Ottawa

Systemic racism at the root of OPSEU's inclusivity problem, insiders say

Deep systemic flaws within one of Ontario’s largest unions have allowed sexist and racist behaviour to go unpunished for months, sometimes even years, according to current and former union members and social justice advocates. 

‘This is about the structures, the barriers that keep us out’

Annette Bouzi says OPSEU's head office did 'absolutely nothing' to support her when she complained about sexist and racist treatment within her union local at Algonquin College. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Deep systemic flaws within one of Ontario's largest unions have allowed sexist and racist behaviour to go unpunished for months, sometimes even years, according to current and former union members and social justice advocates. 

Annette Bouzi, a law professor and the first Black woman to be elected president of the faculty union at Algonquin College in Ottawa, told CBC on Wednesday that she's been bullied and secretly monitored by fellow union officers.

Bouzi launched a complaint against the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in February, alleging the union failed to protect her.  

"The union did absolutely nothing. It was the status quo, and we were all instructed to continue with our affairs as if nothing had happened," she said.

The union's own "neutral external investigator" substantiated Bouzi's complaints, but five months later, one of the union colleagues who was ordered to take anti-racism and anti-sexism training remains suspended pending completion of the courses, according to public records.

OPSEU represents about 170,000 health-care, community college and LCBO workers across the province.

Hayton Morrison, a retired correctional officer and former OPSEU member, faced racism in his workplace for years. (Submitted/Morrison)

'Believe them'

Hayton Morrison, a retired correctional officer and former OPSEU member, faced racism in his workplace for years. Morrison, along with other Black colleagues, received anonymous notes with violent, racist language and threats in the late 2000s. 

"I think [OPSEU] had a hard time recognizing that there was a systemic issue going on and that their members were being hurt," he said. 

"I think it's a little more challenging for them to recognize it because they kind of see themselves as the protectors ... and so as long as the status quo works for them, then it's kind of difficult for them to see outside of that box."

Morrison helped organize a group now known as the Coalition of Racialized Workers.

CBC reached out to members, but some were concerned they might face retaliation for speaking out. 

"If someone says, 'I believe that something systemic happened, I believe I've been discriminated against based on race,' You actually should believe them," said Morrison. 

"Ninety-nine per cent of times when people come to you, it's generally not the first time that they've faced racism [from] within. If they're complaining, it's usually when they've reached a breaking point."

Carol Wall is a social justice educator and longtime labour activist. (Submitted by Carol Wall )

The barriers

Inadequate remedies coupled with the entrenched political structure of unions contribute to systemic problems of sexism and racism, according to Carol Wall, a social justice educator and longtime labour activist.

"The person who's the perpetrator ends up walking away with a little slap on the wrist… Or if they don't do training, like in this case, where's the accountability?" Wall said about Bouzi's complaint.

"This isn't about training. This is about access. This is about the structures, the barriers that keep us out."

At the end of April, OPSEU denounced racism in the wake of the guilty verdict in the murder of George Floyd in the U.S. 

"OPSEU/SEFPO stepped up its efforts to dismantle anti-Black racism ... and escalated our efforts to increase the representation of Black and racialized staff at all levels of the organization," read the union's public statement. 

But for Bouzi, those words don't reflect her lived experience. 

"There's a lot of good messaging coming out, but there's little to back that up," she said.

In a note from OPSEU's head office to CBC on Thursday, the chair of the union's college faculty division, R.M.Kennedy, is quoted saying CBC's story about Bouzi's experience is "the beginning of a long overdue conversation about how we can make our Division more inclusive."

OPSEU's general counsel Eric O'Brien wrote that the union will "continue to invest in and support equity initiatives related to sexism, racism and specifically to the anti-black racism training already in progress."

Tina Lopes is an organizational consultant engaged in equity, inclusion and human rights work. (Sin-Design & Photography)

Not a 'few bad apples'

Solutions won't come easily, according to Tina Lopes, an organizational consultant engaged in equity, inclusion and human rights work.

"It's not about a few bad apples — it's actually about the way we set up our organizations and the structures that we've created," Lopes explained.

"So if we're going to deal with them, we have to change the ways in which we make decisions, the way in which we create policies, the way in which we function."

In her complaint to the human rights tribunal, Bouzi demands that her local be a harassment-free work environment and make a donation to an anti-Black racism organization of her choosing. If the tribunal hears her complaint and rules, she also wants the decision to be made public on OPSEU's website.

On Thursday, New Democrat MPP Joel Harden and Laura Mae Lindo, MPP chair of the Ontario NDP Black Caucus, expressed concern about Bouzi's treatment in a letter to Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of OPSEU.

"Racialized union leaders are rightfully frustrated with discrimination and a lack of due process when they file complaints and are demanding change. We ask that you utilize the powers of your office to ensure this matter is properly resolved," wrote the MPPs.


 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On found at: cbc.ca/thebandplayedon You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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