A racist poster featuring the N-word that appeared in an office at the Department of National Defence has now become the focus of an investigation ordered by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
The case relates to a 2016 incident in which a supervisor at DND in Ottawa put up a flyer in a kitchenette showing a photo of a white van made to look like an ad for a Detroit moving company. The logo featured caricatures of two Black men carrying spears and an offensive slogan containing the N-word.
The original complaint was launched by Andrea Kenny, a Black employee, in the spring of 2017.
She said she was "shocked" when she first saw the image in late 2016.
"There was only three of us on that whole floor that were racially visible people," she said. "So, for my immediate supervisor to be posting something like that was a disregard for the employees in that environment."
She said she complained to the supervisor's boss, and the supervisor was ordered to apologize to the Black employees in the office.
Internal complaints rejected
Kenny launched a formal internal grievance with DND after the supervisor, a senior military officer, posted a second image in the kitchenette — this time, a racist joke referencing Jews and Hitler.
That complaint alleging racial discrimination as well as systemic racism was repeatedly rejected in decisions by the department's internal grievance mechanism.
"It was just no, no, no," said Sandra Griffith-Bonaparte of the Union of National Defence Employees.
Griffith-Bonaparte, who assisted Kenny through the grievance process, is no longer a union representative, but she said when she was with the union, grievances related to racial discrimination were routinely rejected.
Kenny has been waiting for a hearing date for her appeal before the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board.
A backlog of cases at the board means that process could take another couple of years, according to Kenny's advocate, Doug Hill, from the legal services branch of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).
He said 70 per cent of employees choose to resolve issues related to workplace discrimination through mediation, which includes confidentiality clauses, effectively burying, says Hill, the magnitude of the public service's race problem.
After CBC inquired about the case with the Department of National Defence last week, the defence minister weighed in.
"This serious incident in Ottawa has just recently been brought to my attention," Sajjan said in an interview. "I have directed that it be thoroughly investigated immediately, and appropriate action will be taken at its conclusion."
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Sources close to the case told CBC the supervisor responsible for posting the image in the kitchen has been suspended. It's unclear whether he is still being paid; DND will not share his status, citing privacy issues.
In a statement, DND said the Kenny case is an "extremely serious matter."
"We recognize that more has to be done by the DND/CAF (Canadian Armed Forces) to prevent and punish hateful conduct within our ranks and teams," the statement read.
"That's why our senior leaders are making ongoing efforts to identify and implement concrete actions to address institutional and systemic racism and discrimination."
Sajjan said the investigation will go beyond the poster incident and include a closer look at the grievance process that rejected the initial complaint, as well as the question of systemic racism.
That investigation comes four years after the incident, and Kenny said she has paid a heavy price in the intervening years for standing up against racism.
The prime minister has acknowledged the problem of systemic racism within the federal government, and Kenny hopes her case will show what that actually looks like in practice in the workplace.
"When I filed the grievance, that's when the retaliation started," she said of the first action she took with her union in the months following the 2016 incident.
The supervisor was able to remain in place, she said, and was allowed to undertake her performance review in the spring of 2017.
Kenny said her 2017 review contrasted with previous positive performance reviews and that she was branded a trouble maker, despite 25 years with the service. Going to work became more difficult, she said, and the stress began to affect her sleep and mental health.
"It was just a very, very toxic environment," Kenny said.
Under the terms of the grievance process, Kenny said she is bound by confidentiality and is not able to publicly name the man who put up the flyer.
Sharon DeSousa, a regional executive vice-president with Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), said Kenny's experience sounds familiar.
She was co-chair of the joint union-management diversity and inclusion task force in 2016. During that process, she said, public service workers detailed overt acts of racism, as well as the cumulative impact of smaller discriminatory actions that ground them down over the course of their careers.
The task force came up with more than 40 recommendations, but to date, only one has been taken up, she said.
DeSousa said systemic racism is apparent when one looks at the makeup of the public sector: Black, racialized and Indigenous workers make up only 11 per cent of management and executive positions, according to the findings of the task force.
She also said the grievance system puts the onus on workers to pit themselves against the employer in a potentially career-debilitating conflict.
The most recent Public Service Employee Survey found visible minorities almost twice as likely as their white colleagues to say they had been discriminated against in the workplace. More than half of the racialized people who said they experienced discrimination also said they did nothing about it.
"So, why would you not report it?" said DeSousa. "It could be fear of reprisal. It could be fear that you will not be getting another opportunity."
For her part, Kenny has now found a new position in the public service but is determined to see the DND case through.
"I hope something good comes out of it, if not for me, for somebody else," she said.
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