The Struggle for Equity at OCA

“IT HAS DICK to do with art,” muttered an angry male faculty colleague as we left a tense meeting of Toronto’s Ontario College of Art Faculty Association on October 31, 1989. The subject of the meeting had been the employment-equity proposals being debated by the college’s governing council. The faculty present had voted 39-23 in favour. It was an important vote for those of us who support equity because all six faculty seats on the nineteen-member governing council were then occupied by men, at least five of whom, it was clear, would vote against the proposal. We wanted to let the other members of council know where the majority of the faculty stood.

Even at the best of times, OCA is a fractious place. You can’t bring together that many creative people — 262 faculty and approximately 2,800 full-and part-time students — without having sparks fly. Frequently the sparks are the result of the never-ending war between the college’s traditionalists and avant-gardists and their constant fears that if they relax their guard the other side will gain the upper hand. In the early 1970s, for example, during my first year at the college, one sculpture teacher smashed the copies of well-known works used by another sculptor in his teaching. He argued that “no creative ability is developed through copying.” The then president, Roy Ascott, agreed, saying that he believed the use of copies was “a form of brainwashing.”

Ascott was fired several months later with the college’s avant-gardists and traditionalists lined up for and against him. As soon as he was gone, OCA reorganized itself. (Among his many changes, Ascott had abolished departments.) Those who favoured traditional — i.e., mostly realistic — approaches to drawing, painting, and sculpture set up a fine arts department; those who favoured more avant-garde approaches to those media formed an experimental-arts department. No other art college in Canada, and none that I know of anywhere, has two drawing, painting, and sculpture departments. The decision to have two had nothing, of course, to do with the best interests of the students — only with the philosophical differences and the antipathies between and among faculty.

OCA is the oldest and largest school of art and design in Canada. (There are only four such schools in the country.) There are more people at OCA than anyplace else in the country creating the images we see in Canada’s galleries and media. One doesn’t have to be a feminist to be concerned about how women are portrayed. It’s no small matter, therefore, that in 1989-90 male faculty outnumbered female faculty four to one and taught eighty-seven per cent of the periods. (A period is a twenty-eight-week course consisting of three hours a week.) Meanwhile, fifty-seven per cent of OCA’s students in recent years have been women.

In May, 1985, prodded by a student who’d conducted some independent research on the subject, the college’s governing council established a task force to examine the status of women at OCA. That September, council unanimously approved a motion indicating “its commitment to an affirmative action/employment equity programme for women” at the college; it called on the task force to advise the council on policies and strategy for implementing such a programme. OCA thus became the first postsecondary institution in Ontario to formally approve an equity plan.

A preliminary report in November, 1986, pointed out that some departments had a shockingly low proportion of women teachers. In communication and design (advertising), by far the largest department in the college, ninety-four per cent of the periods were taught by men; in fine arts, the second-largest department, it was eighty-nine per cent of the periods; in experimental arts, eighty-two per cent. (Not one women taught painting and drawing in experimental arts, although the distinguished Canadian artist Joyce Wieland had been turned down three times when she applied to do so.) The one area where there were more women working at the college than men was in life-drawing classes; sixty-nine per cent of the models were women and thirty-one per cent men. (Until 1971, male models at OCA wore jockstraps; female models posed nude.)

Life drawing wasn’t confined to the classroom. Certain women students in fine arts were persistently asked to model in private for their instructors. Michèle White, who is currently senior adviser to students at the college and who teaches courses in fine arts, was herself a fine-arts student. Being asked to model, she says, put students in a difficult position “because if you said ‘no’ several things would happen. You might not get the marks you thought you should get. You might not get the scholarship you thought you should get. You might not get the attention that your teacher was giving the other students around you who were modelling…. If you said yes, then you got implicated in this reward system…. That’s an impossible situation for a young woman to be in … and it’s still going on now.”

White, at some personal cost, was instrumental in drawing up a sexual-harassment policy, which passed easily because a particularly egregious incident of sexual harassment involving an instructor was facing the college at the time. There was a real possibility of criminal charges. But the existence of a sexual-harassment policy doesn’t, of course, mean that sexual harassment has been eliminated at OCA any more than it has been on other campuses or that it’s easy to document. Most students continue to be afraid to attach their names to charges for fear of reprisal.
What neither the preliminary task force report nor subsequent reports described was how hiring was conducted at OCA. I, for example, was hired in 1971 as a part-time instructor on the basis of at most a five-minute conversation with Roy Ascott. We talked about Utopian novels. And that was it. So far as I know neither my credentials nor my references were checked. My appointment was never formally reviewed in the years that followed. And I was not an exception. That’s how most of the hiring at OCA was done until 1987, when formal appointment procedures were established.
Once departments had been re-established after Ascott’s dismissal, the chairs — only one was a woman — became responsible for hiring. Jobs were rarely advertised. For the most part, department heads tapped friends or former students on the shoulder. Most of those who were tapped were men. People, after all, tend to hire their own kind. This practice is called systemic discrimination. It’s not surprising, then, that the department with the highest percentage of women faculty members — environmental design, with forty-two per cent — for a long time was the only department that was chaired by a woman.

It had been obvious for some time, then, that something needed to be done at OCA about systemic discrimination. In 1977, the Canadian Human Rights Act gave recognition to employment equity. Three years later the department of employment and immigration spelled out what employment equity was: a comprehensive programme designed to prevent the effects of intentional and systemic discrimination by ensuring the equitable representation in the workplace of women, visible minorities, native people, and those with disabilities. The objectives of an equity plan, the department said, had to be quantitative and attainable within a specified and reasonable period of time.

In 1981, Section 13(1) of the Ontario Human Rights Code stated that the right to equal treatment for every individual as guaranteed by the code “is not [my emphasis] infringed by the implementation of a special program designed to relieve hardship or economic disadvantage or to assist disadvantaged persons or groups to achieve or attempt to achieve equal opportunity or that is likely to contribute to the elimination of the infringement of rights.” In other words, in some circumstances, two wrongs can make a right.

A few companies, London Life, for example, began employment-equity programmes almost immediately out of a sense that the world was changing and that employment equity could actually be good for business. Most employers, however, did nothing. Consider Canadian National.

In 1981, Action Travail des Femmes, a women’s rights group at CN, lodged a formal complaint against the railway with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. CN, the group said, was guilty of systemic discrimination against women. Only 6.11 per cent of CN’s workforce was female as opposed to 40.7 per cent of the total Canadian workforce. More important, while women made up thirteen per cent of blue-collar workers nationally, only 0.7 per cent of blue-collar workers at CN were women. The jobs women were being denied — as brakemen, yardmen, and so on — were relatively high-paying.

The hearing extended over a year and a half. In 1984 a human rights tribunal ordered CN to hire one woman for every four new men for blue-collar jobs until the number of women working in non-traditional jobs in Quebec had increased to thirteen per cent. CN appealed. The Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the Human Rights Commission didn’t have the power to impose a quota; it could only make recommendations. Human Rights then appealed to the Supreme Court. In June, 1987, in a landmark 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

As Rosalie Abella, author of the 1984 Equality in Employment: A Royal Commission Report, maintained, it isn’t enough to pay lip service to people’s rights. “Unenforceable rights are no more satisfactory than unavailable ones,” she wrote in a summary of her report. “In a liberal democracy like ours, law is the expression of the public will. It is our most positive mechanism for protecting and maintaining what we value. That is why we turn to law asthe appropriate mechanism for overcoming systemic discrimination…. The cry of ‘reverse discrimination’ is sometimes raised against equity programmes. On the contrary, it is the fair opening of the competition…. As long as systemic barriers remain, women and minorities will remain unjustifiably in perpetual slow motion.”

Although OCA was the first postsecondary institution to approve equity in principle, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto was much quicker at actually implementing an equity programme. In fact, Ryerson had shown that between 1980 and 1985 the percentage of full-time women faculty members had increased only from twenty-six to twenty-eight per cent and that from 1986 on the proportion hadn’t grown at all. Ryerson’s voluntary equity programme wasn’t working.

In 1988, Ryerson’s board of governors approved a mandatory plan whereby fifty-seven of seventy-two male faculty members taking retirement over the next ten years would be replaced by women. The number was arrived at by comparing the proportion of women in the tenure stream of each department with the proportion of women in the general population holding the qualifications required for the position. In those departments where the percentage of qualified women on the faculty was lower than the percentage of qualified women in the general population, equity positions were designated. If a qualified woman isn’t found, the position is opened to men. OCA’s approach to equity was modelled on Ryerson’s.

In the spring of 1990, Ryerson received an award from the Ontario government for its employment-equity initiatives. The irony is that, because of a shortage of funds, Ryerson had by that time frozen all hiring. Faculty members who retire aren’t being replaced at all.

Before presenting its employment equity proposals to council in the spring of 1989, OCA’s status of women committee held a rally. Liz Magor, who shares the chair of the committee, is a sculptor whose work has been displayed at the illustrious Venice Biennale. She talked movingly about having dropped out of the Vancouver School of Art twenty years earlier. At the time she felt no-one was to blame but herself. Her teachers by and large were reasonable people. “I hadn’t noticed they were 100 per cent male because bus drivers were 100 per cent male and letter carriers were 100 per cent male. There was no real reason to start checking out gender as the problem.” She sat in class not connecting, thinking that she didn’t have what it took. The art history they taught her didn’t reflect her life and experience. “At that time,” she says now, “I assumed art history didn’t hold anything back. If I wasn’t reflected there, I didn’t deserve to be.”

Lisa Steele, the committee’s other chair and a video artist who was recently given a retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, pointed out that the statistics for women teaching at OCA had remained static since the 1985 motion. The voluntary approach wasn’t working. “Without an equity plan,” she stated, “there will be no change…. We are wasting massive amounts of female talent. All over the country, art institutions are training the women we need on our faculty.” Not only were there plenty of qualified women, she continued, but the equity programme that was being unveiled at OCA was non-threatening. No-one would be hurt by it.

The document containing the status of women committee’s proposals, “Equity 2000,” reported that periods taught by women tended to be concentrated in the summer and evening programmes where salaries were twenty-five per cent lower. The two largest departments in the college — communication and design, and fine arts — had no women on their hiring committees. The council and half its committees had no women faculty members on them. Only full-time faculty — almost eighty-six per cent of them men — could vote for those who represented them on the governing council. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the faculty on council have almost always been men.

The report’s major recommendation was that the college “earmark all continuing periods vacated by retiring faculty over the next ten years as periods to be filled by qualified women.” That would involve 176.5 periods, only five of them to come due in 1990. The college offers 753 periods. When a number of faculty members unexpectedly took advantage of an early-retirement programme, an additional forty-five periods were freed up for the fall of 1990. (“Equity 2000,” it should be noted, is a misnomer. Equity won’t exist by the year 2000; in that year, the committee estimated, thirty-eight per cent of periods will be taught by women.)

At its May 1, 1989, meeting, council voted to establish a formal programme of employment equity at OCA and called on the college’s new president, Tim Porteous, to set up a committee to report back on the implementation of the recommendations in the “Equity 2000” document. The committee worked on the recommendations all summer, and Porteous presented a revised summary of the “Equity 2000” proposals at the September meeting of council. Members of council were asked to be prepared to vote on the document at the October meeting. That’s when the fun began.

There are more myths, rumours, and conspiracy theories per square foot at OCA than anyplace else I’ve ever been — one of the results, I suppose, of having all those active imaginations under one roof. False rumours and misinformation about equity began to circulate. According to one rumour, the college would be hiring only women for the next ten years. But the fact is, about twenty-three teaching periods a year become available through resignations, deaths, newly funded periods, and so on — more periods over ten years than would open up through equity. All the non-equity periods would be open to both men and women.

Another false rumour had it that, under equity, unqualified women would be hired. A memo circulated by faculty council member Steve Quinlan just before the October council meeting stated: “OCA is at a crossroads and our next move may determine whether we are an institution that offers excellence in its education or mediocrity. ‘Equity 2000’ guarantees the latter.” One conspiracy theory that built on this rumour suggested that Porteous had been appointed president so that he could run OCA into the ground (by hiring unqualified women) and thus provide the Art Gallery of Ontario (our next-door neighbour) with room to expand.

Aware that opposition to equity was growing, Porteous added a preamble to the “Equity 2000” recommendations. It assured the community that “the present composition of the art and design profession and the college’s own record of graduating students provide evidence that there are many well-qualified female candidates for teaching positions at OCA.” The preamble also reminded OCA that the ultimate decision about whether someone was qualified rested with the college’s hiring committees. No-one would be appointed unless those committees were convinced that the candidate was fully qualified to teach the course and would make a valuable contribution to the college. The opposition paid no attention.

I use the term “marble-roller” to describe the kind of brilliantly perverse (or sometimes just perverse) student one occasionally runs across in class. By means of a clever question or mischievous statement, he or she rolls a marble down one side of the room; while you’re bending over to pick it up, there’s another one on its way down the other side. If you’re not careful, the marble-roller can take over the class’s agenda.
John Grube, who teaches creative writing at OCA and sits on council, is a marble-roller. When Tim Porteous moved at the October, 1989, council meeting that the summary of “Equity 2000” be approved, Grube moved an amendment: “That where in this document the word ‘woman’ or its equivalent occurs, the following words be added: ‘or a member of another group implicitly protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code.’” Although Archie Graham, the president of the faculty association, argued from the floor that the original motion was being stood on its head (a parliamentary no-no), the chair of council nonetheless proceeded to call a vote. Grube’s amendment passed 8-7. The amended document was then approved 11-4. (In addition to the six faculty members, governing council consists of three students, nine lay members, and the president.)

It was difficult to view Grube’s amendment as anything other than a clever ploy. The task force had by no means ignored the subject of visible minorities, native people, and the disabled. Its report proposed bringing forward policies for redressing imbalances in those areas within a year as part of a second phase of employment equity, as Ryerson had done. That involved further research. The committee’s mandate, after all, had been to deal with equity for women. They’d done what they’d been asked to do.

Immediately after the meeting, Porteous consulted the college’s lawyer on the meaning of Grube’s amendment. The lawyer, John C. Murray, wrote that “if the purpose of the ‘Equity 2000’ report is to advance the rights of women or other minority groups, this amendment simply will not achieve that result. The amendment would, if any meaning could be given to it at all, simply provide equal rights to every person in society, which is, of course, simply a reflection of the status quo.” He went on to say that the amendment was “essentially meaningless in law” and was therefore “null and void.”

At the November meeting, the original motion (minus the Grube amendment) was again placed before council. Grube complained that the lawyer’s views represented just one man’s opinion. Faculty council member John Newman circulated a document to demonstrate that in his department, fine arts, seventy-one per cent of the painting and drawing faculty would be women in the year 2000 if equity were to proceed. Newman didn’t mention that for years well over eighty per cent of the faculty in fine arts had been men. (And, as Porteous subsequently demonstrated, Newman’s figures were inflated.) Council approved the equity proposals 8-5 with two abstentions. The battle appeared to be over. What we didn’t know was that equity was about to be refought in the media.

In January 9, 1990, on the op-ed page of The Globe and Mail appeared an article entitled “No male artists need apply.” Its author was John Grube. According to Grube, “the vast majority of job openings at OCA occur as a result of retirement, and the council has reserved all such openings over the next 10 years for women applicants.” The disabled, native people, and visible minorities, he wrote, “will have to go on sitting at the back of the bus.” Note the loaded language. (There’s nothing that prevents women members of those three groups from applying for equity positions.) “And gay men,” he added, “although supposedly protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code, are totally excluded.” (Huh? Gay men, like straight men, can apply for the more than twenty nonequity periods a year that are open to all applicants.)
As the Globe ’s Bronwyn Drainie subsequently put it, “The first Globe readers knew about the story was a diatribe against the new policy… by disgruntled OCA faculty member John Grube. That was prominently displayed on page seven… while the news story explaining the details was buried in the back of the same edition. It is common practice,” she added, “for newspapers to print the news first and the comment afterward.” But the Globe’s news story hadn’t got it right either. It was entitled “OCA to hire women for next 10 years.” Nowhere did it explain why the programme was needed, or make clear that there were a great many other periods available. The two pieces in the Globe set the tone for much of the media coverage that followed.

On January 11, 1990, a Canadian Press story about what was happening at OCA was carried by dozens of papers across Canada. Its first paragraph stated, “Men need not apply for the 50 teaching positions open at the Ontario College of Art this September — all are to be filled by women.” Only in the fifth paragraph, for those who read that far, was it made clear that men would still be eligible for openings not created by retirement.

On the basis of the news accounts they’d read (and in some cases, what they were being told by disgruntled faculty), misinformed columnists proceeded to denounce the college. Frank Jones of The Toronto Star wrote, “what they’ve got at OCA is not an affirmative action program, it’s a shrewdly engineered feminist coup.” Philosopher Thomas Hurka, who was then writing an ethics column for the Globe, stated in a discussion of affirmative action that “the Ontario College of Art will hire 100 per cent women for the next 10 years.” (I didn’t think philosophers believed everything they read.) David Warren, editorial-page columnist for the Kingston Whig-Standard, described OCA as a place where “a feminist administration has placed a 10-year moratorium on the hiring or promotion of males.” Editorials and letters to the editor attacked the college.

When I learned that the fifth estate was doing an item on us, I was pleased. In an earlier incarnation I was a television critic and admired the programme because, unlike 60 Minutes, say, the fifth estate didn’t sensationalize stories, provided context. But its item on OCA, entitled “Men Need Not Apply,” offered virtually no context. There was no mention of systemic discrimination, the situation at other postsecondary institutions, the available pool of qualified artists and designers, the nonequity openings at OCA. Certainly, host Eric Malling didn’t even seem to know that there were non-equity openings. “If Michelangelo arose tomorrow and came here looking for a job,” he intoned at one point, “they’d send him packing.” What the item consisted of was a series of Mike Wallace-like confrontations with people on both sides of the equity issue. “What have we got here,” demanded the smart-ass Malling of Porteous, “an art college or a battleground for sexual politics?” (Well, Eric, right now we’ve got both.)

On Morningside, Peter Gzowski didn’t want the discussion of equity at OCA to become too specific. He wanted to discuss the principle. But without going into details, it’s impossible to explain this particular principle. One of those on the programme was Greg Damery, a weekend, summer, and evening instructor in fine arts at OCA who, knowingly or otherwise, continued to inject false information into the discussion here and elsewhere. He stated, for example, that in ten years, the faculty in three departments including his own would be eighty per cent female. (Damery is understandably angry. He’d expected because of his seniority that one day he would replace one of the older teachers in the day school in his department. Equity had thrown a monkey wrench into his plans. He wasn’t responsible for the college’s systemic discrimination but was a victim of it. Lisa Steele isn’t sympathetic. If hiring is to be a genuinely open process, she says, there’s no guarantee that Damery or anyone else will get any particular job. “You can’t be robbed of something you don’t have,” she adds.)

There’s no doubt that the media covered the OCA story poorly. But it’s important to acknowledge that those of us who support equity did a terrible job of getting our side of the story out. Our initial press release didn’t give enough details. We should have held a press conference, if not right after equity was passed then certainly as soon as it was clear that a great deal of misinformation was being deliberately circulated. A letter from Porteous to the Toronto papers correcting some of the misinformation went out too late to do any good.

In response to the media coverage, Porteous received angry letters from alumni worried that their credentials were being cheapened by the hiring of unqualified women. Some withdrew financial support from the college. One suggested that half the Group of Seven’s paintings in galleries should be replaced by the work of women. Another wrote, “These man-hating Female Chauvinists have succeeded in not only infiltrating a spiritual institution but have won control… by craftiness and unethical means…. They will continue to poison every fibre of society until they control everything.”

Encouraged by the response of the media, the anti-equity forces renewed the battle inside the college. The faculty-association meeting I described at the beginning of this article had been conducted without a quorum. (Faculty-association meetings have been conducted without a quorum for at least fifteen years.) On January 19, however, thirty-three members called for a special meeting of the association to reconsider the vote on equity. They declared the first vote “null and void.”

At the end of January, there were to be new elections for governing council. Two faculty seats were vacant as were all three student seats. As well, four new lay members were being appointed by the government. A new vote on equity might go the other way. The two faculty seats balanced out — pro-and anti-equity incumbents were replaced by pro-and anti-equity newcomers. The new pro-equity faculty member was a woman. Three male students who ran on an anti-equity platform were elected with the active support of anti-equity faculty. Two of the students who’d been sitting on council and who were defeated had been enthusiastic supporters of equity. That meant there were now at least eight anti-equity votes on council, five male faculty members and three male students.

At the first meeting of the new governing council in February, John Grube presented a notice of motion designed to overturn equity. It called for faculty vacancies to be filled in the following manner: 1. If one applicant is clearly the most qualified, he or she will be hired. 2. If two or more candidates have relatively equal qualifications, preference is to be given to a woman. 3. If none of the applicants with relatively equal qualifications is a woman, preference is to be given to one of: people of colour, natives, the disabled, openly gay men or — openly lesbian women! Grube’s motion was to be voted on at the March council meeting.

The special meeting of the faculty association was held in late February. I’d never seen so many faculty members in the same room before. After lengthy procedural wrangling, the votes were held. A pro-equity executive was elected. Then equity itself was approved by a vote of 62-46.

The March 5 meeting of governing council was packed. Half a dozen television cameras were present, as was an undercover policeman. In the wake of Mark Lépine and the Montreal massacre, the policeman’s presence seemed a not unwise precaution. One of the new students on council amended Grube’s motion by deleting all references to disadvantaged groups. Grube and the seconder agreed. What was now left was the approach to equity that had already failed at OCA — i.e., that all other things being equal preference would be given to women.
After lengthy discussion and at the suggestion of Jim Coutts, the chair of council, it was moved and seconded that the issue of equity be tabled until November, 1990, the anniversary of its adoption, when a committee would be struck to review its progress. Council voted 10-8 in favour of the motion.

In March, 1990, because of the continuing controversy, OCA and the OCA faculty association jointly requested the Ontario Human Rights Commission to formally declare that “Equity 2000” satisfied the requirements of Section 13(1) of the Ontario Human Rights Code. The commission invited those who believed they would be adversely affected by such an order to make their case in writing. There were twenty-three submissions.

On June 26, 1990, the commission issued an order formally approving OCA’s employment-equity programme for women and requiring the college to proceed with phase two, its programme for other disadvantaged groups. At the end of one year, the college is to provide the commission with a detailed progress report on both phases.

Obviously, OCA is not alone in its under-representation of women in the workplace. In 1986-87, only 17.4 per cent of full-time faculty in Ontario’s universities were women. Their salaries at each rank were from four to eight per cent lower than those for men at the same rank. Anomalies of a different kind are to be found in our elementary schools. Although the vast majority of public-school teachers in Canada are women, over seventy-five per cent of the principals are men. Women now occupy forty-three per cent of all federal-government jobs, but they hold only twelve per cent of the most senior positions. And over the entire work force, women earn less than two-thirds of the salaries of men.

It’s clear, says Julie Davis, secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour, that “no employer is going to stand up and say ‘I don’t want to hire women’ or ‘I don’t want to hire natives’ or ‘I don’t want to hire the disabled or racial minorities,’ but the reality is, they are not interested. The reality is that without legislation nothing will change.” That’s why the Alliance for Employment Equity, an umbrella organization for more than fifty groups, has been lobbying the Ontario government to introduce mandatory legislation.

A conservative friend rolls his eyes when we talk about equity. He argues that the ultimate in liberalism is the ultimate in legalism; there will eventually be a rule and/or a quota, he says, for everything. I know what he means. And I worry about that too. Yet the alternative — continuing with voluntary approaches — seems worse. People and institutions rarely change unless they have to.

— Saturday Night, December 1990

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