Ex-Ticat says attempts to address racism at McMaster met with ‘dismissive’ response

A former Hamilton Tiger-Cats player who worked with McMaster University’s Indigenous Student Services has written an open letter describing repeated attempts to raise issues of racism inside the school’s athletic department.

John Williams, who won the Grey Cup with the Argonauts, posted his letter online in support of Fabion Foote, another CLFer, who took to social media to share his experiences with racism at the university.

“If we are to move forward, people and institutions must first take accountability for what they’ve done or not done in the past,” Williams wrote.

“I can’t stay silent any longer and listen to institutions like McMaster pretend they had no knowledge of these issues but instead had ample opportunities to help yet decided to ignore and deflect the problems.”

The letter details several attempts in 2017 and 2018 to meet with members of the athletic department and to raise concerns about the experiences of student-athletes who were Black and Indigenous, as well as suggestions on how to address the concerns they’d shared.

While some of the proposed meetings did take place, Williams writes that he encountered a “dismissive” attitude and what be described as “measures” by the university to “deflect and side track myself from the real issues happening around race within the department.”

The university on Monday announced a review of Black student-athlete experiences following “concerning accounts of anti-Black racism.”

McMaster President David Farrar said he appreciated the “forthright” letter Williams wrote, adding the university is looking for a “complete picture” as part of its review.

“I will ensure that Mr. Williams’ letter is provided to the reviewer and I will encourage him to participate directly, if he wishes to do so,” Farrar wrote in a statement to CBC.

“We need to hear from as many athletes, current and former, about their experiences as possible, so that we fully understand the issues and can move quickly to act on the reviewers findings and recommendations.”

Former player says he experienced systemic racism

The review was launched after Foote, a defensive lineman with the Toronto Argonauts and a former football star at the university, tweeted Sunday that he’d “experienced a lot of systemic racism during my time at McMaster.” 

He went on to discuss a coach who said he must have sold drugs to afford tuition saying, “Keep in mind I never smoked in my life.”

Foote also said the university had set up a “system” for Black students to fail.

“Whenever we spoke up they tried to silence us by ignoring the issues we faced,” read one of his tweets.

McMaster said the review will be carried out by an external advisor and “explore to what extent racist beliefs, comments, and behaviours have been present within Marauder Athletics and document the impact that this has had on current and former student-athletes.”

Its goal is to better understand what Black athletes have experiences so “we can take concrete action to strengthen a culture of equity and inclusivity,” according to a statement from Sean Van Koughnett, the university’s associate vice president and dean of students.

Finding a way forward

However, in his letter Williams writes that a review may not be enough.

“As a former black student athlete … and an ex-employee of McMaster University I can no longer stand by and listen to McMaster athletics go to enormous lengths to ensure that plausible deniability is firmly in place in the form of ‘Thoughts on Racism’ and ‘External Reviews,'” he wrote.

Williams noted his purpose in sharing his experience isn’t to “shame” anyone. Instead, he’s focused on tackling racism.

“I stand by Fabion Foote and commend him for speaking out on these issues,” he wrote. “[I] hope that we are able to move forward with what appears to be a deeply rooted systemic issue within the university culture.” 

Former Hamilton Ticat and Toronto Argonaut John Williams Jr. is shown here in 2017 speaking to children from Six Nations as part of his initiative, the Mac Youth Movement. (CFL.ca)

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