As president of the faculty union at Algonquin College, Annette Bouzi is used to standing out as the first Black woman to hold the top job.
What the law professor said she didn't expect was the bullying, secret monitoring, sexism and racism from some fellow union officers.
Bouzi has now launched a formal complaint against the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, alleging the union violated her right to be free from discrimination and harassment in her union environment.
"I stand firmly in my truth and I'm not afraid of the consequences for shining a light on this, but I know that I'm not alone," said Bouzi, whose grievances include being monitored by camera and having her mail opened without permission.
OPSEU represents 170,000 members providewide, including workers in health care and education such as the 900 faculty members at Algonquin College.
A previous external investigation commissioned by OPSEU had ruled in Bouzi's favour. But a year later, Bouzi says very little has changed for her.
Shunned, monitored, excluded
According to Bouzi and several faculty members, the pushback against her leadership was swift, beginning soon after she was elected as a union officer with Local 415 in 2018.
The camera was installed to monitor me, to gain some sort of advantage over me.... It's rooted in notions of Black criminality.
- Annette Bouzi
"I wasn't provided with a key to the union office," recalled Bouzi, who said she felt that implied she wasn't trustworthy.
Bouzi said she was ignored, shunned, monitored and excluded from meetings and email communications.
Even after she rose up the ranks, and defeated long-standing officer J.P. Lamarche in the race for president, the poor treatment continued, according to those who worked alongside Bouzi.
"There's no question in my mind that there was resistance," said Jack Wilson, a retired faculty member and former fellow union officer. "There was great reluctance to give her more of a role within the union leadership."
Soon after Bouzi became president, she discovered a surveillance camera had been installed in the union office months before. There was no sign to warn those entering that they were being monitored or recorded.
She had been a local vice-president when the camera was installed, but hadn't been privy to any discussions about the camera. Bouzi was later told it was installed due to health and safety concerns, an explanation she didn't find believable.
"The camera was installed to monitor me, to gain some sort of advantage over me," said Bouzi. "It's rooted in notions of Black criminality."
After reviewing the footage, Bouzi found union officers had been opening, then resealing her mail.
When she finally got access to interoffice communications, she found the emails "disparaging, sarcastic, mocking, dehumanizing, racist and violent."
"There were many references to me and to people that associated with me as an animal. 'They come in packs,' or, 'This is bait,'" said Bouzi. "As a Black person, when there's references to bait and rope like that, that's very triggering."
Culture of 'middle-aged white males'
Bouzi left her career as a lawyer to teach in Algonquin's business department in 2009. A few years later, she got involved with the faculty union, joining a close-knit group of men who had led the local for years.
But Bouzi wasn't alone in her concerns. Wilson said he was also disappointed by his former colleagues.
"You have middle-aged white males who are in leadership roles, and do they appreciate and understand the experiences necessarily of women, of people of colour?" Wilson said.
Judy Puritt, an English professor and the only other woman on the union local's executive, also recalled feeling pushback.
"There was this very intentional and deceitful approach to the leadership transition, and I think it is so insidious," said Puritt.
'Neutral' investigator looked at complaint
In May 2020, just months after becoming president, Bouzi filed a harassment and discrimination complaint about her union colleagues to OPSEU's head office, alleging violations to Ontario's Human Rights Code, the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the union's own policies.
Eric O'Brien, general counsel for OPSEU, confirmed to CBC that a "neutral, external investigator" looked into and later substantiated Bouzi's complaint.
"Some recommendations have been implemented already, and others remain in process," O'Brien told CBC in an email.
One union executive was ordered to attend training sessions on anti-Black racism and "sexism and patriarchy," and has been suspended from local union duties until that training is complete.
CBC requested to speak to two of the union officers accused of inappropriate behaviour, but neither has responded.
OPSEU's general counsel wrote that the union isn't yet familiar with the latest complaint, and "it would not be appropriate to speculate about that application, or to provide comments about pending litigation the Union has not yet seen."
For Bouzi, the lack of support and protection from OPSEU's central office has been most disturbing and led her to escalate her grievances against the union to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
"I am quite confident that if I was a 42-year-old, tall white man ... if I came in a different package, I know that my credentials, that my experience would never have been challenged the way that it was," she said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.