Two former city councillors are joining with one of their past colleagues in demanding a public inquiry into racism within HRM's workforce.
Previous downtown and south end councillors Dawn Sloane and Sue Uteck, along with Equity Watch co-founders Jackie Barkhouse and Liane Tessier, held a press conference outside City Hall on Thursday afternoon to describe some of the discrimination they say they witnessed while in office.
“When we were on council, we heard stories of individuals being bullied, racism,” says Sloane. “We heard how others were given the ladder upwards and others were shown the door out. That has to stop.”
The four women are speaking up now, two weeks after a Human Rights board of inquiry decision exposed decades of horrific racism experienced by several employees in Halifax Transit's Burnside garage.
It's the latest firestorm in a depressingly common media cycle. Widespread racism and sexism have been exposed over the past two decades in multiple HRM workplaces.
Before starting Equity Watch, ex-firefighter Tessier spent 12 years in “hell” trying to get Halifax to recognize her abuse. Randy Symonds reported the racist behaviour of his coworkers multiple times—even meeting with the mayor. There was the 2013 public apology to Black firefighters, police sergeant Robyn Atwell's Human Rights Commission complaint, the protests by public works and operations employees—on and on it goes.
Those cases, according to the three former councillors, are just the tip of the iceberg. Harassment and discrimination existed in every department from planning to the councillor support office.
“We have some wonderful people that work for HRM and unfortunately a lot of them left because of issues that had to do with management, bullying and racism,” says Sloane.
Current councillors have told the press they were shocked by the situation inside Halifax Transit as described in the board of inquiry's decision.
It shouldn't be so shocking, says Tessier. Even if they didn't speak to employees directly, there have been dozens of articles and internal reports over the years. But time and again, she says, those complaints were fought, dismissed and forgotten.
“They kept denying and dismissing over and over again...and it’s pathetic,” says Tessier. “HRM can’t be trusted.”
Uteck and Sloane blame city hall management for the lack of progress. Human rights complaints were seen as individual labour issues and kept from council.
City staff treated them like mushrooms, says Sloane: feed them shit and keep them in the dark.
“This council is making the same mistake that the previous council made,” says Uteck. “It’s like we’re on a need-to-know basis.”
The former south end councillor came out to support Barkhouse and Tessier because she says she realizes she could have done more to help while in office.
“I failed to do that,” admits Uteck.
In a press release sent earlier this week, Barkhouse alleged that senior managers and city council were aware of multiple incidents of bullying and discrimination between 2007 and 2012 that were all either dismissed or ignored by city hall. Barkhouse said she informed then-mayor Peter Kelly and legal services about what she knew, “but they did nothing.”
“I wish they had brought their concerns to council,” tweets Bedford–Wentworth councillor Tim Outhit in response to Uteck and Sloane's comments. “They would have had my full support. Better late than never.”
Outhit says he plans to call for CAO Jacques Dubé,
The municipality has already announced that it will be launching a confidential hotline where employees can report workplace harassment. An external consultant is also being hired to review human resource practices and report back to council.
Tessier and the three former councillors want those efforts to go even further. They're imploring the mayor and council to ask for an independent inquiry into municipal employment issues—both to clean up the current mess and hold accountable those responsible for past failures.
But chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé told The Coast last week he doesn’t believe a public inquiry is needed.
“We’re not considering that and that’s not something we would believe appropriate under the circumstances,” he said.
Given Dubé himself faced a harassment complaint last year after sending a bizarre and violent email about one of his managers murdering him, Sloane doesn't put much stock in his assessment.
“We’re going to listen to him?” she asks. “He’s part of the problem...Sorry, but I have no faith in Mr. Dubé judgment calls.
Since 2006, when the Halifax Transit complaint was filed, Halifax has implemented a number of reforms the city says have increased diversity and helped diminish workplace harassment.
However, a third-party Employee Services Review leaked to the press two years ago describes an overwhelming culture of harassment and discrimination in the municipal operations workforce, with Black employees subjected to racist, sexist and homophobic language.
Barkhouse, Uteck and Sloane all left city hall behind in 2012. While they can’t speak to any changes that have happened since that time, they do say there was little improvement from 2006 to 2012.
“I’m sure there are many workers out there—both male and female—that
An update on the situation inside Halifax Transit and the board of inquiry's decision is expected to be heard in-camera at council's next meeting this Tuesday.
The three former councillors say they won't be in attendance to see if anything comes of the discussion.
“I don't like sitting in the hallway,” says Sloane.