News / Toronto

Ontario puts moratorium on suspending racialized public servants, reviews policies

The province is reviewing how it processes complaints on racial discrimination after more than 20 Black workers brought concerns to minister Michael Coteau at meeting.

Hentrose Nelson, left, one of the organizers of the meeting, has worked in the public service since 2004.

@DesmondCole / Twitter

Hentrose Nelson, left, one of the organizers of the meeting, has worked in the public service since 2004.

The province has put a moratorium on suspending racialized public servants while it reviews how it processes complaints on racial discrimination.

The announcement — posted in a public memo from Steve Orsini, the province's top civil servant — came Jan. 19, a day after more than 20 Black employees, mostly women, brought their concerns directly to anti-racism minister Michael Coteau.

During the meeting, which Metro attended, past and present public servants raised concerns that, in addition to suffering racial harassment, they faced reprisal when making complaints.

Minister Coteau heard stories of Black employees whose roles were steadily diminished despite years of positive reviews; who trained new staff only for the new employees to subsequently be given higher, more lucrative positions; and whose complaints regarding racial discrimination were mishandled. A majority of the participants said they had been suspended, demoted or fired while the staffers they had complained about faced no repercussions.

“When I started at the ministry, I was confused for the hired help,” Hentrose Nelson, who has worked in the public service since 2004, told Coteau.

Nelson was one of the organizers of the meeting and spoke about her experience with the complaints and suspension process. Nelson is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Laura Albanese, alleging systemic racism in the department.

None of the accusations have been tested in court.

Boafoa Kwamena, a spokesperson for the Ontario Public Service — a term that encompasses over 60,000 employees in the province's ministries, agencies and Crown corporations — would not comment on specific complaints. She also declined to answer Metro's questions about what prompted the moratorium or how long it will last, saying in an email this week only that it is in place pending the review of existing policies and procedures.

Where there is a clear case of wrongdoing such as theft or violence against another staff member, the moratorium does not apply as those cases are reviewed by the province's Public Service Commission.

"Creating a safe, inclusive and respectful environment for everyone in the OPS is a top priority," Kwamena wrote in an email.

She added that officials are working with the Black OPS Network, an internal employee group, on a three-point plan. It includes an independent third-party review of complex cases; an independent review of the Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Prevention policy through an anti-racism lens; and the development of an anti-racism policy. Attendees of the Jan. 18 meeting also called for these actions.

The review of the complaints process is intended to start by March of this year. A private-sector lawyer will manage the review of complex cases. The OPS has declined to name the lawyer until a contract has been finalized.

“This is really something that we wanted to do for other Black women,” explained Jean-Marie Dixon, who has worked as a lawyer in the civil service.

Dixon says the action employees are taking now is for future generations. She wants to see people who have engaged in racism and discrimination fired as well as more funding and support for Black women going through a grievance, complaint or lawsuit.

Nelson welcomes the news of the moratorium and echoes the hope for more change to come.

“It’s not about our struggle only," she said in an interview following the announcement. "It’s a systemic beast which we are trying to fight. It’s a huge win."

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