By Grant Cameron
The Ontario government, health and safety agencies, and the construction industry have taken meaningful steps to combat racism in the workplace, a webinar hosted by RESCON was told March 18.
The hour-long virtual event was held in advance of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21.
At the webinar, chief prevention officer Ron Kelusky spoke about the impacts of racism on health and safety in the workplace and what the government and prevention council are doing to address the problem.
Michelle Roberts, director stakeholder and client engagement at the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA), shared resources that the organization has available to help spark conversations in the workplace, while Varni Tayalan, project manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives at the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), outlined the organization’s Building Diversity Awards program, and Nadine Williams, a poet, author and arts educator, talked about her experiences with discrimination and the importance of inclusion.
Kelusky told the webinar that recent anti-Black racism incidents in Ontario, Canada and the U.S. have brought the issue to the forefront, although it’s been a long-standing problem.
“It may seem like a point in history where racism is resurfacing, but the truth is it really never went away.”
The killing of George Floyd in the U.S. really brought the issue to the forefront, he said. “It’s really opened our eyes to say that we can no longer say we’re working on it. We have to say we are speaking as one, we are working together, and our goal is set and clearly articulated. It can’t be that fuzzy, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it, we’ve got it all in hand,’ and year over year nothing changes.”
The government has embraced diversity and anti-racism in the workplace and recognizes the corrosive impacts it has on individuals, he said.
He noted that the prevention council that was appointed by the minister of labour to advise on matters related to health and safety sent out a statement on the issue at the beginning of the year, encouraging everyone to play a key role in fostering an environment that allows for open dialogue on the issue.
“These conversations and changes can be difficult and uncomfortable, but you can lead the way by speaking openly about topics like racism and inequality, as everybody knows the old adage, ‘You can’t work towards a solution until you admit you have a problem.’”
Roberts of the IHSA said incidents of discrimination and violence in Ontario and across the country are dehumanizing and unacceptable.
“They leave many workplace parties hurting, experiencing racial trauma, loss and fear. The ability to recognize and address racism through fairness, empathy, mindfulness and a commitment to equality and diversity are required in order to reject racism from our workplace.”
The IHSA supports the creation of safe spaces to hold meaningful and ongoing dialogue about racism and discrimination and is encouraging all Ontarians to do their part and speak up, she said.
Roberts spoke about some of the resources that IHSA has available to help spark much-need conversations in the workplace. For example, the organization has expanded its toolkit to address racial discrimination in the workplace and also released a bulletin on the need to foster workplaces of inclusion and equality.
To help kick-start conversations, the IHSA included an article in its quarterly publication on rejecting racism and showing the negative impact it has on the work environment. The organization also launched a new safety talk about racial discrimination in the workplace and what steps workplace parties can take to combat racism.
Tayalan of the TCBN spoke about the importance of the organization and the Building Diversity Awards which are being held to recognize contractors, unions and individuals in Ontario that are working together to increase the participation of Black, Indigenous and racialized workers in the construction industry.
RESCON is one of the sponsors of the awards. There are five categories of awards. Nominations close March 30 and the awards are revealed in May.
Williams, meanwhile, shared personal experiences she has had as a Black woman when raising issues of racism. She noted the importance of being allies to Black workers in the industry.
She congratulated RESCON for championing the issue “because there is still so much to be done.”
Amina Dibe, manager of government and stakeholder relations at RESCON, emceed the event and noted that over the past 10 months the organization, through the launch of an anti-racism roundtable which she chairs, has brought together a growing coalition of stakeholders within the construction industry to stand up against racism and discrimination.
“Through the roundtable, we’re advocating for anti-discrimination and anti-racism training for workers, dedicated skilled trades training programs for BIPOC youth interested in careers in construction, and raising awareness of the work that roundtable members are doing to combat racism and discrimination in the construction industry.”
At the opening of the webinar, Karly Meness, a powerline technician apprentice, shared her experience as an Indigenous woman in the trades.