Halifax Mayor Mike Savage spoke to attendees at a rally this week organized by an advocate who’s been supporting Black HRM workers.

The rally, which took place outside Halifax City Hall on Tuesday, is the third event for the workers who say they are the targets of racist discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

After attending a proclamation reading and flag raising ceremony for World Down Syndrome Day at the other end of Grand Parade, Savage stopped at the rally on his way back to city hall. 

“I can tell you my commitment is that we want people to live in a community where everybody is respected. Whether it’s the police, or fire, or the public works,” Savage said addressing the crowd.

Savage highlighted steps HRM is taking to combat systemic racism. He mentioned initiatives including the city’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, hiring more African Nova Scotians, the African Nova Scotian Economic Action Plan, and an anti-Black racism action plan adopted by city council.

Following the rally, one of the workers told the Halifax Examiner that the racist treatment continues to persist.

“I see bullying, racism, harassment, trying to separate people, disrespect,” said one worker, who asked that their name not be used.

“How they talk to people, how they belittle people, how they downgrade people. Like what they did to a couple coworkers, pointing them out, telling them, ‘You get over here, you get over there, you do this, you do that.’ Like it’s no respect at all. It’s terrible. They’re doing everything except for using a racial slang or term. It’s ridiculous, and they don’t do it to anybody else.”

Some of the workers have previously told the Examiner about being denied training opportunities for advancement despite the same training being given to their white co-workers. The worker told the Examiner despite the lack of training, Black HRM workers are given additional duties.

“Right now, we’re still being forced to do work that we’re not even qualified to do,” the worker said. “Concrete work we’re qualified for, brickwork we’re not. We’re underpaid to do the job and forced to do it.”

The worker said this is having an ongoing negative effect on the mental health of many of the Black HRM road workers.

“Some fellas are definitely stressed by it … People are calling me at 11, 12, one o’clock at night because they can’t sleep,” the worker said. “These guys need professional help and when they reach out to HRM nobody’s giving them the support or the help.”

“There are four or five people from our shop alone that called and never got a call back. It’s ridiculous. Especially these young guys that I’m worrying about. Some guys are not even 30 yet and they’ve got to go through this?”

‘We take it extremely seriously’

Raymond Sheppard, who advocates for the workers, organized the first rally outside city hall in December. Sheppard spoke again last month during a rally outside city hall during a blizzard.

In February, Sheppard and one of the workers spoke publicly at Black History Month town hall and panel discussion at Dalhousie University.

At Tuesday’s rally, Savage stopped and listened to Sheppard, who was speaking at the rally about the negative effect he said anti-Black racism is having on the Black HRM road workers.

“I know about some instances where action has been taken recently, and we will do that,” Savage said in an interview with the Examiner at the rally. “We also need the support of our public sector unions so that people aren’t protected who are doing things that are racist, homophobic, anti-LGTBQ, or any of those things.”

“I can tell you that we take it extremely seriously. And I think we’ve made a lot of progress on diversity and inclusion in the city of Halifax. This is a community of systemic racism. It’s been proven in court, it’s been proven in lots of different ways. But we’re working to overcome that.”

A Black man in a baseball hat, winter vest, and grey pants speaks to a white man wearing a dark suit and blue tie. The men are standing outside in a town square on a sunny day. There are other people milling around nearby.
Raymond Sheppard speaks with Mayor Mike Savage during the rally in support of Black HRM workers. Credit: Matthew Byard

Savage said the chief administrative officer, Cathie O’Toole, is taking the issue seriously.

“We have set up for the last five years or so this department of diversity and inclusion, which is looking at not only how can we [implement] mutual respect among everybody who works at HRM, but how can we exhibit that in the community as well,” Savage said. “But we have work to do and I think we all accept that.”

When asked what he’d say to white supervisors and superintendents about the allegations being made by the Black workers, Savage said, “That does not represent the values of this city and if you’re doing that you should not be working for the city and if we know about it we will take action.”

On Tuesday, Sheppard said despite meetings the workers had with supervisors and superintendents, and meetings he had with members of HRM upper management prior to December’s rally, the workers and some of their white co-workers said racial discrimination, bullying, and double standards persist.

Savage was asked if he feels the city’s current measures to be adequate in these cases.

“Well, we have an employee assistance program, which is certainly available for circumstances like this. And if it’s not it should be but I’m pretty sure it’s available to all employees,” Savage said. “There’s a lot of work to do, I’m proud of some of the work we’ve done, but it’s not done.”

Savage and Sheppard shared a brief private exchange before the mayor addressed the crowd.

“When you get a chance next time mayor, please speak with the workers,” Sheppard said over the bullhorn as Savage left to attend a council meeting.

“Next time you’re out and we’re here, speak with the workers, that would be nice.”

‘We are all in this together’

The final speaker at the rally was Bernadette Hamilton-Reid, who addressed the workers and the attendees in her role as the new acting director of the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (ANSDPAD).

Hamilton-Reid said ANSDPAD has been contacted by various HRM workers who have shared evidence of the anti-Black racism they said they face from supervisors and at least one superintendent within HRM.

“I’m very pleased to say that we are going to have a meeting. It was good to see the mayor out here with his communications people. They know that you’re here, they know that you’re active. And you are putting yourself on the line,” Hamilton-Reid said.

“And know that there are no repercussions that can come to you. Know your rights. Get in touch with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission if you haven’t already. I know many of us are disgruntled with that organization, but they were put in place in 1960 to serve us.”

A Black woman with short hair, glasses, and wearing a black, orange, and yellow print top with black pants speaks from a megaphone outside in a town square on a sunny day. Behind her is a Black man in a baseball cap, black vest over a grey hoodie. An iPhone on a tripod is set up in front of the two people to record them.
Bernadette Hamilton-Reid speaks to attendees at the rally in front of city hall on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Raymond Sheppard, who organized the rally, stands in the background. Credit: Matthew Byard

Hamiliton-Reid, who handed out business cards and pamphlets to the people in the crowd, suggested the workers connect with any resources available, including those provided by Black organizations.

“Anybody that has leadership positions that look like us, of African ancestry, we need to hold them accountable, and I’m putting myself in that circle,” she said.

“If you haven’t already reached out to our office, please reach out and make sure we stay in touch with what’s happening to you, what responses that you’re getting back, and how we can come in and be an advocate. Because we are all in this together.”

A graphic that says Funded by Canada

Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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