Op-ed: Ottawa, it's time to work together to end discrimination in the workplace

Nathan column pic
Ottawa entrepreneur Nathan Hall says many issues affecting People of Colour in Canada go unseen and unheard. Photo courtesy Nathan Hall

Around the middle of June, I excitedly posted on Linkedin that I was a recipient of this year's prestigious Forty Under 40 award. 

In my post, I dedicated the award to people who look like me and who have been told, explicitly and implicitly, that they would not amount to much. It was a reminder to all of us that we are more than stereotypes and labels ​– a reminder that we are capable, worthy and have everything that it takes to succeed, no matter who says otherwise. 

Amid the celebratory comments, one individual posted: “No one respects people with a criminal record! The first thing you and bros need to do is respect the laws and society.”  

He subsequently went on to express additional views he held towards Black people, the murder of George Floyd and rioting – all of which had nothing to do with my original post.

The unfortunate reality is Black people and many other People of Colour experience this type of discrimination and inappropriate comments all the time in the workplace. As a matter of fact, many of us experience far worse – as the results of a new survey I will describe in more detail below clearly show. 

Something very interesting happened as a result of this person’s comments. Many people messaged me saying something along the lines of, “I can’t believe someone would say something like that”, or “ How could he talk like that in a professional space?” 

A few weeks before this, I posted an article on my Linkedin entitled “An Open Letter to the Business Community,” which discussed many of my experiences and the common experiences of friends, family and colleagues. Again, many were in shock that this type of insidious behaviour happens in this city, let alone this country.

Lack of racialized data

I want to help address this blind spot and help bring some reconciliation between all People of Colour and the mostly White-dominated spaces most of us find ourselves working in.

While I have a lifetime of firsthand and secondhand experiences, I wanted to gather some quantifiable data to help tell this story. Canada does not collect much racialized data, and as a result certain issues that disportionately affect certain communities have remained hidden. This topic has taken centre stage recently when it comes to the Black community and health care due to the disportionate ways we have suffered from COVID-19. 

As a person who has lived through experiences with racism and discrimination and has been exposed to countless other individuals with similar stories, I know how serious this issue is. Over the past few months, I have seen how large the gap is between our experiences and the dominant society’s perception of our experiences. So I created a survey for People of Colour so we could have a baseline for discussion.

The survey was sent out through social media and was shared by dozens of individuals, collecting responses from over 400 BIPOC across Canada, with a significant portion residing in Ottawa, Montreal and the GTA. 

What I’m about to tell you won’t come as a surprise to most People of Colour; White people, brace yourselves.

Based on the survey results, 80 per cent of BIPOC expect to experience racial discrimination or microaggresions in the workplace at least some of the time, and nearly half expect it most of the time. One in four respondents who said they have experienced racial discrimination in the workplace said it happens so frequently they have lost count of the incidences.  

Explicit discrimination

While nearly 20 per cent of respondents indicated they were not sure if they have experienced discrimination explicitly, when asked if they have felt discomfort due to comments or actions that were perceived to have racial undertones, 84 per cent of all respondents said they were sure they’d had those experiences. In fact, 40 per cent said they have been made to feel uncomfortable so frequently that they have lost count of all the indiscretions.  

None of us are immune to the racially hostile environments of the workplace, no matter our industry, experience, title or salary. As a matter of fact, executives who completed the survey, as well as individuals with six-figure salaries, were actually more likely to experience discrimination than others.  

You may be wondering how an issue that is affecting so many people goes essentially unseen and unheard. 

While the strong narrative of Canada’s multicultural and inclusive identity has overshadowed the contrarian positions of those of us who experience otherwise, the unfortunate reality is that more than half of us rarely or never say anything. Another quarter of us will say something sometimes, but it is important to note that the people we inform are most often peers and not our manager, an executive or someone in HR. This has given companies a false sense of comfort believing that everything is OK, when in reality, it is not.

Fear of rocking the boat

Why are so many of those who experience these issues in the workplace not speaking up? The most-cited reasons were as follows (note: respondents were able to select multiple responses):

  • Nothing ever happens (47%) 
  • I did not want to be labelled a troublemaker (45%)
  • I thought nobody would understand (42%)
  • I did not feel comfortable telling anyone (35%)
  • I have gotten used to it (34%)
  • I thought it would do more harm than good (32%)

Many People of Colour have normalized the frustration, annoyance, anger and isolation that comes with working in White spaces. We have normalized the belittling of our experiences, dealing with systemic, covert and inequitable treatment that gets explained away as us “making a bigger deal than it needs to be.” Due to fear of rocking the boat, we have internalized the pain and mastered the art of code-switching and double consciousness in order to navigate our careers effectively.  

That being said, do not mistake our resilience and strength or our ability to navigate through these spaces as a justifiable excuse for inaction. The emotional, mental and physical toll this reality takes on individuals can be very difficult to measure but has a very real impact on performance, health and well-being.

I want a new normal.

Many companies have learned to say the right things, but as prolific novelist and activist James Baldwin once said, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” I am working on a new initiative to help fight racial discrimination in the workplace, and I am looking for an initial 12 committed companies that are willing to disrupt the status quo and take a stance against racism and discrimination in the workplace and their communities.

Through our collective efforts to work towards true diversity and inclusion, we can cultivate meaningful change for our society and end racism.

Nathan Hall is the CEO of Ottawa-based video marketing agency Simple Story and a 2020 recipient of OBJ’s Forty Under 40 award.