Racialized health-care workers claim systemic racism in Montreal health authority

·5 min read

MONTREAL — Marie Ngo Hott, an orderly at one of Montreal's largest health authorities, says some of her white patients aren't shy about being racist toward her, and she says the issue is not being addressed by the administration.

"I had patients who told me they didn't want to see me, to get out of here with my Black face," Hott said in a recent interview. "Sometimes you get kicked; patients become violent because you're the one taking care of them and they don't want to see your Black face.

"But when you complain to the nurse in charge — a white person usually — their response is that it's our approach that's incorrect," Hott added.

The abuse that Hott and other racialized health-care workers at the health agency say they have experienced has led their union to file 1,000 grievances with the employer, union president Alain Croteau announced earlier this week. Most of the grievances have to do with systemic racism at the health authority in the city's south end, called CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, he told reporters.

In a recent interview, Croteau said the fact that the majority of orderlies — among the lowest-paid employees in the health network — at the health authority are racialized women is a reflection of systemic racism.

"How can we explain the over-representation of racialized women with a non-discriminatory motive?" Croteau asked.

The union is calling on the health authority to release a demographic breakdown of employees to get a better sense of how many racialized people are working for the agency and what jobs they have.

A spokesperson with the health authority said the agency doesn't keep that kind of detailed data on its 22,000 employees.

"We don't have precise details on employees," spokesman Jean Nicolas Aubé said in a recent interview. "We aren't allowed to ask, it's up to their discretion to say their ethnicity."

Croteau said the province's health system doesn't do enough to promote racialized employees into positions of authority. "Right now, they are burdening us with the task to prove what we are saying while they hide the numbers," he said.

Hott, 63, left Cameroon in Central Africa more than 13 years ago. She said since she started working as an orderly in 2014, she's experienced a lack of support from her employer.

"The majority of the head of units that I saw, in my experience, are white people," Hott said. "And it's always us, the employee, who's not doing enough, who should do more."

Aubé disagreed, saying a lot of supervisors in the health establishments within the regional health authority are Black.

"Nearly 20 per cent of the managers of the establishment are from minority communities," Aubé said. He said he was able to retrieve that information on Tuesday despite saying the agency didn't collect detailed demographic data on employees.

Aubé said the health authority doesn't discriminate against staff and is involved in a series of inclusion initiatives to fight racism.

"It's zero tolerance," Aubé said about racism in the workplace.

Aubé said he was shocked to hear the accusations of racism against the health agency and questioned whether employees had been vocal enough about their concerns.

"Who did they complain to?" he asked. "If employees are experiencing such a situation, they have to tell their supervisor, and if they don’t want to go to them, there are other tools. They cannot keep that for themselves."

Carline Bien-Aimé, a Quebecer of Haitian descent who also works for the health authority in Montreal's south end, said orderlies are afraid to talk publicly about these issues, fearing they might lose their jobs.

"Everyone has experienced systemic racism," Bien-Aimé said. "Among staff we work with, patients, colleagues, every day it takes a different form."

Bien-Aimé, who started working in 1999 as an orderly, recalled an incident that occurred a few years ago, when she was reprimanded for speaking Creole at work.

"I was speaking Creole in the locker room when a supervisor came to me and got mad because of it," she said, adding that employees are prohibited from speaking Creole on the job. "But I was not working, I was on a break!"

Croteau confirmed Bien-Aimé received a disciplinary notice for speaking Creole.

Guerda Amazan, the deputy director of Maison d’Haïti, a Montreal-based group serving the province's Haitian diaspora, said she has received many testimonies of racialized female orderlies who feel their concerns aren't addressed at work.

"We feel like something is happening, but the way the system is, women are afraid to denounce it," Amazan said in a recent interview. "They are afraid they will lose their jobs; they feel like the system is opaque, where people in a position of power are white. If there’s a problem, it’s still white colleagues who will ask about the work of Black people. It’s not always easy to navigate."

Amazan said she was astonished to hear Quebec Premier François Legault deny the existence of systemic racism once again on Tuesday. The premier maintained that systemic racism did not exist in the province, quoting a definition of "systemic'' from the dictionary to back up his position.

"People in a position of authority need to take a step back," Amazan said. "We are not accusing anyone; we are here to acknowledge an issue. People are asking to dig more. Take the time to listen to them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 7, 2021.

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press

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