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

Hilding Neilson
16 min readAug 8, 2020

I work in academic astronomy in Canada. I might be the only First Nations faculty member in astronomy and maybe even physics in this country. I am not welcome in my field because I am Indigenous and because I work to create space for Indigeneity in physics and astronomy. My field directly benefits from colonization that allows for telescopes on Indigenous lands and my field leads in exclusion by diminishing Indigenous knowledges. This isn’t because of my field but the professors who influence and lead it. Not all faculty in Canada are bad people, but almost no one actually does anything to fight for changes beyond waiting for problem faculty to retire. I don’t know if my story is unique or common for Indigenous people in physics and astronomy in Canada, I doubt there have been enough Indigenous people in Canada with PhDs in physics and astronomy to say for certain. Academia needs to change.

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.

Afterwards, the chair of that department tried to convince me I would not be judged on being Indigenous or anything related to discussing Indigenous knowledge. He tried to convince me that I would only be judged on my research record. Before the end of the two-day interview, there was a dinner where one of the faculty, a different one, spent a long time asking how can I ever obtain research funding through research focused on Indigenous knowledge. It was a clear denial of the value of the knowledge and a clear perspective that I was not considered qualified. Unfortunately, that faculty member did not interact with or take the five minutes to look up my more western-science research activities.

I was shocked but not really surprised when I received an email a few weeks later telling me that I would not be offered the faculty position. I was the only person interviewing for that position and I was not considered worth hiring. The chair wrote a lot of words in that email to convey some sort of explanation of why the search committee did not choose to offer me the position, but was really just confusing and obtuse. That email purposely avoided saying anything directly or honestly. The process had absolutely no transparency nor accountability. The rejection was devastating because it was inappropriate, and anti-Indigenous discrimination.

I contacted my faculty association for help and they suggested following an informal grievance process that started with sending a letter of complaint to the Dean in charge of that physics department. They also informed me that they would not pursue any complaints against any faculty, only the University. That Dean never responded to the letter and, after some months the legal representatives for the faculty association filed a formal complaint. That led to a meeting with a Vice-Dean who listened to my story and said they would try to help. I was told during that meeting that the Dean intended to send me a formal apology, but did not. I was later offered a one-year contract in a letter where the University of Toronto denied that the incidents affected the decision of the search committee. The letter further stated that I was being offered the one-year contract because the University wanted to help me. It was not an acknowledgement of what was done, nor did it seek to address any of the issues. The offer was really an attempt to gas light the entire experience.

I declined that option because a one-year contract would not change anything. The University did not offer any further dialogue and about another six months passed. I had only about eight months left on the contract for that time and I could not afford to live in Toronto or stay in academia without a salary. The faculty association representative suggested that the only way to convince the University of Toronto to pay attention was to file a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). This was because these complaints are public. I submitted the complaint.

The University responded very differently to the HRTO complaint. The University agreed to a mediation if I suspended my HRTO complaint. It was done and we went to mediation. That happened about a year after the job interview and only about four months before the end of my contract. I was working for a year living with the reality that I was not wanted nor considered good enough to do the job I was doing because I am Indigenous. No one in a position of power or authority cared enough to do anything but deny it. The irony is that the University was more than happy to note I am Indigenous when they were trying to get a prestigious research chair. Indigenous is only wanted when it buys credibility.

The mediation was a one-day meeting with a person to lead the negotiations. When I arrived it was made clear that the few hours of discussion were the only times available and that if I left with no settlement I would have to wait more than a year for the next steps in the process. This was stated as a simple truth. I could settle or I could be unemployed. I was assured that what happened was bad and inappropriate, but also that what happened did not impact their decision to not hire me. Apparently discrimination in public doesn’t mean that discrimination would happen behind closed doors.

There was a settlement because they left me with only two choices: accept the University “offer” or leave academia. I didn’t want to leave, I still don’t. So, I accepted the agreement. Afterwards, the University representatives asked to shake hands, I barely remember it. After everything I was left empty, but one thing that stood out was one of the Union representatives mentioned that it was common for people to feel regret about it.

The settlement was simple — a five-year contract where I have to do a midterm-term-tenure review in year three, that is a review by faculty to make sure a person is progressing reasonably towards a later tenure review. The review is in name only. If I pass the review, my contract is extended for two years. I have to jump through tenure-track hoops for the privilege to hang on in academia. There is not much else to the settlement. They attempted a non-disclosure clause, but withdrew it as it would have violated academic freedom. I did not receive salary raise to be paid equitably with respect to my colleagues. I had to fight to increase my research funding from the University while other contract hires got the same amount simply for showing up. I was told that the University was making a big sacrifice by extending my contract for another five years because there is an internal rule that contract faculty can only be hired for five years and no longer. They extolled their virtues by claiming they were making a significant sacrifice by breaking their own self-imposed rule. I was told I should be grateful.

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.

There are examples of prejudice. One faculty member sent an email claiming Indigenous people are less than medieval and are uncivilized as part of a discussion on telescopes and colonization. The email highlighted how right western science is and how scientists are bringing knowledge to these people. I called it racist and white supremacist. People were more offended by me calling out the email than the email itself where one person called me a communist (whatever that means to them). That faculty member filed a complaint about me and I filed one about them. I did not engage with that faculty member while they continued to send emails claiming they were going to get me and describing how they are not racist. Nothing happened to that faculty member. I had to discuss this with a couple of Deans who gaslit the interaction. I was told that the person did not say anything explicitly problematic and that my interpretation was not what they meant. As such, it did not rise to the level of an actionable incident. In the end I was told there would be a workshop on implicit bias that would be “sort of” mandatory for faculty.

Another faculty member wrote a letter reflecting on racism in society where they cited how people consider it appropriate to “make comments about the dominant culture” and how racism grows from unconscious biases and that unconscious biases grow from seeing radicalized peoples get arrested, etc. That is, the person blamed radicalized peoples for racism. I called it out in a private message to faculty in my department and I asked that the person apologize and choose to participate in anti-racism training. The chair responded by saying I shouldn’t be talking about these things via Slack and said nothing about the manifesto. The manifesto was later deleted by the person without acknowledgement of the harm of what they wrote.

These events occur regularly, and these event are not due to specific bad apples. It is a systemic problem with academic culture that hides from being transparent and has absolutely no accountability. In one instance, my department held a diversity and inclusion review and invited an organization to lead that review. That organization chose to focus on gender and sexual identities and not on Race and Indigeneity. I was told that I could still talk to them about my experiences as an Indigenous person. I did and I was ignored. As a result, I submitted documents and complaints to the Dean’s office and they agreed to host a review on Race and Indigeneity. The Dean’s office refused to commit to acting on any recommendations from that review, only that they would host it. Before that review was even held, the chair at that time sent an email noting that this review was “planned” to be done thereby completely erasing the work I did. The chair also noted that it was okay to say that our department is “post-racial”. This is a example of requiring free labor and then erasing that effort and is an example that these bad behaviors are endemic.

That review occurred and eventually a report was released and sent only to faculty. Others were sent a one-page set of recommendations. That report has been dismissed quietly by faculty as being a result of some people being “political”. The chair quietly attempted to hide and bury the report and not implement any changes.

During this same year, I have had some successes. I led a couple of recommendation papers for the Canadian astronomy community’s ten year review and participated on a couple of papers for the US review. I successfully earned two National Science and Engineering Research Council Grants. I gave public and research talks, I’ve been on a few accepted papers. I taught an undergraduate course that was new to me and received positive reviews despite moving online because of covid-19. I led a new graduate mini-course on astronomy and colonization (1/3 of a regular course). By most standards that is a pretty good academic year. But, it changes nothing.

Yet, I am seen as less than qualified by faculty in my department. My University has a program for hiring Indigenous scholars, my department hasn’t been interested. My colleagues would rather not hire me even if it is free for the department. Colleagues have disparaged my teaching of Indigenous astronomy to undergraduate and graduate students as unscientific. They have referred to Indigenous peoples as irrelevant, referred to themselves as post-racial, referred to my work and to Indigenous knowledges as pseudo-science. Essentially, Indigenous people are not welcome in my department.

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.

No astronomy or physics department in Canada comes close to being consistent with population demographics. There are almost no Indigenous people in Canadian astronomy and probably not too many more in Canadian physics. I might be the only First Nation person in an astronomy/physics faculty position in Canada. According to National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), across all fields only 0.6% of Discovery Grant applications were from Indigenous people in 2019-2020 or about 20 Indigenous applicants. Also, 0.5% of all awards went to Indigenous people. NSERC doesn’t offer more direct statistical information. But, given that there are about 150–160 awards in physics in 2020 and that the success rate is better than 80% then there probably were about 200 applicants in physics and astronomy. That suggests on average an Indigenous person will receive an NSERC award most years and that there is about one Indigenous applicant per year. That suggests that there is at best 5–10 Indigenous people in the Canadian system. It would be valuable to know how Black People and other underrepresented People of Color fare but, NSERC reports only on gender (male, female, “other + prefer not to say”), Indigenous identity, people with a disability, and visible minorities. There is very little information available.

Something needs to change. We need a field that advocates for people of diversity and is open to real change.

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.

Actually hire People of Color and Indigenous peoples
This isn’t rocket science. About twenty years ago, NSERC led a program to support hiring of women (and Indigenous people, though I am not aware of any Indigenous people being hired in this program) as science faculty. I don’t know how successful that program is considered, but I am sure it made a difference for a number of people. In astronomy it made a quick change to demographics and clearly demonstrated the priorities of funding agencies and governments. Hiring People of Color and Indigenous peoples into faculty positions can begin to change the system.

Include training in our graduate and undergraduate programs
We teach astronomy as if it is a benevolent science that only benefits the entirety of humanity. We preach that the sky is for everyone and that everyone has access to astronomy. But, in so many ways we do not recognize the plethora of ways that we exclude people. We need training at every level of university education in Indigenous knowledges and cultural knowledges for astronomy. We need real inclusion training, not just that one workshop from that one enthusiastic person who reads someone else’s notes on microagressions and unconscious biases.

Learn to respect Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing and understand connections between astronomy and colonization.
Astronomy is a science done by humans and is a science born out of Eurocentrism. That means that astronomy benefits from colonization and white supremacy just like any other field of science, art, etc. We need to recognize this. Today it is especially important we do so. We need to place Indigenous rights ahead of astronomy’s self-interest. Similarly, we need to include Indigenous knowledges of astronomy in our education. For those of us who live and work on Indigenous territories, we have an ethical duty to that land. But, that land includes the water, animals, air and the sky. Our programs need to be inclusive of Indigenous knowledges of astronomy and Indigenous methodologies of research. Doing so can only benefit science and create a more inclusive field

Accountability for faculty regardless of tenure.
In my experience there is no accountability for the behaviours of people with tenure at my institution. Tenure is the right to academic freedom, it is not the right to be prejudiced, nor the right to promote colonization. So many times, I have seen and had to deal with tenured people saying and doing whatever they wish. So many times I have had to watch not-yet-tenured faculty stay silent and wait until they have tenure themselves. We need a system of real accountability for the inappropriate actions whether it is accountability in performance reviews, mandatory training, and maybe even revoking tenure. I don’t know what accountability should look like with precision, only that there is absolutely no accountability. Tenured faculty have the power to deny the humanity of others as part of their job that behavior is defended.

Transparency in hiring at every level.
Hiring of faculty and post-doctoral researchers is largely a mystery to me. From the perspective of an applicant, I submit a portfolio and have three people write letters that I assume are supportive. Maybe I am invited for an interview, most likely I am not. If the latter, there is no feedback, no discussion of the criteria that was used, nothing. Sometimes, I might receive a form email at the end of the search. If there is an interview, there is some interaction for maybe a couple of days and then nothing for months. There might be some sort of feedback letter that says something about it being unfortunate they could not offer a job and that there were a number of qualified individuals. There is never anything about what was actually considered. All of that discussion is behind closed doors and is considered confidential. The only reason I was able to say anything about the process I went through is because the interviewers were arrogant enough to believe that they could be publicly inappropriate and prejudiced. If the interviewers had stayed silent in public and said everything behind closed doors that would have been nothing I could do or say. A lack of transparency protects faculty and permits racism, sexism and prejudices. Search committees should be audited externally, and search committees should be required to explicitly provide real feedback to people of diverse backgrounds.

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.

We need to stop advocating for silence.
There have been a number of people, from legal experts to faculty and deans, who have suggested that it would be bad for me to openly talk about my experiences. The University of Toronto wanted me to accept a non-disclosure agreement. It is clear that a number of people would prefer me not to speak of my experiences. But, this does nothing to shield those with power and avoids any accountability. Those same people have made it clear I don’t have a place in academia. We need a culture where people can feel accepted and safe sharing their experiences.

We need to stop accepting change is slow and we definitely need to stop saying it.
So many well-meaning people have told me that change is slow but is happening. This includes highly respected colleagues and leaders. But, every time I hear that, I wonder how slow is okay? How long should we have to wait for change. I have four years remaining as a contract faculty. It is not likely there will be sufficient change in that time, and they acknowledge that. So, change is slow means I am not included. How many potential careers are being tossed aside because change is slow? How many lost lost careers are acceptable? Saying change is slow is not about advocating change but is about protecting the fragile egos of tenured faculty.

We need to stop pretending that journal clubs and discussion clubs are change.
We spend a lot of time discussing microagressions, implicit biases and EDI papers. That discussion focuses on the idea that science tells us there is a problem and we need to listen to science. But, the deniers in power and authority don’t care and don’t listen so it’s all talk. The discussion is usually confined to the same small group of well-meaning people who leave the discussion feeling like they did something positive. More reading is not needed if that is all there is.

Stop focusing on demographics as the first step.
Demographic statistics are important for quantifying the lack of diversity and inclusion in astronomy and physics. However, privacy laws mean there are significant limitations as to how much we can only ever learn. People in my field have focused a lot demographics as being an important part of change to the point that demographics is more important than actually changing the system that we all know is broken. Demographics help highlight the problem, but they are not change.


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.



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.