The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is set to examine whether there is discrimination in how Canada Research Chairs are handed out.
Professors from two universities filed complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission about the federal program, which provides $265-million in funding to 1,600 top academics each year. The commission has now sent those cases to the tribunal, which is similar to a court of law.
Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and one of the complainants, says the chairs have not been awarded in a way that is fair to all academics.
"The Canada Research Chairs program, historically, has not given opportunities to excellent women, visible minorities, aboriginals, persons with disabilities, which is illegal because it's discriminatory," Dr. Attaran said. "The government has been funding white men and not the four groups I just named, which is to say they're subsidizing a system of discrimination rather than subsidizing a system of equality."
The other complaint is from Lynda Gullason, an adjunct research professor at Carleton University. Dr. Gullason could not be reached on Thursday.
A spokesperson for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which helps administer the research program, declined to comment as the case is now before the tribunal.
In a filing sent to the commission in July, the federal agency says the program's recipients should reflect the diversity of Canadians, but argues it needs more time to enact reforms.
"Achieving a more equitable, diverse and inclusive Canadian research enterprise is essential to creating the excellent, innovative and impactful research necessary to seize opportunities and for responding to global challenges," the government submission said.
The response also cited media attention and public pressure as one of the reasons that universities had come closer to meeting their equity targets since 2015.
The equity targets for the Canada Research Chairs program were established after a 2006 settlement with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. Those targets for representation are based on the availability of researchers for the positions. The four designated groups and their targets are women at 31 per cent; visible minorities at 15 per cent; people with a disability at 4 per cent; and Indigenous scholars at 1 per cent.
Universities have generally failed to meet their hiring targets in the decade since and they have not faced repercussions from the government until recently. Universities nominate academics for the chairs, which are then approved by the government.
Last year, the Canadian Human Rights Commission took the unusual step of asking the Federal Court of Canada to give extra legal weight to the 2006 ruling by making it an order of the Federal Court. On May 3, 2017, the court granted the request.
On May 4, the federal government said universities would have to improve their equity performance or risk the loss of their research chairs. Universities have until Dec. 15 to make action plans, and another 18 to 24 months to meet the targets.
Universities have already taken some steps to improve the diversity of their researchers. Several institutions have begun to put term limits on some positions to encourage more opportunities for other scholars.
Universities Canada announced on Thursday it would collect and make public demographic data of faculty, staff and students from schools across the country as part of a five-year plan.
Dr. Attaran said he would like to see the equity targets increased to be closer to the overall Canadian population, that the government follow through on its threat to withhold funding from schools that miss targets and some form of compensation for academics from the affected groups who may have been denied opportunities in the past.