Construction companies celebrating Black History Month

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Michael Lewis’

Construction companies and labour groups are paying homage to racial justice activists as Black History Month comes into full swing, including Canadian civil-rights champion Bromley Armstrong — described as a “gentlemen and a scrapper” in a newspaper article marking his death in 2018.

“I think of Bromley Lloyd Armstrong and his fight to improve conditions for workers in industry,” said Keith Menezes, co-chair of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council’s equity committee. Armstrong was a pivotal figure in the early anti-discrimination campaigns in Ontario that “eventually brought us the Fair Employment Practices Act,” Menezes said in a video honouring the Black workers and organizers who have fought and continue to fight for equal treatment in the workplace.

The video also recognizes contributions from leaders including Zanana Akande, the first Black MPP to sit in the Ontario Legislature whose work contributed to the passage of employment rights laws.

Employers commemorating Black History Month include Mississauga-based worker-owned construction services company Ellis Don, which says its Alliance of Black Employee Experience and Leadership team will unveil initiatives and resources through February to honour the occasion. Ellis Don refers its website users to Black luminaries including Canadian labour union activist and former citizenship judge Stanley G. Grizzle, who helped establish the Young Men’s Negro Association of Toronto.

In the 1940s at the age or 22 Grizzle began working as a sleeping car porter with the Canadian Pacific Railway. In his book, My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada, he noted that  Black men had very few job opportunities at the time so  porters tended to be highly educated.“ Why did I get a job as a porter on the railway?” he wrote. “I couldn’t get anything else – and I didn’t want to starve.”

Grizzle was eventually elected president of the Toronto CPR division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union founded in New York in 1925 to improve wages and working conditions for Black porters since unions such as the Canadian Brotherhood of Railroad Employees would not allow Black people to become members. Grizzle passed away in 2016 at the age of 97.

Along with Ellis Don PCL Construction, a group of independent general contractors in countries including Canada, is among builders commemorating Black History Month, saying it is pursuing initiatives that “help us take action toward inclusivity.”

Among construction unions, Labourers’ International Union of North America, Local 183, which represents more than 70,000 workers in Ontario,  says the  month will showcase work done by the LiUNA African American Canadian Caucus whose  mission is to “identify, promote and support issues that address the needs and interests of LiUNA members of African descent, their families and the communities they live in.”

And Ontario Tech University along with the  Carpenters Union, Local 397 in Oshawa has scheduled an in person and livestreamed public event for February 8 to celebrate Black History Month. Following a reception, a conversation is on tap between Howard French, professor and author of Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and Modernity, and Dr. Wesley Crichlow, professor and critical race theory scholar. “Together, they will deconstruct the historical erasure and unrecognized role that Africa has played in the making of the ‘modern world,’” Oshawa-based OTU says in a statement.

With the theme this year of Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build, Black History Month is an annual observance originating in the United States that formally recognizes the role Black Canadians have played in building and shaping the socioeconomic, political, and cultural fabric of the country.

Along with the federal government, provinces and municipalities, Canada’s largest labour organization the Canadian Labour Congress is observing the month with a statement saying that labour market discrimination persists — with Black workers consistently earning lower wages and experiencing hurdles at every stage of employment, beginning at the initial hiring process, to advancement and promotion, as well as retention.

The CLC said the federal government can work toward eliminating systemic anti-Black racism in employment by implementing the recommendations of the Employment Equity Review Task Force, which held consultations with stakeholder groups including unions and called for inclusion of Black workers as a designated group under the Employment Equity Act to take into account the unique barriers they experience.

New research by KPMG in Canada, meanwhile, finds that while Canadian companies have made progress to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace for their Black employees, eight in 10 Black Canadians say they are still facing some form of racism or “microaggression” at work.

“In our third survey in as many years, Black Canadians feel that corporate Canada is making headway in meeting their 2020 commitments to end anti-Black racism, create more inclusive workplace environments and promote more Black people to leadership roles,” says Elio Luongo, CEO and senior partner, KPMG in Canada. “However, despite these efforts, more than 80 per cent of Black Canadians faced racism in the workplace last year, nearly a 10 per cent increase from what we found a year ago.”

More than half of the survey respondents (53 per cent) said they faced less racism than they did in previous years, while 15 per cent said they faced the same amount of racism or microaggression and 13 per cent said they faced more racism.

Police-reported hate crimes in Canada have jumped 83 per cent between 2019 and 2022, according to the last year of data from Statistics Canada. The same report revealed that race-related hate crimes increased as much as 120 per cent over that same time. Toronto police recently reported that hate crimes in the city rose by 42 per cent in 2023 with a major spike in antisemitic and anti-Islam crimes in the last three months.


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