The Black struggle in the Ontario Public Service

By Patrick Hunter Thursday October 18 2012 in Opinion
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A few years ago, an email that was supposed to be private was made public. In that email, an employee in the Cabinet Office of the Ontario government referred to a young African Canadian colleague as a “ghetto dude”. The fallout was significant because, for one, it managed to get the discussion about racism in the Ontario Public Service (OPS) on the front pages of the newspaper.

 

This was not the only story that managed to do that. There was also a complaint of racial harassment on the job filed by a Black corrections officer with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. That and other similar accounts led to an attempt to change the workplace atmosphere within the corrections world.

 

One of the responses to the “ghetto dude” incident was the formation of a group within the OPS, not only to rally around this young man, but to bring to the attention of the senior bureaucrats that this situation was only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The BOPSers (Black OPSers), as they called themselves, was not the only diversity-related group that was formed at the time. Some preceded, others followed.

 

At its founding forum, which I had the privilege to attend as a guest, the then Secretary of Cabinet and head of the OPS, Tony Dean, laid out a strategy to improve the situation of Blacks and other minorities within the public service. One key element of the strategy was the establishment of a chief diversity officer, reporting directly to him and who would have a seat at the Deputy Ministers’ Council. The chief diversity officer named was Noelle Richardson, an African Canadian. I will have more to say about her shortly.

 

Less than a year after Dean’s announced changes, he left the public service and was succeeded by Shelley Jamieson. Jamieson pledged, again at subsequent forums hosted by BOPSers, to continue the work started by her predecessor. To her credit, Jamieson attended most, if not all, of these forums held by BOPSers to report on the progress made, or sometimes lack thereof, and to renew her pledge.

 

Again, to her credit, Jamieson was quite candid about some of the resistance to the changes she wanted to see from the deputy ministers who reported to her. It seems, for example, even tying the deputy ministers’ performances to their responses to diversity issues was not enough to get them to act. Like politicians, they promised but failed to produce.

 

With the retirement of Jay Hope, as Deputy Minister of Correctional Services, the only African Canadian deputy minister is Chisanga Puta-Chekwe at Citizenship and Immigration Ontario. BOPSers are deeply concerned about the lack of Black deputy ministers. However, they are even more troubled that the progress of Blacks into senior management positions within the Ontario Public Service is rare.

 

More than that, there almost seems to be a deliberate effort to maintain those restrictions. Mentoring programs, designed to facilitate the upward movement of Blacks, do not work as well as they should. Methods of dealing with workplace harassment and discrimination are not working as well as they should; and now, the government’s pressure to downsize the public service for budget reasons have placed those programs into a more precarious position as fear of job loss intensifies to a political frenzy.

 

I was also there when Richardson was introduced for the first time at one of the BOPSers forums. Two things stood out in her remarks that frustrated me.

 

One, in describing an encounter with racism, she identified an experience she had in Africa – not a Black/White experience, but a Black/Black experience. Not a situation in Canada or Ontario, but something that happened in a different place and context.

 

The other point of frustration was that she stated up front, in answer to a question, that she was not a believer in setting targets. How does one measure progress unless there is a stated target which includes time?

 

Richardson is no longer the Chief Diversity Officer of the OPS. A long-time OPS employee, Shamira Madhany, has replaced her.

 

One of the difficulties which BOPSers faced, and continue to face, is obtaining disaggregated data on Blacks in the OPS. Such as, where they are employed and at what levels are they employed? They are convinced that those numbers exist and, more importantly, would like to know how those numbers are being used to improve the situation of Blacks in the OPS.

 

It is important to note that BOPSers do other work as well. A staple of Black History Month celebrations in the OPS, for example, is to invite Black youth to participate in their activities and to be exposed to their government.

 

They have arranged for job-shadowing and, more significantly, a strong supportive resource to people of African descent who are facing racialized difficulties within the OPS.

 

The potential for members and supporters of this organization to be victimized because of their strong advocacy against racism (a rare word in the lexicon of the OPS these days) is a very real fact which tempers their outreach for public support.

 

By PATRICK HUNTER

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