March 21 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, marking the reaffirmation the commitment of the international community to combat racial discrimination. Inequality and racial discrimination continue to permeate through our society and our social structures. Every person is entitled to have equal access to basic human rights yet, it is tragic that all over the world (yes Canada included), race is still a barrier to opportunity and prosperity.

Canada touts itself as a country that embraces diversity and multiculturalism but there is much work to do in breaking down the current systemic barriers. It is undeniable that the current education systems, both K-12 and post-secondary, do a disservice to students from marginalized communities, as these students often have limited access to social services and support systems that ensure attainment of learning outcomes. We need to recognize that constructs still exist which exclude and leave people behind.

“As a society we need to bridge the gaps and insist upon equal opportunities for education.”

Education is a right that contributes to the common good and success of a society. Education allows individuals to advance while helping society as a whole move forward; however, racism and xenophobia prevent people from gaining access to education. Racism perpetuates inequality in our society and unfairly places people in socioeconomic disadvantage and social exclusion. Education in British Columbia is already unaffordable for many, but for racialized communities, which often have  a higher likelihood of economic disadvantage, the challenges in accessing post-secondary education are exponential.

On top of unaffordability, students from marginalized backgrounds are under-represented in post-secondary education due to the unnecessarily complicated process of applying for school and financial assistance. For first-generation immigrants in particular, this task can be daunting. Most students rely on their parents as resources, whereas first-generation students’ parents have never gone through the Canadian post-secondary system and cannot offer advice in navigating the complex financial aid system. The added effect of unaffordability, the complicated application process, and lack of financial assistance are great barriers to attaining higher education.

Recently, as a result of organizing together across the province, students were able to reverse the government’s funding cut to Adult Basic Education and English Language Learning programs, and force the elimination of tuition fees for those programs. The funding cut and implementation of fees severely impacted those who disproportionately rely on these programs—individuals from Indigenous, immigrant, and refugee communities. Thus, the reversal of the funding cut was a big win for these marginalized groups. For many, these programs are monumental stepping-stones, providing a chance to combat systemic inequality.

“Education in British Columbia is already unaffordable for many, but for racialized communities, which often have a higher likelihood of economic disadvantage, the challenges in accessing post-secondary education are exponential.”

Ultimately, through education, we break down barriers, reconcile past wrongdoings, and work through differences to defeat xenophobia. Yet, as a society we need to bridge the gaps and insist upon equal opportunities for education. We need to do something. We have a lot of unlearning to do, which extends beyond the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to all of 365 days of the year, every year. Only then we can put a stop to the cyclical perpetuation of inequality due to racial discrimination.

– Phoebe Lo Patigdas, BCFS Secretary-Treasurer