Since 2020, Canadians have become more broadly aware of the ways in which systemic anti-Black racism is an ongoing humanitarian crisis within our own borders (not just in the United States, as many have repeatedly argued). This problem has deep roots and lifelong negative impacts for Black people in Canada. The patterns of disadvantage, while transparent to people of African descent, have long been concealed for other Canadians accustomed to the catch-all category of ‘visible minority’ or ‘racialized’. The report of the United Nation’s working group of experts on people of African descent in Canada was clear on the landscape of anti-Black racism in Canada:
“History informs anti-Black racism and racial stereotypes that are so deeply entrenched in institutions, policies and practices, that its institutional and systemic forms are either functionally normalized or rendered invisible, especially to the dominant group.”
While these problems are not unique to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), these fields are particularly exclusionary due to the heavy prerequisite structure of university STEM degree programs, the hierarchical nature of STEM careers (particularly in research), and the wide perception of a need for ‘natural talent’ for STEM coupled with anti-Black deficit narratives. When we consider Black exclusion from STEM, the humanitarian crisis is also a crisis for Canada’s knowledge economy, which necessarily depends on a large pool of innovation and creative problem solving across diverse professionals and entrepreneurs. As a first step, many efforts at rectifying these injustices involve visibility. Panels, talks, editorials, articles, and reports detail the various barriers that push Black youth out of school at all levels, reduce recruitment of Black graduates, and stymie the career success of Black professionals. What is not clear is the extent to which meaningful actions follow visibility.
Canada, celebrated for its multiculturalism, faces a troubling trend: an overreliance on immigration to meet STEM labor demands among the Black community. This exposes a significant gap in nurturing homegrown Black talent. While African immigrants demonstrate strong STEM qualifications, Canadian-born Black students, graduates, and professionals in these fields lack adequate support. A Statistics Canada’s 2023 report illuminates the educational landscape of the Black population. For example, attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher varies across cohorts: over 40% among African-born individuals and their offspring, and 19.4% for those from the Caribbean, rising to 28.5% for their descendants. Historical migration waves contribute to these disparities. Thus, urgent action is essential to address academic disparities faced by Canadian Black students. To counter entrenched biases, underrepresentation, and systemic inequities, we need culturally relevant curricula, targeted support, and equitable assessment practices to foster academic advancement and narrow the opportunity gap.
Despite broad STEM outreach initiatives, disparities persist for Black youth. Programs dismantling systemic barriers, offering equitable access, and incorporating culturally responsive curricula are pivotal for transformative change. Creating opportunities for multi-sector collaborations enables the system to consider new approaches to creating experiences for youth. The k2i (kindergarten to industry) academy at York University exemplifies this approach, designing equity-focused programs in collaboration with partners to provide work-integrated learning opportunities. The k2i Bringing STEM to Life: Work-Integrated Learning Program – was designed alongside school board partners to address access for students who may need to choose between work and school or opt out of STEM pathways courses such as physics. High school students gain exposure to STEM, fostering skills, mentorship, and real-world problem-solving tied to UN Sustainable Development Goals. Moreover, teachers benefit from professional development, nurturing innovative pedagogical practices.
Similarly, working at the intersection of race and income – Visions of Science takes a community-centred approach to fostering STEM identity and achievement in predominantly Black communities across the Greater Toronto Area. With the support of young, representative staff, programs become a safe place for participants to rewrite their relationship with STEM outside of the often alienating context of the formal school system. Youth explore hands-on STEM activities, develop and pitch innovative STEM projects, mentor younger children in their community, and get connected to paid opportunities in the STEM sector. As youth forge their STEM pathway, they reinvest their successes back into their communities in turn.
Beyond education, targeted workplace efforts to recruit and retain Black STEM talent are promising. The partnership between the Canadian Black Scientists Network (CBSN) and Statistics Canada, initiated in 2021, exemplifies this. This partnership leverages mutual benefits to propel the mission of CBSN forward, while enabling Statistics Canada to respond to the Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion in the Federal Public Service. The CBSN, the pioneering national network of Black individuals in STEM, seeks to enhance the representation of Black Canadians across sectors, including STEM. Recognizing the imperative to tap into diverse talent pools, the Call to Action on Anti-racism, Equity, and Inclusion in the Federal Public Service encourages innovative recruitment models, particularly focusing on Indigenous communities, Black and other racialized groups. The directive also emphasizes measuring progress and enhancing the employee experience, promoting a holistic approach to inclusivity. Framed within this context, Statistics Canada’s 2021-2025 EDI action plan stands as a beacon of hope. Collaborating with the CBSN, the pilot recruitment program has strategically enhanced the intake of eight CBSN Black-identifying talents thus far within the organization since inception in 2021. A critical aspect is establishing a robust career retention pipeline for new hires entering through the CBSN partnership.
Likewise, the Mitacs and Indigenous and Black Engineering and Technology PhD Project (IBET) partnership addresses the dearth of support for Indigenous and Black PhD students. In early 2021, when the IBET PhD Project was launched, there were fewer than 15 Indigenous or Black faculty members in engineering fields in Ontario universities. The lack of diversity amongst faculty members in these disciplines is likely a key factor in not attracting Indigenous and Black students to the engineering profession – students need to see themselves reflected in their teachers and in their leaders. Hence, recognizing the importance of representation, IBET connects aspiring scholars with mentors and offers fellowships. Mitacs’s involvement amplifies the initiative, fostering paid internship opportunities and expanding connectivity through the IBET Connect Award. Mitacs’s commitment to addressing inequities and removing barriers for Indigenous Peoples and other equity-deserving stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem is exemplified by their Inclusive Innovation Action Plan, which lays out strategic goals and actions to propel Mitacs and its partners (both academic and industry) forward in the journey toward inclusive innovation.
In summary, the imperative for transformative change is clear. Canada’s diversity obligates the nation to ensure equity within its STEM landscape. Targeted strategies and collaborative partnerships, exemplified by the k2i program, Visions of Science, the Mitacs-IBET initiative, and the CBSN-Statistics Canada partnership, lay the groundwork for an inclusive future. By offering dignified education, accessible STEM pathways, and empowering Black professionals, Canada can forge an equitable STEM realm that benefits its entire populace.