On November 18, I received a message from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) denouncing the recent spate of racist incidents taking place in the city. In the message, the TDSB reported that it had given direction to all school administrators on what to do when they encounter such incidents in their school communities. The Urban Alliance on Race Relations in Toronto also condemned the litany of racially discriminatory acts in a statement issued on November 16.
The memo hits a raw nerve for me, an immigrant and a mother of two Asian kids who are enrolled in a school under the TDSB. While racism has reared its head every now and then in Canada, the current spate of hate crimes across Canada — such as the spraying of swastika signs on the entrance to a synagogue in Ottawa, the video of a passenger’s racist rant against another passenger on a Toronto streetcar and posters promoting white-supremacist ideology near an elementary school in east Toronto — makes one wonder whether political developments south of the border have had reverberations in our society and workplaces. This is a disturbing prospect, considering how diverse Canada’s labour force is.
According to a 2011 Statistics Canada report, the percentage of foreign-born people in the workforce rose from 18.5 per cent to 21.2 per cent between 1991 and 2006. If recent immigration levels continue, roughly one in every three people in the labour force will have been born outside of Canada by 2031. Canadian workplaces will continue to become even more diverse as baby boomers retire and all net labour-force growth in the country is expected to come from immigration.
In view of our workforce demographics, Canadian businesses have a vested interest in staying vigilant and be prepared to address racism promptly and effectively when they arise. The Ontario Human Rights Code requires employers to address claims of harassment or discrimination; legislation like Bill 168 and the more recent Bill 132 reinforces employer obligations to provide a workplace free from sexual harassment, violence and discrimination in its myriad forms.
Racist behaviour that goes unchecked in workplaces can be very costly — not just in the form of litigation costs and compensation. Such acts also create a divisive corporate culture, and studies have shown that toxic work environments are detrimental to teamwork and productivity, which affect a company’s bottom line.
The consequences of psychological stress stemming from being on the receiving end of discrimination based on skin colour may also contribute to racial health disparities in conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other age-associated diseases, according to a 2011 epidemiologic study by the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
While it is debatable whether political developments in the United States have indeed stoked racist sentiments in Canada, these occurrences are sobering reminders that our workplaces and social cohesion are vulnerable to developments around the world. It also underscores the importance of continually reaffirming our values and speaking out against acts of discrimination — as TDSB and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations did — whether they occur at work or in the public sphere. Because keeping silent makes us accomplices of such acts.
Jean Lian is the editor of OHS Canada.