Two provincial employees sue for $26M alleging 'anti-black' racism

Two Ontario government employees have launched a $26 million lawsuit against the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Ontario Public Service and two unions over claims they were harassed and discriminated against because they are black women.

Hentrose Nelson and Jean-Marie Dixon allege years of anti-black racism caused them emotional distress

Hentrose Nelson (left) and Jean-Marie Dixon (centre), leave Osgoode Hall Courthouse Thursday following a media conference. The pair filed a statement of claim against the province and two unions alleging years of discrimination that cost them career opportunities and caused health problems. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Two Ontario government employees have launched a $26 million lawsuit against the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Ontario Public Service and two unions over claims they were harassed and discriminated against because they are black women.

Hentrose Nelson and Jean-Marie Dixon, both in their 40s, allege that years of anti-black racism caused them emotional distress, deteriorating health and lost opportunities for career advancement.

As a result of harassment I experienced in the workplace, my son was born one pound, six ounces. - Hentrose Nelson

"I have . . . for the past seven years, been subjected to racial discrimination. Among other things, I've had highly negative and traumatic experiences," said Nelson at a media conference on the steps of Osgoode Hall.

Nelson — who began working for provincial government in 2004 — alleges the stress in her work environment caused her to give birth prematurely.

"As a result of the harassment and the hostility that I experienced in the workplace, my son was born one pound, six ounces," said Nelson.

According to the statement of claim, Nelson says she was denied sick leave benefits and accommodations for her pregnancy and childbirth.

The accusations in the statement of claim have not been proven in court.

Hentrose Nelson says a manager made her do 'office cleaning' and she was mistaken for a member of the janitorial staff even though she held a senior administrative role. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Nelson, a senior administrator at the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, says the harassment continued after she returned from maternity leave.

She says a manager asked her to perform "office housework" and that she was mistaken for a member of the janitorial staff.

When she lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, Nelson says she was subjected to reprisals and was eventually forced out of her workplace.

"Today I am reclaiming what has been stolen from me," she says.

Dixon, a lawyer who started working for the province in 2002 as an articling student, tells a similar story. She says she was made to feel that she didn't deserve to be there.

"The idea that I was in a space that did not belong to black people, black women. I was told that I should just ignore it. When I went to my union seeking protection, my union was told not to assist me," says Dixon.

The lawsuit not only accuses their superiors of doing nothing, it also alleges that two public sector unions, the Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees (AMAPCEO) and the Association of Law Officers of the Crown (ALOC) did not help.

Jean-Marie Dixon, a senior Crown counsel with the Ministry of the Attorney General, says she was suspended from work after raising the issue of racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace with superiors. (John Lesavage/CBC)

In 2016, when Dixon was a senior Crown counsel, she says she was suspended after raising the issue of racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace. She alleges the ministry then moved to have her terminated.

In an email to CBC, ALOC says Dixon remains a member, and it continues to represent her in her grievance with the OPS, but it cannot comment on the matter because it is before the courts.

The province did not respond to CBC Toronto's request for a statement, but AMAPCEO says Nelson remains a member and the union continues to represent her. The union says it cannot comment on individual cases for confidentiality reasons.

Dixon says there are others who have suffered as she and Nelson have.

"They are afraid to speak out about the toxic, poisoned work environment that we are expected to work in as employees," she says. "This is not, I think, an unusual story. And so we're happy that today we can give voice to it."

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One.