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Bullying and dysfunction complaints resurface at Halifax City Hall

Dawn Sloan, Liane Tessier, Jackie Barkhouse and Sue Uteck at City Hall. Photo Robert Devet

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Old complaints about bullying and dysfunction at HRM workplaces resurfaced when Cathie Barrington, a former manager in HRM’s Council Support Office, was called out for posting vile racist posts on social media. 

Barrington was employed at the City until sometime in 2019.

Barrington’s Facebook comments were in response to the release of SIRT reports on police violence in the arrests of Santina Rao and a 15-year old teen in Bedford.

Barrington told Chronicle Herald reporter Andrew Rankin on Thursday that she’s sorry for posting the comments and that they were inappropriate.

But complaints both by staff and councillors about workplace dysfunctionality and racism at the office go back a long time. 

“For me the problem is that HRM knew about Barrington’s management style. When I complained they told me I was not credible. But now it’s in the Herald and we have screenshots. So many people went to Human Resources and complained that the department ordered a workplace assessment,” a former employee who worked at the Council Support Office when Barrington was a manager there tells the Nova Scotia Advocate.

An internal assessment marked confidential contains recommendations to address a variety of issues, including organizing sessions on respect in the workplace, boundaries, cultural competency, and weekly meetings between staff and management. 

“It is recommended that the manager and employees immediately cease all gossip. The manager and employees are to jointly create and sign an agreement to make this a gossip-free workplace. A facilitator may be necessary for this discussion,” one of the recommendations states.

Recommendations mostly ignored

Most of the recommendations were never followed up on, the former employee says. Working for the Council Support Office became so stressful for this employee that they had to go on sick leave, only to be subsequently terminated by the city. The former worker feels at least partially vindicated by the recent news story.

Several former councillors have spoken out about these issues over the last years,   

In the summer of 2018 Jackie Barkhouse, a former Halifax councillor, told the Nova Scotia Advocate that during her term she frequently raised concerns around a toxic  workplace for City Hall employees. But her complaints would be shrugged off by then Mayor Peter Kelly and senior management.

Barkhouse served as Councillor for District 8 (at that time, Woodside-Eastern Passage) from 2007 to 2012.

“I certainly became aware of instances of bullying at City Hall, and I took these concerns forward. I actually became isolated because of my involvement in these cases,” Barkhouse said at the time.

Former councillors Sue Uteck and Dawn Sloane joined Barkhouse in demanding a public inquiry.

“We have some wonderful people work for HRM. Unfortunately some of them left because of issues that had to do with management, bullying and racism,” said Sloane. “When at Council we all heard stories of bullying and racism.”  

“There was a lot that was held from us. There was a real culture of fear. Staff were not allowed to approach councillors. When I think back I believe I should have done more,” Uteck said.

The women, who all served until the 2012 election, said they themselves were often subjected to sexist behaviour by fellow councillors, some of whom are still around. Uteck mentioned frequent snickering while she would address council, and remembers calling out these fellow (male) councillors on that behaviour.

An HRM spokesperson tells the Nova Scotia Advocate that it cannot discuss individual cases. 

“However, the municipality has zero-tolerance for workplace bullying and harassment. Our Workplace Rights and Harassment Prevention Policy outlines our commitment to providing a harassment-free environment, where all persons are treated with dignity and respect, ” writes Senior Communications Adviser Maggie-Jane Spray. “Additionally, staff are able to anonymously report allegations of harassment or bullying through Human Resources.  All concerns brought forward are thoroughly reviewed.” Spray also mentions mandatory staff training sessions on harassment prevention, and the municipality’s Code of Conduct. 

Not an isolated incident

The City of Halifax has been plagued by frequent complaints about racism and toxic work environments in many of its departments. 

One report described the racism and misogyny at the Public Works department. After the Nova Scotia Advocate published the confidential report and councillors became concerned CAO Dubé initiated regular updates to Council. Just recently the Halifax Examiner revealed that progress was consistently exaggerated, confirming what Black employees were telling the Nova Scotia Advocate as recently as July of this year. 

Meanwhile Several Nova Scotia Human Rights tribunals have shed light on similar atrocious working conditions at Halifax Fire and Halifax Transit

See also: Vindicated Halifax firefighter Liane Tessier: I want the truth out there, I want to expose the structure of misogyny

“We are asking councillors and the mayor to support an independent inquiry. That’s the only way to get to the root and to have any success on a go forward basis,” Barkhouse said at the time. “An external consultant is absolutely not adequate. It needs to be done outside of HRM.”

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