Fighting racism in the Ontario Public Service

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday December 12 2012 in Opinion
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Chances are, if I walked up to anyone on the street and asked if they knew who Peter Wallace is, I would more than likely get the response: “I have no idea”.


Yet, Wallace is one of the most powerful men in the province as Secretary of Cabinet and head of the 68,000-strong Ontario Public Service (OPS). He is also the principal non-political advisor to the Premier. His mandate includes ensuring that the policies and programs of his political masters are carried out.


Wallace was appointed by the Premier to head the public service about a year ago, succeeding Shelley Jamieson. He has served for about 30 years in the OPS, so it is safe to say that he is a career civil servant who rose to the top, having been in the trenches of the organization and has seen many things – good and bad – although he may not characterize it in that stark a language.


Last week, Wallace, in the tradition of his predecessors (Jamieson and Tony Dean) attended and participated in the Seventh Annual BOPSers Town Hall. BOPSers is the Black Ontario Public Service employees, a group that was formed in the wake of the infamous “ghetto dude” email a few years ago.


At the BOPsers first town hall meeting, Dean attended and introduced a plan to reduce racism in the public service and formally introduced the head of the newly-created Diversity Office.


Wallace did not make a formal read-from-the-text speech. Instead, the engagement took on a question and answer format, thus enabling him to speak frankly and directly to the 300 or so gathered at the YMCA auditorium, and others linked in by telephone.


Having attended many of these town hall meetings, it was one of the most mixed audiences I have seen. Greetings were delivered by other diversity groups in the OPS and it is a tribute to the persistence and respect for the work that BOPSers continues to do to improve the status of Black members of the public service.


Also attending and/or speaking at the Town Hall were Minister Margarett Best, a number of Deputy Ministers and other senior civil servants, including Angela Coke, Associate Deputy Minister and Professor Carl James. Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Barbara Hall, sent a videotaped message.


Wallace reflected on his experiences and what he has seen through his growth in the public service. He spoke to the realities of the pyramid structure of the OPS in which the number of positions decreases as you get to the top; the fact that people of African descent are characteristically found in the bottom tier of that pyramid in largely clerical positions and the fact that his is a three-year contract which limits the timeline for getting a process of change done.


Additionally, the government has designated a reduction in the employee workforce which complicates the matter.


Having said that, it is easy for someone like me to say that we have heard some of these frank messages before where the problems are recognized and admitted, but are followed by missteps, misdirection and/or inaction. It is very easy to become cynical after these kinds of meetings. You are basically told what you want to hear but outcomes are not followed or reflected.


One of his most frank admissions was that “there is still a failure to understand what the barriers are”.


Many years ago, during the days preceding and including the Employment Equity Act at the provincial level, the OPS had pushed ahead, even prior to the Act’s passage, to undertake an employment systems review (ESR). That is a process by which barriers in the workplace were identified with a view to develop action plans to eliminate them.


When the Harris Government repealed the Employment Equity Act and changed, with amazing ease, the climate of anti-racism and racial discrimination to the toothless concept of “equal opportunity”, it seems they may have caused the results of the ESR to be destroyed as well.


I note that there is a history of this type of work in the OPS and it is vital that this process is reactivated if they are serious about the removal of racial as well as other barriers.


I am of the generation that has witnessed the constant renewal of requests for reports about the Black community without seeing resulting actions, or actions of meaningful and significant depth. That accounts for my sense of cynicism about the seriousness of promises made, particularly in these contexts.


Nevertheless, in a post town hall chat with BOPSers Chair, Cikiah Thomas, someone whom I know will speak frankly of his concerns, he expressed considerable optimism about the prospects under Wallace’s leadership.


Thomas, who has been with the OPS for about 20 years, and has been very outspoken about anti-Black racism in the OPS, I believe, would not express that kind of optimism without a foundation.


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