On March 1st, students, faculty and community members met in the Student Learning Centre for a rally and march against sexism, racism and Islamophobia in the workplace. The event was put on by the Sam Gindin Chair, the Anti-Racism Coalition at Ryerson, CESAR, the Jack Layton Chair and the Ryerson Feminist Collective. The event was in response to recent incidents within Ryerson and the Ryerson Students’ Union, including the firing of Gilary Massa, who was on maternity leave.
The event began with a rally in the Student Learning Centre, with close to one hundred people gathered in the lobby. Anne-Marie Singh, from the Anti-Racism Coalition at Ryerson, spoke first drawing parallels between the outdoor climate of wintry weather and the climate women experience. She commented that “it’s not just chilly outside; it’s chilly in courtrooms, our work spaces, our offices…” Singh cited racialized women on maternity leave being restructured out of their jobs as an example of this chilly climate at Ryerson. She also discussed Indigenous faculty being questioned about their credentials and racialized staff being harassed with impunity at Ryerson. Singh also spoke to those who hold privilege on this campus stating that, “if fighting racism seems racist, if equity feels like oppression, check your privilege”. She also called out the Ryerson Students’ Union for needing to check their privilege if they think the firing of Gilary Massa was fair.
Massa also spoke at the event and was joined by the lawyer representing her for the Ontario Human Rights Complaint against the Ryerson Students’ Union and its current executives. Massa described what happened to her as putting the rights of working women back 20 or 30 years; she didn’t think it was possible to be fired while on maternity leave and neither did most people she has spoken to following her termination. She also discussed the business decision made by the Ryerson Students’ Union as anti-woman and anti-worker, and asked what kind of message this send to students and women who are entering the workforce and want to start a family. Massa’s lawyer, Saron Beresellasi, thanked the Massa family for their decision to obtain council and fight this as well as encouraged people to pay attention to the case in hopes it will serve as a public education example for the RSU and others.
Awo Abokor, from the Ryerson Feminist Collective spoke about being frustrated by the lack of support for women, especially women of colour, in the workplace at Ryerson. She went on to say there is no justice in the decision made that lead to Massa being fired and that intersections of class, race and gender were at play here. Abokor sent a clear message to the entire Ryerson community: “if you don’t know what equity is, learn it”. She described the firing of Massa as taking multiple steps back and not something that the RSU can simply apologize and move on from.
Social Work Professor, Akua Benjamin described her pride for Ryerson but was disappointed the school had not taken a stand. Ryerson University has been quiet on the issue, but Benjamin urged the school to take a stand as this is not just something between Massa and the RSU. She also urged people to stand in solidarity for change beyond coming out the rally; this issue is ongoing and women are continuously suffering from racism on this campus. Benjamin described the decision to fire Massa as not in the best interest of Ryerson and not what Ryerson stands for. Benjamin ended by speaking about Massa’s baby, who was present for the rally, and calling them a “social justice baby”.
Pascale Diverlus, from the United Black Student’s at Ryerson and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, described seeing first hand of what it’s like to be a Black woman on Ryerson’s campus and the terrifying culture that is being created. Diverlus expressed concern for future students and the community as the RSU is currently not a place of equity; Massa was the only Black full-time worker at the RSU. “Black lives matter, Black women matter, Black Muslim women matter, Black families matter”.
Following the rally, we marched to the Student Campus Centre, which houses the offices of the Ryerson Students’ Union. We gathered on the third floor of the building, outside the executive team’s offices. Winnie Ng and Janet Rodriguez lead the crowd in a number of chants; none of the executive members came out to address the crowd.
This rally can’t be the end; we need more action beyond March 1st. Ng encouraged the crowd to write letters to the Ryerson Students’ Union and to bring this issue to the attention of Ryerson administration. The injustice in the decision to fire Massa is clear to anyone with a basic understanding of human rights and equity, but this is not an isolated incident. It’s a clear and blatant action that is representative of what racialized women experience in the workplace daily. The workplace in general is a chilly place for racialized women across this country, but we have an opportunity to start changing that at Ryerson.