The fight against anti-Black and systemic racism continues in our African-Canadian communities. On Thursday, August 20, 2020 the African Canadian Social Development Council (ACSDC) – Toronto held a rally at the Toronto City Hall, and invited guest speakers within the African circle of social justice, academic, political, and criminal justice to speak on the issues that affect our communities, and to give us a message of hope. The event commenced with the sound of drumming, a symbolic African tradition that accompanies every ceremony. The purpose of this rally can be summed up in the words of the President of the ACSDC, Nene (Chief) Kabu Asante, “The system has to change. We can’t breath and it’s killing us slowly. We need the city, the province and federal government to invest more in our communities…” These words, “We can’t breath” echoed from the African-American man, Mr. George Floyd who died by the hands of police brutality in Minneapolis, Minnesota, earlier this year on May 25, 2020.
READ MORE: There is hope
The ACSDC is an umbrella organization for all African-Canadian community agencies and cultural organizations in Ontario. One such organization is the Sickle Cell Awareness Group of Ontario (SCAGO). The founder and president, Ms. Lanre Tunji-Ajayi states, “Far too long, people of African descent and the black community have been stigmatized and racialized. We must rise with our voices, our pens, and papers, and demand a change from systemic racism.” SCAGO has been advocating, educating, and building awareness about sickle cell since 2005. “Three years ago, when I came to study in Canada, I was paralyzed because of my sickle cell, leaving me unable to use my hands and legs. I was a quadriplegic, who needed life support,” says, Ms. Oluwayemisi Abatan, who is now a supporter of SCAGO. As a result of this organization advocating for her health, Abatan can now walk and take care of herself. Systemic racism, in our health care system, affects patients who are of African or Caribbean descent because quality care may be withheld, and without proper advocacy, may result in death.
This is the reason the ACSDC has organized this Anti-Black Racism rally because Black Lives Matter in health care, in our school systems, in our criminal justice system, in our work places, and in all segment of our communities. “…The fact that systemic racism is not as prevalent in Canada does not mean it does not exist here” says Mr. George Chuku, TV host of Afro global television & VP Nigerian Canadian Association. “We have to create a level playing field for everyone to succeed, because only a few privilege successes is guaranteed, while others are struggling. We are asking to be treated fairly.”
MPP Faisal Hassan of York-South Weston reminds us that, “Racism is rooted in all structures of government, and that the experiences of the Caribbean, African, and all immigrants should be taught in schools.” He further stated, “there is discrimination based on postal code, such as auto-insurance, because we are targeted where we live. It must end.”
The agenda had many other speakers such as: Professor George Sefa Dei (UofT), Lawyer Eyitayo F. Dada (President of the Canadian Nigerian Lawyers Association, Francois Yabit (Executive Director Northwood Neighbourhood, Toronto, Shamso Elmi (Mending the Crack in the Sky, Co-organizers), and Rocco Achampong, Defence lawyer and civil rights activist. Achampong expressed a resounding sentiment in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “We must…be the change (we) wish to see in the world.” To make change he says, “We must come with clean hands.”
These protests have been consistent within the Canadian black, African and Caribbean communities due to the death of Mr. Floyd earlier this year. Today, it was the African Canadian Social Development Council and the different agencies and organizations it represents, speaking out to our governments, and echoing the words of Mr Floyd, “We can’t breath.” The ACSDC is calling on the city, the province and the federal government to stop systemic racism, increase funding in the black communities, stop targeting our neighbourhoods, and give us quality health care, including increase funding for sickle cell disease.
In a high-profile step towards true equality in the workplace and in the union, thousands of OPSEU members and staff participated in the union’s July 7 telephone town halls on anti-Black racism.
“Systemic racism is real. It is deadly. And it has to stop,” said OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas at the beginning of the meeting. “The good news is that we can stop it. Working together, we can help build a foundation for a new way of thinking, and a new way of acting.”
The town halls were just one element in OPSEU’s strong recommitment to the fight against anti-Black racism, and gave members and staff a chance to share their stories, questions, and concerns. Members and staff are encouraged to continue submitting their stories and recommendations by emailing them to email@example.com.
The town halls, which were held in two sessions to accommodate members’ schedules, were moderated by well-known personality and anti-Black racism activist Farley Flex. He was joined by a panel of Black OPSEU members and staff, President Thomas and OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida.
“My life hasn’t always been easy and I’ve had to overcome a lot. But I’ve never had to overcome the systemic racism that Black people face,” said Almeida. “I’ve seen it firsthand. I’m a Correctional Officer, and I can tell you that that there are too many Black and Indigenous Peoples in our jails.”
Thomas and Almeida finished the town halls with strong commitments to read and reflect on all of the questions and comments from members and staff and report back soon with plans for concrete action, including more education and investment.
“Today marks OPSEU’s renewal of our vow to eradicate Anti-Black Racism. We know we haven’t always gotten it right. But we hear you,” said Thomas. “We promise you that we’ll never let up. One thing about this union: we never give up.”
Thomas, Almeida, their fellow panelists, and the members and staff who asked questions made it clear that there’s still much work to be done to eliminate anti-Black racism in the workplaces where OPSEU represents members and in the union itself.
As a union strongly committed to social justice, OPSEU members have often led the fight against systemic racism. Former President Fred Upshaw became the first Black person to lead a major Canadian union when he was elected in 1990.
Panelist Joscelyn Ross, an OPSEU health and safety officer, said a concrete action that all workers can do is think about anti-Black racism as a health and safety issue: document it, and grieve it.
“I encourage conversation with your health and safety rep to look at racism and microaggressions in the workplace, which can lead to psychosocial stress,” said Ross, who was an OPSEU member for more than 20 years before joining its staff in 2016. “When you can demonstrate to the employer that employees are facing stress due to workplace discrimination, you can then say, ‘Here’s our evidence and we need to talk about this because you have an obligation to provide the safest workplace possible.’”
Many of the comments and questions from members focused on what OPSEU can do to support members – particularly young workers — who feel afraid to speak up about discrimination in the workplace, whether it’s being passed over for promotions or outright harassment.
“I know what it’s like to be a young worker and to stay silent. But if something feels wrong, it probably is. Trust your gut. Now is not the time to be silent,” said panelist Shauna-Kay Cassell, a Local 526 member. “And remember that there are many things protecting you, from laws like the Ontario Human Rights Code to your collective agreement and your union. They all help protect you.”
Panelist Carlotta Ewing, a Local 228 member, added that members facing or witnessing racism can always call on their Local President or their staff rep for guidance, assurance, and advice.
“With OPSEU, you have so many resources and so much expertise to help you,” said Ewing. “Equity, communications, campaigns, legal, grievances. This union has so much to support you. And it’s yours – use it.”
Panelist Peter Thompson, who is the chair of the OPSEU Coalition for Racialized Workers (CoRW), said that as long as he’s been a member, the union has been at the forefront of the fight against racism, whether it’s been through sensitivity training for members and staff or through ambitious projects like social mapping.
“I see all kinds of corporations and organizations coming out now with statements against racism, but I’m proud to say that OPSEU and the Coalition of Racialized Workers have been making these statements and doing anti-racism work for years,” said Thompson. “If you want to know more about what the union and coalition are doing, ask your local presidents – the more they share this information, the better.”
Panelist Evan Wickham, who sits on the OPSEU Provincial Young Workers Committee (PYC), echoed Thompson’s point that, in many ways, OPSEU’s locals are on the front-lines of this struggle.
“The murder of George Floyd has roused a lot of us and given us opportunity to be heard,” said Wickham. “OPSEU is a member-driven union. We have a lot of support as members, so let’s step forward and keep voicing our concerns and filing our grievances. That’s how we make the most of this opportunity.”
Along with the members’ locals and the CoRW, OPSEU’s dedicated Equity Unit is another source of information and support for members.
“We’ll never leave you to stand on your own in the fight against racism,” said panelist Andrea McCormack, a long-time OPSEU staff rep who is temporarily reassigned as an Employment Equity Lead in the Employee Relations Division. “This is the first of many conversations that OPSEU will have. Make sure you’re part of it because the support from the union’s leadership is strong. OPSEU is committed to amplifying our voices.”
Flex finished the town hall by asking the panelists for a few final thoughts. They were all moving (you can find them here on Twitter), but Cassell summed it up beautifully:
“I’ll finish with four thoughts,” said Cassell. “One: Speak up, especially if you’re a young worker. Two: Know your rights, you have a lot of them. Three: Find a champion, there are many in OPSEU. Four, and this might be the most important: be hopeful. Change is inevitable, but progress is up to us. And I believe we can make progress.”
Anti-Black Racism Resources & Feedback
We encourage all members and staff to continue sharing their stories and recommendations by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org.