Ontario public service employees sue province, unions over alleged racism

By The Canadian Press
March 14, 2019 - 2:30pm

TORONTO — Two Ontario public service employees have launched a lawsuit against the provincial government and the unions that represent them, alleging they've been subjected to systemic racism for years.

Jean-Marie Dixon and Hentrose Nelson claim they experienced prolonged anti-black racism that led to harassment and mistreatment over their careers in the Ontario Public Service.

They allege such mistreatment took the form of aggression from colleagues, co-ordinated attempts at intimidation, being mistaken for janitorial staff and demotion from long-held positions.

The women also allege the unions they belong to failed to respond to their complaints and helped uphold a culture of systemic racism.

The $26-million lawsuit, which contains unproven allegations, calls for a number of actions, including a "truth and conciliation" commission for racialized employees of the Ontario Public Service and anti-racism training for all staff.

The government and one of the unions named in the suit didn't respond to request for comment, while another union — The Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario — said it couldn't comment on individual cases but it had long advocated for an end to systemic discrimination within the public service.

Dixon, a Crown lawyer currently on leave from her role with the Ministry of the Attorney General, said the ideals that shaped her career expectations have been entirely at odds with her experience of working for the Ontario government.

"I went in with the idea that I would be able to work for an employer that valued humans, that valued dignity, that encouraged people to seek justice," she said at a news conference in Toronto on Thursday. "My dreams were crushed. I immediately began to experience anti-black racism in the workplace."

The allegations laid out in Dixon and Nelson's statement of claim involve many aspects of the women's work lives.

Both allege mistreatment at the hands of individual co-workers, harassment from peers and superiors, and a lack of support from the labour groups ostensibly there to help them fight back against workplace discrimination.

Dixon, who has worked for the OPS since 2002, alleged there were times when co-workers unplugged her work equipment and forced her to leave rooms where she was trying to conduct government business, making it clear that she was not welcome.

She also alleged fellow employees made remarks about the superiority of blonde-haired, blue-eyed children, as well as assertions that "addressing racism in the office would not and should not come at the discomfort of white staff."

Dixon also alleged a co-ordinated effort to alienate her, claiming colleagues who showed her support were threatened with professional reprisals.

Nelson, who joined the OPS in 2004 and has worked various administrative roles most recently at the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, alleged a supervisor engaged in an escalating campaign of harassment. This allegedly included assigning Nelson "menial" and "degrading tasks," such as cleaning out drawers and unravelling phone cords, which were not requested of white colleagues.

Nelson alleged the stress caused by the work environment led to illness that ultimately resulted in the premature birth of her baby.

Prior to this, Nelson alleged a supervisor verbally expressed a fear of black women, adding she felt she was repeatedly placed in the position of having to prove her intelligence and competence.

The statement of claim alleges that "anti-Black racism, and racism in general, along with white privilege and white supremacy, are pervasive and entrenched within the OPS."

Both Dixon and Nelson further allege that the unions representing them — the Association of Law Officers of the Crown and the Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees — were complicit in upholding a discriminatory system.

"The culture of systemic and institutional anti-Black racism in the OPS influenced AMAPCEO and ALOC so that they have been and are ineffective in protecting the well-being, safety, interests, and concerns of the plaintiffs," the suit alleged.

AMAPCEO said it takes its responsibility of representing members seriously.

"AMAPCEO has long advocated for the OPS Employer to end systemic discrimination within the OPS and promote equity in our members' workplaces," president Dave Bulmer said in a statement.

ALOC president Megan Peck said the union could not comment on Dixon's individual case, but it takes all complaints of discrimination and harassment "very seriously."

"In representing its members, including Ms. Dixon, ALOC has always acted, and will continue to act in good faith and without discrimination. ALOC cannot however comment on the matter before the courts," Peck said in an email statement.

Both women are on leaves of absence and alleged they felt forced from their workplaces because of efforts to speak out.

The government's own anti-racism policy acknowledges issues within the ranks. According to a 2017 report, racialized groups make up 23 per cent of the OPS workforce but between 17 and nine per cent of senior managers, with the number shrinking as rank increases.

"We need to recognize that there are systemic racism barriers that prevent people from reaching their full potential," the anti-racism policy reads. "We need to recognize that histories of colonialism and slavery have resulted in institutionalized inequity for Indigenous, Black and racialized people."

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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