City of Markham places HR director on leave for saying N-word during guest lecture
A high-level human resources employee at the City of Markham has been placed on leave after she said and displayed the N-word while giving a guest lecture to students at George Brown College.
Janet Ashfield, Markham's deputy director of people services, spoke to more than 100 students in the college's human resources management program on Wednesday, according to a video recording of the virtual class viewed by CBC Toronto.
As part of her presentation, Ashfield presented a real-world case study about two firefighters who lost their jobs after posting offensive content on social media. She asked the students how they would have handled the situation if they were the arbitrator in the case.
While outlining the scenario, Ashfield said the N-word out loud as she quoted one of the firefighter's social media posts. The video shows her presentation slides also spelled out the word in full.
In an email to CBC Toronto, Ashfield said she apologized immediately and again at the end of the class for what happened.
The video shows Ashfield apologized after a student confronted her on the use of the word. The student asked Ashfield to address comments in the chat where students were questioning the appropriateness of using the word. Ashfield responded by saying it was necessary to use the exact word to understand the full context of the case study, before apologizing.
"You are absolutely right. That is an absolutely inappropriate word to be used, but that's the word that was used," Ashfield said.
"Clearly, it's uncomfortable, but you cannot work around words and say, 'Well, you know, it was really inappropriate what they said,'" said Ashfield. "I need to know what they said. I need to understand what they said in order to go forward."
The student then said they disagreed.
"I don't agree that it should be said at all, especially from someone who's Caucasian. It's a very racist term," the student said.
At the end of the lecture, after Ashfield had signed off, the recording shows the students discussed the incident with their professor. The professor said the students were right to confront Ashfield and apologized for the incident.
"You've got to call people on their behaviour, and people have to be accountable," the professor said.
"I do want to see it as a learning opportunity. And you know what, it will be an example of what you see in the workplace, even from HR professionals."
College, city launch investigations into the incident
In a statement to CBC Toronto on Thursday, a spokesperson for the City of Markham said Ashfield was placed on administrative leave as a result of the "troubling" incident.
"The City of Markham was recently made aware of a troubling incident involving the use of racist language by a staff member," Bryan Frois wrote in the statement, adding Markham "stands firmly against all forms of hate, racism and discrimination."
Frois added the city has hired a third-party investigator to review the situation and provide recommendations.
Ashfield told CBC Toronto she sent a letter to class's teacher on Thursday and asked that it be shared with the students.
"In my attempt to teach students about fostering a safe and respectful workplace, I used inappropriate language that contradicted my core objectives for the discussion," the letter says.
"My intention was to provide an informative presentation, but I know that regardless of the context in which the language appeared, it is unacceptable in all circumstances."
Ashfield added hat she hadn't the word in full when referencing the case study in previous training discussions and "deeply" regrets that she used it during this presentation.
In a statement, George Brown College said it's launched an investigation to address the issue and prevent it from happening again.
"We condemn this behaviour in the strongest terms and are taking this matter extremely seriously," said president Gervan Fearon, noting counselling support is available for students in the class.
"We acknowledge that giving embodied voice and life to the N-word and other racial slurs is completely unacceptable, inhumane and undermines efforts to create a safe and broadly supportive and inclusive learning environment."
Word 'unacceptable' in any educational setting
Diversity, equity and inclusion strategist Destiny Udoh said the incident shows workplace leaders and society as a whole still have "a long way to go" when it comes to understanding what anti-Black racism means and how it manifests in society.
Udoh, a strategist at Canadian Equality Consulting, said while it's inappropriate for any lecturer to use the word in an educational setting, knowing it was said by someone who is white makes the situation "much more frustrating and uncomfortable."
"The intent behind the use of the word doesn't change or erase the heavily weighted trauma that comes with it," said Udoh. "For someone at such a high level to not have that basic foundational understanding of how that word could have affected so many people, yeah, it's disappointing."
Udoh said using the word in class could have deepened the fear that many Black students experience by simply being in public settings, where they risk being "discriminated against, misrepresented" and "unseen."
"The fact that we're still having this conversation in 2023 is disappointing," said Udoh.