Discrimination at Work: How Black Canadian Health Is Impacted at the Workplace
By Keara Williams
- Black Canadians experience systemic racism and discrimination in the workplace even though the Canadian government purports that everyone has a right to be treated fairly in workplaces, free from discrimination.
- Black Canadians report that racism in the workplace is a problem and they have been treated unfairly regarding the hiring, pay, and promotional practices of employers.
- Systemic racism barriers in the hiring and promotional process keep racialized groups like Black Canadians unemployed, perceived as less intelligent, underrepresented in high-paying jobs, and denied opportunities for advancement into leadership roles.
- There is a call to action to eliminate systemic racism and discrimination in the workplace since the health, well-being, and safety of racialized groups, like Black Canadians, is at risk.
According to the Government of Canada, all “Canadians have the right to be treated fairly in workplaces free from discrimination”. Canada ostensibly values multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion, yet enables contradictory policies and culture. The history of Canada, a settler-colonial state, is stained with the genocide of Indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans. A racial hierarchy persisted which denied Black, Indigenous, and racialized people living in Canada access to resources, opportunities, and representation in key political and social institutions. While Canadian slavery has been illegal since 1834, racist ideologies and structures persist in the policies and practices of Canadian institutions and systems (systemic racism). Canada needs to protect Black Canadians—like historical African Nova Scotians and recent Caribbean and African immigrants—and other racialized groups from racism and discrimination in Canadian society, institutions, and labour.
Black Canadians experience systemic racism through discrimination in education, employment, and housing. A groundbreaking Black Canadian National Survey conducted in 2021 by York University explored the Black Canadian experience of systemic racism in Canadian workplaces. 96% of Black Canadians perceived racism in the workplace as a problem whereas only 12% of white Canadians did. Nearly half (47%) of Black Canadians reported unfair treatment because of their race or ethnicity in the last twelve months by an employer regarding hiring, pay, or promotion, whereas only 16% of white Canadians reported so. Racist barriers in hiring and promotional processes keep racialized groups like Black Canadians unemployed, perceived as less intelligent, underrepresented in high-paying jobs, and denied opportunities for advancement into leadership roles.
Racism and Discrimination Are Workplace Health and Safety Issues
Black Canadians reported that discrimination at the workplace is more likely to occur than in the criminal justice system, education, or child service sectors. Numerous studies show racism and discrimination negatively impact the mental and physical health of racialized groups, making them more susceptible to chronic illnesses like hypertension, anxiety, and depression. In a study examining discrimination at work in Canada, low-income racialized female workers disproportionately reported more experiences of discrimination at work compared to their non-female and non-racialized counterparts. This is troubling news as Black Canadian-born citizens and recent Black Canadian immigrants overwhelmingly make up the working poor in Toronto. Further, the representation of Black Canadian-born women amongst the working poor in Toronto is “particularly pronounced”. Research demonstrates how intersecting identities such as race and gender compound the discrimination a person experiences in the labour economy. Workplace discrimination is significantly increased as a person’s number of intersecting identities (such as race, gender, sexuality, disability) increases. Black women in particular face prolonged unemployment and are overrepresented in precarious low-income jobs lacking benefits. Their precarious situation in the labour economy, coupled with the unique anti-Black racism they experience, negatively impacts their health, and this is exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers exploring stress reactions of Black Canadians when exposed to various forms of racism observed elevated stress levels in Black Canadians, but not white Canadians, when they were shown a video of a Black person recalling their experience of overt racism. This is problematic as prolonged elevated stress levels in the body, resulting from a person enduring persistent discrimination for example, can lead to pathology like major depression. Researchers at the University of Ottawa found the majority of Black Canadians experiencing racial discrimination suffer from severe depressive symptoms. Most at risk were employed Black Canadian women. Overall, depressive symptoms in Black Canadians were 6 times higher than the 12-month prevalence found in the general population. Since Black Canadians experience racism and discrimination at work, the Canadian workplace is indeed a site where Black Canadian health and safety needs to be improved.
Black Workers in Canada Are Speaking Up — But Are We Listening?
A “damning” external investigation revealed numerous instances of pervasive and insidious anti-Black racism in Ontario’s Public Service (OPS). Black employees reported less qualified employees routinely received promotions they were denied. They also expressed “overwhelming feelings of powerlessness” in a “culture of fear of their white managers and co-workers”. The head of OPS, Steven Davidson, apologized in an email to staff, and the OPS cabinet office committed to take “concrete steps” towards a more inclusive workplace. Unfortunately, little evidence has demonstrated any progress toward eliminating systemic racism in OPS. The investigation showed OPS leadership has failed for decades to address the systemic racism, and most complaints filed were unfruitful, with only 12% leading to culpability. OPS leadership claims to value diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workplaces, but this remains to be reflected in their actions, thus allowing the violence to continue and Black voices to be silenced.
A Call to Action
There is a call to action to eliminate systemic racism and discrimination in Canadian workplaces. Unfortunately, Black Canadians report that their employers are not doing enough to eliminate systemic barriers in the hiring or promotional process, and they do not feel encouraged to speak up about their experiences with discrimination at work. Tanya Sinclair, founder of Black Human Resources Professionals of Canada, even states how many racialized Canadian workers are dreading the return to the workplace, after COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, due to unresolved issues of persistent discrimination. No one should feel uncomfortable at the workplace. If everyone, including racialized groups, have the right to work free from discrimination in Canada, this policy must be put into practice and enforced.
Keara Williams is completing a ‘Masters in Globalization’ at McMaster University. Williams’ current research investigates how environmental racism intersects with climate change inequities and impacts the health and wellbeing of Indigenous and Black communities in Canada. Williams is also interested in investigating how policy can result in environmental and climate justice for disadvantaged racialized groups worldwide.
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