Damning report finds 'persistent and unyielding' anti-Black racism in Ontario's public service

The head of the public service in Ontario has apologized to employees for systemic anti-Black racism with the organization, following a damning external review that found discrimination and harassment within it are "persistent and unyielding."

Head of Ontario Public Service apologizes to all employees

Black employees of Ontario Public Service face 'overwhelming feelings of powerlessness' at the workplace, according to a recent external report on racism within the organization. (iStock/Getty Images)

The head of the public service in Ontario has apologized to employees for systemic anti-Black racism with the organization, following a damning external review that found discrimination and harassment within it are "persistent and unyielding."

The 175-page investigation by Employment Matters Consulting details how Black employees at Ontario Public Service (OPS) work in a "culture of fear" of their white managers and co-workers, who face little to no consequences for bad behaviour.

"The experiences and issues recounted in the reports are deeply concerning," said Secretary of the Cabinet Steven Davidson in an email to staff, obtained by CBC News, shortly after the report was made available to them on Thursday. The report has not been made public. 

The email was also signed by Ontario's deputy ministers, who report to Davidson.

"We apologize for the harm caused to Black employees by the prevalence and severity of anti-Black racism in the workplace," he wrote. Davidson also apologized for discrimination faced by staff for their gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

The consulting firm was hired by the province's anti-racism task force in 2019 to address harassment and discrimination at OPS, which includes about 60,000 public servants who work for Ontario's ministries, agencies and Crown corporations.

Jean-Marie Dixon, a senior Crown counsel, sued OPS and the Ministry of the Attorney General in 2019, alleging racial discrimination and harassment. (John Lesavage/CBC)

The consultants held interviews, focus groups and accepted written feedback from 215 Black employees, and reviewed past employee surveys and policies dating back to 2011.

There is "a significant gap" between what OPS claims to value — equity, diversity and inclusion — and the realities of its Black employees, the report said.

"We heard Black employees express their overwhelming feelings of powerlessness in the face of what many described as White indifference."

'Emotion and anguish'

That team said they were extremely concerned about the wellbeing of the people they spoke to.

"We were astonished by the stories we heard and the emotion and anguish that accompanied them," the report said. "We wondered whether we were witnessing PTSD."

OPS leadership, including Davidson, has consistently failed to respond to workplace discrimination for close to a decade, said the report. 

The consultants reported instances of both blatant harassment and discrimination, as well as systemic racism.

For example, the white members of a leadership team at one office held "secret meetings" that excluded Black managers, the report said. In another, Black correctional services staff said they'd been purposefully locked in a secured area by colleagues for several minutes. 

Black employees also reported barriers to career development, such as being passed over for promotions to less qualified candidates. They said they had difficulty getting full-time hours, or permanent employment. 

While their white colleagues were allowed to work from home or have compressed work weeks, Black employees were denied those opportunities, said the review. 

Black managers reported that white subordinates would refuse to recognize their authority and take deliberate steps to undermine them, or go to a more senior manager for support. 

Complaints not taken seriously

Half of the complaints filed by Black employees were dismissed; and only 12 per cent led to the perpetrator being held accountable, the review found. 

The Association of Law Officers of the Crown, representing the province's lawyers, said in a statement that many of its members participated in the review. 

The reports "accurately capture the experiences of many of our members who continue to deal with racism and discrimination in the workplace," the statement said.

"That apology must now be followed by immediate action and meaningful steps."

Tanya Sinclair, founder of Black HR Professionals of Canada, agrees.

"I think that the public apology is a wonderful first step, but it is, in my opinion, a first step nonetheless that just signals there's more that needs to follow," she told CBC News.

"There also needs to be support and there needs to be action." 

This isn't the first time Black employees have demanded action.

In 2019, employees Hentrose Nelson and Jean-Marie Dixon, filed a $26 million lawsuit against OPS and the Ministry of the Attorney General, alleging they were discriminated against for years because they are Black women. 

Nelson's lawyer Ranjan Agarwal told CBC News in an email that her case was dismissed by the Ontario Court of Appeal, which said it has no jurisdiction over the matter. Nelson is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Last June, 45 lawyers working for OPS's civil law division sent a letter to Davidson and the attorney general requesting immediate action to address systemic racism, including degrading comments from colleagues, clients and judges toward racialized lawyers.

The cabinet office said in an email to CBC News that OPS has committed to "concrete steps" to build an inclusive workplace. Its deputy ministers, who oversee the day-to-day operations of each ministry, will report back annually on their anti-racism action plans.

The review recommended OPS leadership sign a pledge of commitment to eliminate anti-Black racism, conduct random external audits and establish a way for whistleblowers to report managers harassing or discriminating against staff. 

OPS should also work with the Ontario Human Rights commission, which has made efforts in the past to help address these issues without success, the review said. 

"There is no evidence that the OPS has made reasonable efforts to meet its legal obligations to ensure that its workplace is free of discrimination and harassment," it said.

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.

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