While the Black Lives Matter movement is shining a light on systemic and anti-Black racism incidents on construction sites in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond, Black construction leaders say it’s something that’s been happening for a long time.
“There were other nooses that were found by other Black people on construction sites and initially they weren’t reported because, frankly, this is something that we encounter every day,” explained Richard Whyte, chief estimator for the Toronto Civil Division at EllisDon Corporation.
He was among the participants of the Black Experience in Construction webinar hosted by the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN) July 15.
“When I heard about the findings I was initially very angry. I wasn’t surprised because there is a misnomer that in Canada we are not polarizing when it comes to racism as say our neighbours in the south and that is a myth.”
Whyte is referring to several incidents where nooses were found at EllisDon construction sites in the city, and one at The Daniels Corporation construction site, all taking place in June.
They are hurtful and they harm a community and hold them back,
— Jeff Blackwell
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 353
The webinar, which featured Black construction professionals and industry leaders, was moderated by CBC News Toronto journalist Dwight Drummond.
In addition to Whyte, panellists included Chris Campbell, executive board member and business representative at Carpenters’ Local 27; Ivan Dawns, business representative at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 46; Jeff Blackwell, business representative and westend dispatcher at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 353; Patience Adamu, manager of employee experience at Aecon; and Rhonda Davis, manager of estimating at The Daniels Corporation.
“We wanted to hear from our Black leaders and our allies within the space because at the end of the day they too have endured the system for many years and they’ve come out strong on the other side and they are now leaders within their workplaces,” said Rosemarie Powell, executive director of the TCBN.
“They have the lived experience that is so invaluable. This is our opportunity to speak to them directly and see what they are doing as leaders to really advance the conversation about systemic racism and anti-Black racism within the construction sector.”
She said participants in TCBN programs are feeling a lot of different emotions as a result of these incidents.
“They are definitely hurt, some are scared but some are also just really frustrated and they’re not going to take it anymore,” she explained.
Blackwell said it’s sad to see these acts of racism happening in this day and age.
“They are hurtful and they harm a community and hold them back and no one should be held back in this country regardless of race, colour, gender,” he said. “It’s important to know that we as union leaders stand for multiculturalism, diversity, inclusion and that we bring people of all categories into our union and give them equal opportunity.”
Davis said The Daniels Corporations is also working to recruit diverse team members.
“Over the past three years we’ve seen a significant increase in Black and racialized team members in our organization,” she noted. “We have a long way to go when it comes to recruiting Indigenous team members.
“I can honestly say that I have seen firsthand how this drastically changed lives and peoples’ mindsets about themselves, giving them the confidence to see what they can accomplish.”
Adamu said while a lot of people say everyone is equal, that is not the case.
“We are kind of operating in an anti-Black, racist, white supremacist system and that’s a reality,” said Adamu, adding Aecon has designed programs to create space for underrepresented groups. “I’ll be honest with you, we’re not there yet. We do have quite a bit of diversity, particularly in the non-union part of the company.”
The issue is diversity among the senior executive team, she added.
“That’s our next goal, to make sure that looks a little bit different,” said Adamu. “I have been working with my team to really make it clear that this is not about favouritism, tokenism, this is about correcting a system that has been totally disadvantaging a group of people for centuries. We all know its not going to happen overnight.”
Campbell pointed out there are many Black youths looking for opportunities and construction needs workers.
“It’s not enough to recruit them, throw them in the big melting pot of our different unions and just leave them there to sink or swim,” said Campbell. “The George Floyd incident, the Black Lives Matter marches, the nooses being found on sites, all of these sparked interesting conversations and it brings forward the questions: Is the union doing what is necessary to keep these members active, keep them trained, help them to go through their apprenticeship?”
Whyte shared his personal struggle with advancement in the industry. When he first started out, he was hoping to have a career in operations.
“My choice to go into estimating was because I wasn’t getting opportunities,” he said. “For me meeting a glass ceiling so early in my career is not fair and me having to change direction with my career is not fair either. I made the best of it and I will continue to make the best of it but this story does not end well for a lot of other Black people who meet the glass ceiling way down below at the entry level and they don’t know what to do.”
He hopes to be an inspiration for Black people and other racialized Canadians looking to get into the industry.
“Advancement has to be given to people who deserve it. If they happen to be Black great, but you have to give everyone a fair shot,” Whyte said. “If you have a very small sect of your company that is diverse and they are chomping at the bit the same ways as their white counterparts are chomping at the bit look at them with the same lens.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.