Thursday, March 03, 2011

Racism rocks PSAC Montreal office

MONTREAL - The anonymous letter shattered what had started as a normal Monday morning at the office for "Joel," a union organizer at the Montreal office of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
"SPEAK NEGER BLACK," it started.
The rest of the letter was in French.
"It's well-paid we have all the jobs that pay. Where and when we want. INCOMPETENCE INCLUDED," it read.
Copies of the racist screed - obtained by The Gazette - were placed in the mail slots of the office's only two black employees on Feb. 21.
The hate mail has brought to light troubling allegations of racism in the public-sector union's Quebec division.
Both employees say they believe the letters are linked to a controversial incident that created deep divisions between PSAC's employees in Quebec and those in the rest of Canada.
On Dec. 16, 2009, PSAC staffers from Quebec read a poem and showed a film titled Speak White to colleagues at a national conference in Ottawa. The 1980, six-minute film by nationalist filmmakers Pierre Falardeau and Julien Poulin - based on the 1968 poem of the same name - includes shocking images of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi genocide. It denounces exploitation of Quebec's French-speaking working class, which it compares to the plight of U.S. blacks and other oppressed minorities.
However, the Quebec staffers did not explain what the film meant or provide a translation, so many visible-minority employees found the images racist and disturbing.
In January 2010, the Canadian Union of Labour Employees (CULE), which represents workers at PSAC, filed a grievance on behalf of employees who found the film out of line with PSAC's obligation to provide a respectful and racismfree work environment.
CULE lost the grievance and has requested arbitration.
Joel (not his real name), then a union organizer in Ottawa, was one of three employees on whose behalf the union filed the grievance.
In December, he transferred to PSAC's Montreal office for family reasons.
He said he had to wait several weeks for a computer and a desk, and was not given an assignment until January.
When the hate letter arrived, Joel said he was struck by the similarity between its wording and the Speak White incident.
"It has to be coming from someone who has a certain knowledge of the situation," he said.
The letter, stamped "Personal," was in a white business envelope with his name and PSAC's Montreal address affixed by tape. The stamp was franked by Canada Post but on close inspection, the transparent tape was on top of the franking marks.
"Luc," a second black employee, also received an envelope containing the same letter as Joel along with a second letter.
Both men, who are francophones, requested that their names not be used for fear of consequences for their future careers.
Luc's envelope was stamped but the stamp was not franked.
The second letter reads: "Speak Black it's Better."
It continues, in French: "You work when you like, you have the big JOB. The big Cash, no one asks you for anything. Always on the weekend."
Police did not check the letters or envelopes for fingerprints, the men said.
Joel said he called police after opening the letter and was told to take it to a police station. The duty officer at the station near PSAC's St. Laurent office told him police would not investigate because the letter contained no threat of violence.
Both men have been on medical leave since receiving the letters.
Two days after the letters arrived, regional coordinator Bertrand Lavoie announced a staff meeting to discuss ways to improve the work atmosphere.
In an email reply to Lavoie obtained by The Gazette, regional union organizer Mathieu Dumont refused to attend the meeting. Dumont wrote that despite his disgust for the letters, "all my sympathy stops (here). I refuse to be (...) taken hostage by rumour, calumny, popular opinion or the peanut gallery that obeys the dictates of the moment."
Dumont said Quebec should not be blamed for a situation that goes beyond its jurisdiction. He added: "I will not participate and I encourage my colleagues to do the same."
However, PSAC president John Gordon said the organization is "very disturbed" by the hate mail.
"We're viewing this as a very, very serious issue and we want to get to the bottom of it," he said.
Gordon added that PSAC is investigating the Speak White incident but refused to comment on that investigation.
Luc has worked in PSAC's Montreal office for four years. On Jan. 17, he returned to work after a sixmonth medical leave that he said was related to workplace harassment. He had been working three days a week and was about start a four-day work week when the letter arrived.
Luc said that when an opportunity came up to volunteer for a certain assignment, other employees were given a chance to apply but he was kept out of the loop.
When the Quebec staff planned the Speak White presentation, they did not reveal the plans to him or to the only other black employee, who has since resigned.
Luc said no one in the office said anything when a union member who frequently visited the office remarked that he got his job because he is black.
When staff dine out together, black employees are often not included in the conversation, he said.
"You come to realize that you're not part of the gang and you never will be," Luc said.
Other employees frequently badmouth anglophones and other minorities at work, Luc said. They say: "Those têtes carrées. Why should we have to follow their directives?"
Luc said that colleagues often criticize employment equity programs for favouring minorities. "They say, 'Why give jobs to blacks?' "
Luc said one staff member called Arab union members "dogs" and said of the executive of a union: "I'm going to kick out those damn Arabs!"
Both men said they have received sympathetic messages from colleagues across Canada since the hate mail arrived but - aside from a supportive note from regional coordinator Lavoie - not a word of support from their Montreal coworkers.
Jérôme Turcq, PSAC's executive vice-president for the Quebec region, said this is the first time to his knowledge a staff member in the Montreal office has been the victim of racism.
"I don't think they come from my employees," he said of the letters.
PSAC represents about 35,000 workers in Quebec employed by the federal government and universities.