Ex-employee says after reprimand over George Floyd's email she quit Rideau Hall
Khadija El Hilali, who claims she has resigned because of charges of bigotry, has recommendations for the new Governor General.
A former employee of Rideau Hall who resigned in June warns that the institution's challenges go far beyond sexual discrimination and include an example of bias that drove her to leave the public sector altogether.
Khadija El Hilali said that for workers who are black, aboriginal or people of color, the Rideau Hall workplace is "toxic, dangerous, and unsafe." She said there was a strain on her mental health from the sexism she faced working for the Governor General's office.
After management reprimanded her for expressing her thoughts about bigotry and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police in an email she sent to employees, El Hilali told CBC News she wanted to terminate her contract early. She said that a white worker was later celebrated as being bold for addressing the same concerns at work.
"I feel ostracized," said El Hilali, who considers himself an Afro-Arab. "I was feeling inferior, like I was worthless. Since I was racialized, my speech didn't count... I felt hurt. For what felt like days, I recall crying." I actually haven't had a few weeks of sleep. Over and over again, I kept running down the chain of events."
She said she's openly telling her story to persuade the new governor general and prospective leaders at Rideau Hall to prioritize racial equality.
"After Julie Payette and her second-in-command, Assunta Di Lorenzo, resigned in the aftermath of a scathing study by a consultancy company that found the duo presiding over a "poisoned" and "toxic" workplace, the government is trying to restore the office of the governor general.
The mandate of the consulting firm was to identify the nature of the issue, not to decide the facts. The study reports that "allegations of shouting, crying, offensive behavior, demeaning remarks and public ridicule" were reported by workplace inspectors.
In its response to CBC News, Rideau Hall did not deny or discuss any of the facts of El Hilali's situation. "The office said it is in a "serious time of regeneration" and is "taking concrete action on the unequal discrimination of our community of Black people, other racialized communities, and indigenous peoples.
The office of Rideau Hall said it welcomed the call for action given last month by Privy Council Secretary Ian Shugart to end "all manifestations of prejudice and injustice" in the public sector. Shugart wrote to the heads of all agencies asking them to tackle bigotry so that when they face obstacles to diversity and inclusion, workers are "empowered and safe to speak up."
'There has been a great deal of hidden pain'
El Hilali said that her colleagues made her feel like she was doing something wrong when she talked about bigotry at Rideau Hall this past summer. Since then, Payette and Di Lorenzo both left the office, but other superiors interested with Payette and Di Lorenzo's management of her case also serve in places of authority at the office.
El Hilali claimed she did not partake in the workplace analysis of abuse claims by the law company and investigators did not interview her.
She said she joined the Chancellery of Honours at Rideau Hall as a university student under the government's student job experience scheme in the summer of 2018. El Hilali said that following graduation from Carleton University, her ambition was to bridge from a part-time contract to full-time, permanent jobs.
She said she frequently witnessed fraught experiences related to her ethnic identity during the following two years as a program assistant, such as colleagues confusing her with other dark-skinned staff and constantly mispronouncing her name. She said that debates about "race have still been diluted or reduced."
"There was so little representation of us and whenever we brought up problems, our voices were always ignored," she said. "A lot of hidden misery has happened. People were scared to speak up......I feel lonely..."
After being told she was being reprimanded for emailing more than 200 workers about bigotry, El Hilali said she reached her breaking point in June 2020.
The George Floyd email reprimand
She said she was greatly influenced in police custody by Floyd's death and also found her Black colleagues "distressed and heavily impacted." On May 25, Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for eight minutes and 46 seconds pushed his knee into his throat.
His death triggered worldwide demonstrations, including one on Parliament Hill that included the arrival of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the audience kneeling. Trudeau later claimed that institutional racism "is a problem around the country, across all institutions."
There was "total silence" at Rideau Hall, El Hilali said, as businesses and federal agencies confronted the issue and made public announcements reaffirming their commitment to combating bias and sexism in the workplace.
She said that she contacted her boss more than a week after Floyd's murder, wondering if she should submit a community email on racial discrimination. She demanded to show staff what "their minority counterparts are going through right now and what happens every day," according to her June 3, 2020 email to her superior, viewed by CBC News.
She said, after not hearing back from the boss for a day, she sent the email anyway. El Hilali said that while she sees them as part of a bigger issue within the system, she did not want to see the managers concerned mentioned in this article. All four of the persons concerned were emailed by CBC News, but they did not offer a response.
El Hilali wrote about the death of Floyd in the email she sent to employees, forwarded a three-page paper on the concept of white privilege and linked to petitions, educational books, videos, TV series and articles on the subject.
"El Hilali wrote in the June 4 email, viewed by CBC News, "It is not the responsibility of just Black people and people of color to consistently speak out against racism.' "I welcome and encourage you to make a difference using your right."
El Hilali said her recall email was made by management.
El Hilali said that she got a call from a management member within 10 minutes of sending the email, who said Di Lorenzo had read the letter and requested for it to be immediately retrieved because it was political. For comment, CBC News contacted Di Lorenzo but did not receive a reply from her or the law firm representing her.
"There was a very hostile tone," said El Hilali. I was advised that this was a political matter and that it was apolitical for the organisation. For a couple of minutes, I tried to clarify how racial equality is not a political problem. There is not something that is up for consideration.
She followed the order and recalled the email, El Hilali said. At that time, she said, it was already perceived by certain staff members.
A series of emails from El Hilali's colleagues were seen by CBC News thanking her and applauding her for initiating an important dialogue at work. They were proud of her and shared the email with friends and relatives, others said.
"One employee wrote, "Thank you for being the voice that we wanted.
The letter "caused a lot of people to tackle things that made them feel insecure, myself included," another colleague wrote.
El Hilali said the next day, at a simulated weekly office staff meeting of about 30 employees, a white colleague spoke about how she was dealing with what was going on in the news about the death of Floyd and told her colleagues about a proposed rally.
The same supervisor who reprimanded her for sending the email, El Hilali said, congratulated her white colleague for getting the confidence to stand up in a group environment and express her feelings.
"In her resignation letter, which was sent to Di Lorenzo on June 12, 2020, she wrote, "How can [a management member] reprimand a Black employee who spoke out about a problem, but then praise and support a white employee who shared the same thing?
On June 16, she said she contacted another member of the management of Rideau Hall and said she could see herself remaining in the job if Di Lorenzo released a statement apologizing for telling her to take back the Floyd text.
El Hilali said management approved her resignation and wrote in an email on June 16 that they deeply regretted her decision to leave and praised her for exploring how "the office would properly foster an atmosphere of inclusion" and "promote diversity."
"That sounds like the status quo'
Erica Ifill, a Federal Black Employee Caucus member, said the story of El Hilali did not surprise anyone.
"This seems like the public sector status quo," Ifill, an economist for Innovation, Science and Economic Growth Canada, said (ISED). "Black workers are frequently reprimanded for creating questions linked to our racialized experience."
Ifill said that when she talked about how Floyd's death impacted people of color who were still overwhelmed by the pandemic at a staff meeting in June, a director told her that everyone was struggling, not just Black workers, and that she could go to the Employee Support Department if she wanted assistance.
Ifill said she is currently on sick leave and lodged a civil rights lawsuit in September over allegations in various government agencies of pay disparity, abuse and intimidation for more than a decade.
She said, "Much of my public service career has been fraught with violence, alienation, gas lighting, denial of complaints and microaggression." It has been violent... I have been devalued. I felt like I was not worth anything.
She said that black workers who speak out face reprisal from managers, are blackballed and are at risk of receiving poor work references that will keep them from going on to other employers.
"It's the sense of being trapped that's the most disempowering, really," she said.
CBC News told ISED Diversity and integration are key public sector principles, but challenges persist.
"Over the past decade, there has been gradual improvement, but several differences exist. The lack of equity in leadership positions in the public sector, in particular, has been pervasive and must be tackled, "The department said in a declaration.
The department announced that it has formed a task force on diversity and inclusion and is committed to' resolving and undermining institutional and systematic bias and discrimination.'
"Through current staff consultation and safe space debates, we benefit from living experience."
Late last year, a coalition of current and retired Black civil servants initiated a potential class action lawsuit arguing decades of federal departmental segregation hindered them from getting promoted.
PCO claims current programs to encourage diversity
The Office of the Privy Council told CBC News that many measures are underway "to encourage greater diversity, integration and public service accessibility, including the establishment of a Diversity and Inclusion Hub."
"In a statement to CBC News, the department wrote: "The Center will co-develop strategies with staff populations and stakeholder groups that continue to face obstacles to equality and inclusion, using the lived perspectives of public servants to facilitate an active dialogue for meaningful change.
"Rideau Hall added that it is "committed to cultivating a work environment in which every worker feels heard and motivated, where genuine dialogue is promoted and ideals of public service are upheld.
The government of Trudeau vowed to "counter structural injustice" during its speech from the throne last September.
"Many people have raised their voices, particularly indigenous people and black and racialized Canadians, and have stood up to demand reform," Payette said, reading the address. "They demand us that we must do more. The department agrees."
Last week, at a news conference, Trudeau echoed the message and commented on the Black Lives Matter marches across Canada.
'I saw you,' Trudeau said Friday. "I've learned from you. And I concur. Time for reform is past."
But it's not enough for Trudeau to keep pledging to do more, Eli Hilali said. She also introduced an online petition calling for all students at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa to have comprehensive equality and diversity training to help eliminate discrimination.
"Anti-Black and any form of bigotry is not political; everyone needs fundamental human rights," El Hilali concluded in her letter of resignation.