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Combatting racism in the workplace begins at the top, but many people of colour can’t get there: experts

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WATCH ABOVE: Members of Toronto’s Black community share stories of racism at workplaces amid calls to change office culture. Kamil Karamali reports.

Arlene Davis describes herself as a “proud Black Canadian of Jamaican heritage” and has been working in the Ontario Public Service for 30 years, but she hasn’t been able to make much movement up the corporate ladder, claiming her race played a significant role in management’s decision to keep her at a lower level.

“I am the most senior staff in my unit and I am at the lowest pay classification,” said Davis, who works as a financial officer in the tourism and recreation branch.

She claimed that several white people she had trained leapfrogged her and received promotions, many of which she had also applied for.

READ MORE: Increasing calls for Ontario government to declare anti-Black racism public health crisis

“It pains me because there have been plenty of my colleagues who have come in, they have risen to the top to now become deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers and I’m still here in my role,” said Davis.

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Davis added, in her experience, many other people of colour have been overlooked for promotions in the Ontario Public Service and the vacancies have been filled by White people instead.

“Most of the people that look like me, most of us are in clerical or administrative roles, and it’s very difficult to get out of that stream,” she said.

“When we express that we’re interested in a role, it’s always a moving target — they said, ‘You don’t have those requirements’ even though we’ve demonstrated that we have those skills.

“It’s been really frustrating for a lot of my colleagues.”

Learning and development consultant Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell said she’s heard consistent complaints of many large companies where people of colour have trouble breaking past a certain level on the corporate pyramid, leaving a lack of diversity at the top of an organization where most major decisions are made.

“The representation is of racialized and particularly Black people in the frontline roles, but it’s a conversation certainly I’ve heard from them over the years — people, they aren’t able to get beyond a certain point.”

READ MORE: ‘From taking a knee to taking a stand’: Why anti-Black racism in Canada can’t be ignored

Sojourner-Campbell added that some companies also take part in “tokenism;” where organizations hire one person of colour as a symbol of diversity. But yet the working environment hasn’t undergone a deep-rooted change to welcome different races or creeds.

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“There often is a sense by racialized employees that if ‘I am the only one’ or ‘I am one of two and I’m looked at as the voice of the Black community’ or ‘I’m looked at as the voice of racialized communities’ and that can be a situation where people feel their work and knowledge or contribution to the organization is not respected,” said Sojourner-Campbell.

“I think ‘tokenism’ at all costs should be avoided.”

Hazim Ismail, a University of Toronto graduate student who identifies as Queer and uses the they/them pronoun, is a Malaysian refugee. Ismail said they have worked on boards for several organizations where they felt like a “token.”

“I recently quit a board because there were two non-white people on a board of maybe 12 people… and I thought, ‘I’m giving my time and it’s not being appreciated,'” said Ismail, adding he felt like he was just there to fill a diversity quota but not have his input taken seriously.

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READ MORE: ‘I hate Black people’: Peterborough man recalls personal experience of racism

Ismail also brought up another instance in a retail work environment where a former manager ridiculed them for their race.

“My former boss in a jovial manner said, ‘I like hiring you type of people because you work hard and you don’t complain and we can pay less,'” as if that sort of (normalizes) my position as somebody who can be exploited and it would be fine and I wouldn’t make any noise,” said Ismail.

Al Ramsay, a Black member of Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ community and associate vice president at TD Wealth, said he feels he had to work harder than most to “break the glass ceiling” in the corporate structure.

“There is a lopsided representation when it comes to people of colour versus non-white members of many boards,” said Ramsay.

“We absolutely have a long way to go … I believe that organizations need to really stand up now.

“The talent is out there and there is no reason why you shouldn’t have proper representation on your board to make policies that are truly diverse because when diverse minds come together they get a better outcome.”

Ramsay added it’s now a part of TD Bank’s culture to focus on diversity and inclusion.

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“Our CEO came out with a powerful statement of doubling down and tripling down on inclusion in the workplace, especially to the Black community.”

READ MORE: Health experts pen letter in support of anti-Black racism protests during pandemic

Trial lawyer Saron Gebresellassi is part of the legal team that successfully fought for a moratorium on suspending racialized public servants while the province was reviewing how to process complaints on racial discrimination after 20 Black employees, including some with the Ontario Public Service, claimed to have suffered racial harassment in 2017.

“We saw so many harrowing stories of workers who cannot climb the ranks,” said Gebresellassi.

“We have had 30-year veterans who never got promoted. We had other workers whose pay just barely increased. So there were so many stories of rampant inequality and right now that anger is really reaching a boiling point.”

She said the review was halted when the Doug Ford government was elected into power. Gebresellassi said she believes that concrete action needs to continue in order to resolve issues of deep-seeded racism within the workplace.

READ MORE: Toronto board of health unanimously votes to recognize anti-Black racism as public health crisis

Meanwhile, Davis said the “toxic and hostile” work environment within the Ontario Public Service led to stress, forcing her to request a medical leave. However, she said her employer wouldn’t allow her to take the time off.

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She said she’s still an employee, but is no longer getting any shifts or pay from the government. Davis said the government recently cut off her long-term income protection, a move she said she is fighting.

In response to Davis’s allegations, the Ontario Public Service issued a statement to Global News.

“The government has absolutely zero tolerance for racism, hate, or discrimination in all of its forms,” the statement said.

“The Ontario Public Service takes allegations of harassment and discrimination very seriously. Specific questions regarding employment are confidential human resources matters and are not appropriate for the Ontario Public Service to discuss publicly.”