11/04/2014 08:43 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST

Brock University students in blackface win Halloween contest

A group of faculty members at a university in Ontario's Niagara Region is accusing students who won a campus pub Halloween contest of "racist" behaviour after they wore blackface to dress as the Jamaican bobsled team.

In a letter on the Facebook page of Brock University's labour studies department, four faculty members wrote that the incident has caused "concern and anxiety on campus," particularly since the four students won the $500 cash prize.

"Students, staff and faculty at Brock University need to understand that such costumes are not 'just a joke,'" said the letter signed by Larry Savage, director of the Centre for Labour Studies, and the three other professors.

"Regardless of the intent or motivation of the students in question, donning blackface for Halloween is never okay; it is racist, full stop."

The four students were among Halloween contestants at the party last Thursday at Isaac's Pub.

The letter also said the response from the Brock University Students Union (BUSU) was "halting, at best," and that there's been a "lack of response" from university senior administration.

Student union to take action

Blackface minstrel shows have a history in Niagara, the letter says, adding that they were aimed at white tourists until the 1950s. Blackface also helps "maintain and normalize anti-black racism and systematic oppression," it adds.

In a statement on its website, BUSU said it's taking steps to ensure such incidents don't happen again.

It's expanding its workplace safety and harassment training to include equity and human rights training for front-line workers, including bar staff, it said.

It will also ensure that contest entries are vetted, BUSU said.

The students won the costume contest based on audience applause, BUSU president Roland Erman told the CBC. He does not think the winners had malicious intent. 

A student union representative will be on hand at future contests, possibly checking people's costumes as they wait in line outside, to guard against future blackface incidents.

"We can’t go back and change that competition, but we can try to put building blocks in place to ensure for greater oversight," he said.

The union has received feedback from upset students, Erman said, and takes it seriously.

"BUSU recognizes that this was definitely an area of shortcoming this year and in the past."