Canadian Astronomy is not inclusive and doesn’t want to be

The Interview

It has been two years since they tried to end my academic career. Two years ago I was invited to interview for a tenure-track position as part of a program aimed to increase faculty representation of Indigenous people at a satellite campus of the University of Toronto. During that interview I was harassed and insulted for being Indigenous and advocating that we in STEM support and integrate Indigenous knowledges in our classrooms. The main incident of that interview occurred in a small meeting room with too many people where we had lunch. It was a small room and there were too many people in it. I was harassed and some people demanded that I justify Indigenous knowledges to science as they compared it to young-Earth creationism and homeopathy. At the same time another faculty member decided to ask me how much Indigenous I am? I sat there trapped in a small room where I couldn’t leave, trying to talk but instead being condescended to by the same people who would decide my career prospects. I sat there having my existence questioned. The interview was sabotaged.

The year since…

It has been a year since that agreement and nothing has changed by intention. I work at the main campus and the faculty there are similar to the faculty at the satellite campus where I interviewed. Behaviors continue to be dismissive and degrading. There have been outright racist and anti-Indigenous comments. I have been asked to give free and non-credited labor and, in one case, to give labor that cost me money.

It’s not just one bad department

This is my reality of my workplace and I have zero evidence that any other physics and astronomy department in Canada would be any better. I have enough experience to know this is not an example of one bad department or one bad institution. I interviewed at one institution where the Dean there noted that I was Indigenous and then spent ten minutes explaining in a panic that he had no input into the faculty search. Everyone else involved in that interview purposely avoided the fact that I am Indigenous. On a second occasion, I was visiting another department where one of the faculty bragged about how diverse their department is in terms of the number of women faculty. The brag erases Indigenous people and people of color. I simply had to smile through the discussion. And on yet another occasion, I worked with the Canadian Astronomical Society to develop an anti-racist statement. The leadership did not accept suggestions and offered their own statement that was the pathetic equivalent of thoughts and prayers. When I called out the leadership committee for agreeing to such a statement, I was warned to be careful. The leadership is supposedly representative of the best of Canadian astronomy, but are no better than my own institution.

Here are some ideas for change.

Demographic information in astronomy and physics
Canada currently has very incomplete information regarding the number of people of diversity and non-binary gendered people in the field. Astronomers and physicists in positions of power and authority often deny issues because no one can point to simple and straightforward data. Having explicit data allows funding agencies and authorities to commit to changes and to penalize institutions and departments that refuse to change. This is also important for hiring committees. Canadian institutions require job searches to compile and obtain demographic information about applicants. That information is not shared with search committees at any time as far as I know. If demographic information is available for searches then committees should be required to justify any short-list that is inconsistent with demographic information and that justification should be publicly available.

Things we need to stop doing

These are some vague ideas that might help an academic field that I am not welcome in. But, we also need to stopping doing a lot of things. People in positions of authority and responsibility seem to spend a lot of time protecting the comfort of those with tenure instead of people of diversity that are being kept out of the system. People in these positions are pretending to support change, but only the changes that they see as important and the changes that don’t upset the status quo.


I don’t know if these suggestions are valuable or not. I am not sure I have faith in the system to change or even consider these suggestions. It has been made clear that there is no space for me in an academic system that only sees Indigeneity as a way to earn credit when doing only superficial things (my chair once bragged that a new astronomy building would have Indigenous art). I have no intentions of leaving academia and astronomy willingly. I am not sure that I have love for this work, but it is something I need to do. I fully expect, however, to be forced to leave once my contract expires. I don’t expect anything to ever be made right or even receive an apology from the people involved. That is just the reality of Canadian Astronomy.



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Hilding Neilson

Hilding Neilson

Twitter @astrocanuck — from Newfoundland, Mi’kmaq, PhD astronomer in Toronto, trying to understand stars and their stories. Indigenous STEM. views are my own.