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Op-ed: Racism and bullying at HRM warrant a public inquiry

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The Halifax Regional Municipality has a problem providing its workers with a workplace free from racism and bullying.

Halifax Council meanwhile is either being lied to by city managers who paint a rosy picture, or is not trying hard enough to find out what’s really happening. A bit of both, probably.  

In 2016 we wrote about a confidential consultant’s report that identified widespread and horrific racism, ableism, bullying, homophobia and misogyny at HRM’s Municipal Operations division, what we sometimes call the city’s outside workers.

In 2017 we issued a Freedom of Information request to find out what the city was doing to address that situation. We received a spreadsheet suggesting that all was well. Prior to that we were told that Council was kept in the loop in terms of progress.

But all wasn’t well. Last month African Nova Scotian workers rallied at City Hall, because they felt that despite that report, and despite the progress that city staff  bragged about, nothing had changed on the ground.

Mayor Mike Savage told The Star Halifax that he had a conversation with the municipality’s most senior manager, CAO Jacques Dubé, and they both think HRM can do better. 

There is more.

Just last week, through a Nova Scotia Human Rights tribunal, we heard about racism at the Halifax Transit garage. A city lawyer argued that staff should be allowed to make racist comments, because it’s Charter-protected speech.

At that time mayor Mike Savage told The Star Halifax that, besides an update brought to council last fall, he knew very little about the specifics of the complaint prior to the release of the report. He called the behaviour outlined in the report “unacceptable.”

And there is more.

After Halifax Fire chief Ken Stuebing formally apologized to former firefighter Liane Tessier for the years of misogyny and sexism she had to face at his department, he quickly clarified what he really thought about the affair.

“I believe wholeheartedly that Miss Tessier believes everything she says, and her concerns, but what we have agreed to in the settlement is to make the public apology, to make the policy changes and to affect our culture moving forward,” Stuebing said.

In other words, I am apologizing because I have to, not because I believe I should.

Nobody at the department was fired. Many of the bullies identified in the NS Human RIghts decision received promotions. Nobody at Council said, hey, that’s not really cleaning house, and by the way, that was a really shitty apology, mr. Stuebing, why don’t you try again?

Meanwhile, Kathy Symington, another Halifax firefighter, with a story eerily similar to Tessier’s has been rebuffed in her effort to find justice. How can you admit to systemic problems in your department, but close your eyes to the potential of additional victims, Symington asks.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and there’s a lot of smoke at City Hall.

Councillors and our mayor aren’t going to fix this mess. What’s going on at HRM is way beyond personnel issues, and the public should know. 

I agree with Equity Watch, it’s time for a public inquiry in some shape or form.

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