Dismantling discriminatory social constructs to combat health inequities

Research and Innovation
Research and innovation
Black History Month
Faculty of Social Sciences

By University of Ottawa

Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OVPRI

Pictures Karine Coen-Sanchez, Professor Kon K. Madut and Wina Darius, overlayed on pictures of black students on uOttawa's campus.
From left to right: doctoral candidate Karine Coen-Sanchez, Professor Kon K. Madut and doctoral student Wina Darius.
In 2020, the Government of Canada acknowledged that Black communities in our country face “health and social inequities linked to a process of discrimination at multiple levels of society, including individual, interpersonal, institutional and societal discrimination.”

The consequences of these inequities include insecure access to income, food and housing, greater stress, poor physical and mental health, lower life expectancy and more. They have tremendous impact on the health of individuals, but also on their families, communities and future generations.

We spoke with three researchers at the University of Ottawa whose work explores inequities faced by Black communities in employment, education and mental health. Professor Kon K Madut, doctoral candidate Karine Coen-Sanchez and graduate student Wina Paul Darius shared their thoughts on how we can dismantle these inequities and construct a more inclusive — and therefore, healthy — future for all.

Lived realities of Black Canadians

At the School of Political Studies, Kon K Madut’s research on the economic and employment inequities affecting Canadian migrants was influenced by his own experiences as an immigrant and foreign professional seeking employment in Canada.

Prior to his arrival, Madut was assessed as skilled and ready for employment in Canada. He had positive experiences, free of racism and discrimination, with immigration services. He was excited and hopeful for a prosperous future in Canada. But his reality upon arrival was different than expected, as is the case for many newcomers.

The warm enthusiasm of immigration services was replaced with the cold skepticism of hiring companies and colleagues. Credentials and qualifications considered acceptable pre-arrival were deemed insufficient or he was told that Canadian experience was required.

As a result of such experiences, many migrants seek additional training or experience in adjacent fields. They’re not lacking experience or qualifications, says Madut. They’re facing institutions whose processes and perspectives are rooted in outdated, colonial and discriminatory constructs.

“Research shows that healthy migrants who come to Canada and who struggle with their settlement often see a significant deterioration in their health within  five to 10 years,” says Madut. “Families, friendships and relationships are burdened because of lack of employment, changing roles or having to work multiple part-time jobs.”

These experiences have a devastating impact on mental, physical and social health. Research from Wina Paul Darius and the team at uOttawa’s Vulnerability, Trauma, Resilience and Culture Lab shows that people faced with high levels of racial discrimination daily are more likely to report low self-esteem, depression, psychosomatic symptoms and more.

Professor Kon K. Madut

“Research shows that healthy migrants who come to Canada and who struggle with their settlement often see a significant deterioration in their health within 5-10 years”

Professor Kon K Madut

— School of Political Studies

Broader contextual knowledge leads to better health

All three researchers strongly agree that the concept of health and a healthy society is broader than the absence of illness — it’s a multifaceted balance among our physical, mental and social health.

Coen-Sanchez says that to move beyond healthy people to a healthy society, we must be able to recognize and filter through the ingrained social and cultural constructions that surround us, so we can develop a sense of consciousness and belonging.

“By becoming an active observer of these social constructs, we’re able to rationalize situations from a different lens and better understand our authentic self and our identity, rather than accepting a learned construction.”

At an individual level, we must question whether our perspectives are authentically ours or if they are a product of these false constructs, says Coen-Sanchez. At an institutional level, Madut says we must understand the historical, social and procedural barriers that affect equity-seeking groups in our society.

For example, Madut teaches a course at uOttawa on international development issues in Africa. This type of course typically focuses on the consequences of the continent’s lack of development. However, when Madut teaches the course, he discusses the causes, namely, the historical and colonial barriers that negatively influenced development in Africa.

This perspective highlights the disruption of African culture by external colonial influences, he says. It deconstructs the idea that Africa is made up of poor, underdeveloped countries, when, in fact, the continent has many resources that Western societies depend on. That greater contextual knowledge can make all the difference for students and researchers.

For Coen-Sanchez, who studies education and place-based learning at the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies, an ideal educational process involves creating space by using the local community, environment and lived experiences as context for education. When students connect with the learning materials, they create a healthy sense of understanding and belonging.

“Most curriculums in Canada today do not reflect our diverse society or the true history,” she says. “They are modelled around outdated and inaccurate colonial narratives. As a result, Black students don’t see themselves reflected in learning materials, which creates feelings of self-doubt, invisibility and isolation.”

Madut says he’s started to see change over the past few years. Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) principles are becoming more prominent. He’s seeing more representation in institutions and more Black students in his classes.

“This kind of change is hard and there is still a lot of resistance to overcome,” says Madut. “We’re going to need years on this path to truly see change, but one generation builds the next one and every step taken in the process of dismantling social constructions and systematic barriers matters.”

Karine Coen-Sanchez

“By becoming an active observer of these social constructs, we’re able to rationalize situations from a different lens and better understand our authentic self and our identity.”

Karine Coen-Sanchez

— School of Sociology and Anthropology

Universities’ role in dismantling constructs

“Universities represent an opportunity to engage the next generation to reflect on the imposing racial parameters, so they can adopt a lens that can dismantle the discriminatory practices of our society,” says Coen-Sanchez. “When students leave university, they should be equipped with a new sense of awareness, understand the reality of structural barriers and be ready to face society as it is.”

We need to ensure that the students accepted into our programs, the curriculums they are taught and the professors and researchers leading them are diverse, inclusive and accurately reflect the communities they serve, adds Madut.

Darius suggests working with guest speakers who have first-hand experience, to ensure diversity, representation and accuracy. As she puts it, “a more inclusive Canada is a better Canada.”

Students walking by the uOttawa Social Sciences building.
Students walking by the uOttawa Social Sciences building.