Since 2004, Dr. Aimé Avolonto has taught at York University’s Glendon College as an associate professor in the Department of French Studies—the only Black faculty member in the department.
He has five degrees, speaks seven languages and is a specialist in francophone literature, linguistics and teaching French as a second language.
For most of his 17-year career at York, Avolonto said he had “a pleasing and productive experience.” He was elected chair of the department in 2014 and re-elected in 2016—both times a near-unanimous vote.
However, things changed in 2017, when Avolonto filed a formal complaint with York’s senior administration about the racist behaviour of two white administrators.
“My complaint was about repeated incidents of discriminatory behaviour by the Principal and Associate Principal Academic of Glendon College at the time: Donald Ipperciel and Ian Roberge, respectively,” Avolonto wrote in an open letter about his experience.
Avolonto made his complaint to then-provost and now-president of York University, Rhonda Lenton.
Lenton explained to Avolonto, in a meeting, that she had personally asked the two administrators “if they were racist,” and because they said no, found it hard to believe his allegations, he claims.
After requesting an investigation into his complaints, Avolonto was met with continued harassment from the administration over the next four years.
Avolonto says that he has endured racist mobbing, multiple vicious smear campaigns, hacking and surveillance of his email and a multitude of false allegations against him.
One notable incident was in March 2017, when the principal emailed Avolonto, claiming that a student complained that he had been washing his hands and coffee mug in a water fountain and “making it dirty.”
It brought back sentiments of the “history of segregated water fountains and restrooms, which was for many decades justified on the racist belief that Black people were unclean and unhygienic and needed to be separated from white people,” Avolonto wrote.
By June 2017, Avolonto was dismissed from his role as the chair of French Studies.
The university eventually hired a third-party investigator, Roger Beaudry of Aptus Solutions, to look into his accusations, but Avolonto soon lost trust in the process due to the investigator’s biased conduct.
Almost a year and a half after the investigation began, Beaudry presented numerous allegations against Avolonto that accused him of terrorizing and victimizing colleagues and students, including one allegation of sexual assault.
Between June 2018 to December 2020, Avolonto opened four cases with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) against York University and six of its employees related to institutional racism.
The repeated systematic harassment has taken a severe toll on his mental health and driven him to multiple suicide attempts, he says.
In February, Avolonto’s experience was exposed on The Fifth Estate’s ‘Black on Campus,’ a 21-minute documentary about systemic anti-Black racism in Canada’s post-secondary sector.
While he has received an outpouring of support since the broadcast, Avolonto, who has been on leave since 2018, says the president of the university is making renewed attempts to fire him.
In a detailed open letter, titled ‘Letter from a Black colleague,’ published on his blog, Avolonto describes a chronology of racist incidents from 2016 to 2021, with a list of supporting evidence.
“York is counting on my silence and on the silence of all of you to get away with this behaviour. But I will not be silent. And neither should you. That is why I am writing this letter: to blow the whistle on systemic anti-Black racism at York University and to inform the public of what its administration does when Black people speak out,” he wrote.
Others say incidents of anti-Black racism are neither new nor uncommon at York.
Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada and former staff representative at CUPE 3903, mentioned during a virtual press conference that she had to deal with several complaints from racialized employees during her time as a former CUPE staff member at York University. Often, the administration had responded with dismissal or denial, according to Spring magazine.
A petition calling for York University to end the racist harassment and retaliation facing Avolonto, among other demands, is nearing its goal of 50,000 signatures.
In a statement to 6ixBuzz, York University said:
“York recognizes its responsibility to help build more equitable and inclusive communities and takes any complaints of workplace, gender-based and sexual harassment, and racism and discrimination in any form, very seriously.”
“It is unfortunate for all concerned that misleading and factually incorrect information has been brought into an already challenging circumstance. York recognizes that criticism is an essential part of a healthy society, and that faculty members are fully entitled to criticize and call for changes to the University itself, its policies, practices and norms.”
“The University’s actions here are in response to the findings of an independent investigator following a comprehensive investigation that included interviews of several dozen witnesses and ultimately made findings of workplace harassment, including gender-based and sexual harassment. Any suggestion that the administration’s actions are a result of criticism of the University is completely false and without merit.”
While Professor Avolonto’s case has focused on York University—Canada’s third-largest university—the traumatizing, alienating and violent acts of systemic anti-Black discrimination are an issue in campuses across Canada, according to Spring magazine.
“The experience of never being believed, of never being heard or listened to, of never being taken seriously or of never being acknowledged is utterly exhausting and debilitating,” Avolonto wrote.
“Anti-Black racism is often much more subtle than someone saying the n-word, making racist jokes, or openly insulting a Black person. It is mainly about treating Black people differently from non-Black people.”
As Avolonto’s cases sit before the HRTO, his fight for justice and accountability is only the beginning of recognizing the experiences of Black staff and faculty across the country.