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Ontario puts moratorium on suspending racialized public servants

Ontario puts moratorium on suspending racialized public servants
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Black workers in Ontario met with MPP Michael Coteau, minister responsible for the Anti-Racism Directorate, and some of his team on Jan. 18. Coteau heard stories from Black employees who said their roles were steadily diminished despite years of positive reviews.  (DIONNE Renée / YouTube)

By Vicky MochamaMetro

Thu., Feb. 15, 2018

The province has put a moratorium on suspending racialized public servants while it reviews how it processes complaints on racial discrimination.

The announcement came a day after more than 20 Black employees, mostly women, brought their concerns directly to Michael Coteau, Ontario’s minister of children and youth services, who is also in charge of the province’s anti-racism initiatives.

At a meeting Jan. 18, past and present public servants said they suffered racial harassment and faced reprisal when making complaints.

Coteau heard stories from Black employees who said their roles were steadily diminished despite years of positive reviews. Others had trained new staff, only to see those new employees be given higher, more lucrative positions. Some said their complaints about racial discrimination were mishandled. A majority of the participants said they had been suspended, demoted or fired while the staffers they had complained about faced no repercussions.

“When I started at the ministry, I was confused for the hired help,” Hentrose Nelson, who has worked in the public service since 2004, told Coteau. Nelson was one of the organizers of the meeting and she spoke about her experience with the complaints and suspension process.

Nelson is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit against provincial Citizenship and Immigration Minister Laura Albanese, alleging systemic racism in the department.

None of the accusations has been tested in court.

Boafoa Kwamena, a spokesperson for the Ontario Public Service — which encompasses over 60,000 employees in the province’s ministries, agencies and Crown corporations — would not comment on specific complaints. She also declined to answer Metro’s questions about what prompted the moratorium or how long it will last, saying in an email this week only that it is in place pending the review of existing policies and procedures.

Where there is a clear case of wrongdoing such as theft or violence against another staff member, the moratorium does not apply as those cases are reviewed by the province’s Public Service Commission.

“Creating a safe, inclusive and respectful environment for everyone in the OPS is a top priority,” Kwamena wrote in an email.

She added that officials are working with the Black OPS Network, an internal employee network, on a three-point plan. It includes an independent third-party review of complex cases; an independent review of the Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Prevention policy with an anti-racism methodology; and developing an anti-racism policy. Attendees of the January meeting also called for these actions.

The review of the complaints process is intended to start by this March. A private sector lawyer will manage the review of complex cases. The OPS has declined to name the lawyer until a contract has been finalized.

“This is really something that we wanted to do for other Black women,” explained Jean-Marie Dixon, who has worked as a lawyer in the civil service.

Dixon says the action employees are taking now is for future generations. She wants to see people who have engaged in racism and discrimination fired as well as more funding and support for Black women going through a grievance, complaint or lawsuit.

Nelson welcomes the news of the moratorium and echoes the hope for more change to come.

“It’s not about our struggle only,” she said in an interview following the announcement. “It’s a systemic beast which we are trying to fight. It’s a huge win.”
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