 20-year journey in which Wendy Robbins, Michèle Ollivier and the six other women were engaged, the CRCP introduced the Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity in 2022. Each year, the program will award three nominees $100,000 each, for up to one year, to fund bold and potentially game-changing projects that will spark change and take action to address persistent systemic barriers in the research ecosystem and academia. The award will recognize the faculty members who contribute their time, expertise and lived experience to help alleviate inequities in their research institution and will provide opportunities for students and trainees to contribute to this important work.

The inaugural awards were adjudicated by the CRCP’s Advisory Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Policy, and their funding recommendations were approved by the CRCP Steering Committee. The award winners will be announced in late spring 2023.

The remaining six women and the family members of the late researchers hope the changes to the CRCP, and these new EDI policies, will bring transparency and accountability at Canadian universities that will have far-reaching effects.

“What we’ve managed to do is something really terrific,” says Griffin Cohen, professor emerita of Political Science and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. “This agreement is only for the Canadian Research Chairs Program, one elite program, but this could trickle down to all kinds of hires within the university. We’ve set the bar for what equity means at Canadian universities. This award will remind administrators of that.”

Valérie Laflamme, associate vice-president of TIPS, highlights the influence the evolution of the CRCP in terms of EDI has had on the redesign of other major national research programs, including the Canada Excellence Research Chairs and Canada First Research Excellence Fund programs. “The efforts of the eight women fighting for equity in the CRCP are recognized for a legacy that stretches well beyond the purview of their original complaint. They have inspired broad and lasting changes that are reverberating across Canada’s research landscape, and we continue to strive for improvements as the work is far from done.”

The remaining members of the group hope young academics and activists will continue to carry the torch. Above all, they hope that this precedent encourages and inspires those groups to find the will to fight for equity, even when it’s uncomfortable.

“I’m an older person now, so my fight is over,” jokes Louise Forsyth, who spent years as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and is now professor emerita and adjunct professor in Women’s and Gender Studies. “I just hope we keep travelling down this road we helped pave and that, as a society, we continue to make progress.”

As Susan Prentice reflects over the last two decades of this work, she finds it difficult to hold back tears. “It’s been a very long, a very rewarding and a very emotional process, and I lost two incredible colleagues and friends along the way.”

And so, these eight women, who were trailblazers decades ago, have lit the way for the next generation of game-changers in Canadian research.