By Kieona George
On Thursday, a group of friends, former and current students, peers and employees at Ryerson waited for hours at 155 University Ave. to see if Carol Sutherland would get resolution–about nine months after the Ryerson employee was fired while on medical leave.
The negotiation hearing took place between Sutherland, a former employee in the Office of the Vice-President Equity and Community Inclusion (OVPECI), and Ryerson.
The eighth-floor suite of Atchison & Denman, a court reporting services company, was occupied by supporters coming in and out throughout the day. At least 13 people were waiting to know if terms of resolution could be agreed upon.
Sutherland, a Black woman who was formerly an employee in the OVPECI, was fired on Jan. 8 while on medical leave.
It was previously reported that she had what she thought was a heart attack and went to Michael Garron Hospital. Sutherland said she was told that it was a panic attack induced from workplace stress.
After going to a psychiatrist that Ryerson recommended because her request to see someone closer to her home was ignored, following a 21-page report from that psychiatrist, Sutherland said Ryerson terminated her.
Mandissa Arlain, a library technician at Ryerson who has been friends with Sutherland for years, was present. Arlain said she hopes that Sutherland gets to feel that justice was served. There’s a silence that accompanies processes like these when racialized people go through them, Arlain said.
“The silence just sits on our situations and we walk away almost in some cases taking the blame for the systems around us that create the situations we find ourselves in. In this case, Carol has been very vocal and she has put it out there.”
Four years ago, a Black Muslim woman was fired from her job at the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) while she was on maternity leave.
The hashtag #IStandWithGilary was used to show support for Gilary Massa, who was fired from her position three months into her maternity leave. Now, the hashtag #IStandWithCarol is being used by supporters of Sutherland to show unity and awareness to the violation of her worker’s rights.
The people supporting Sutherland
Maria, an assistant at the Ryerson library, whose last name we’ve omitted for privacy purposes, said that Sutherland is speaking to a structural issue that’s bigger than her. The issue, she says, “has existed long before she has and it will exist for some time to come.”
Maria became friends with Sutherland during the past year.
“I hope that this experience not only gives her what she wants, whatever that is, but validates the fact that she is a remarkable human being who’s done so much for the Black community at Ryerson,” said Maria. “And that those of us who are not a part of that community still support her and care about her because the work she does—its value is immeasurable.”
Jesse George, a Ryerson alumnus who describes Sutherland as a “pinnacle part of his career foundation,” stayed as long as he could before he had to go to work.
“She really helped me…from signing up for the right classes to navigating the classrooms,” he said. “Tragic is not the word to see what she’s going through now because not only was she that pillar for me but for many, many, many other students.”
George said Sutherland helped him through peer support, giving him strategies to resolve matters with faculty rather than intervening. On top of her administrative job, George said he saw other students go to her for support as well.
Sutherland was the founder of the Ryerson Black Faculty and Staff Community Network, an initiative to support Black faculty and staff members of the university. During the Labour Day march, Sutherland said the network is no longer operating since she was fired.
Johanna VanderMaas, manager of public affairs at Ryerson responded on behalf of the OVPECI to a request for comment on the negotiation hearing. VanderMaas said in an email that Ryerson University cannot comment on human resources issues regarding individual employees for confidentiality and privacy reasons.
Neither Ryerson nor Sutherland confirmed the result of the hearing to the Eye. Sutherland said she is not able to discuss the state of the negotiations.
“I guess I don’t really understand the logic behind the current scenario and her being fired. Ryerson’s administration has unfortunately depleting and diminishing reputation for doing right by not just persons of colour, but women,” said George, referencing the 2015 firing of Massa.
George said he would’ve “bet money” that a mistake like that wouldn’t have happened again after 2015. “It feels like there are people at Ryerson that unfortunately do not support the diversity brand, do not support the inclusion and that speaks to Ryerson’s brand going forward for the future.”
The difference in policy and practice
In the summer, Ryerson endorsed the Dimensions charter, a set of eight principles with the purpose of “increased research excellence, innovation and creativity within the post-secondary sector across all disciplines, through greater equity, diversity and inclusion.”
By endorsing the federal charter, institutions publicly show their academic community’s commitment to embedding its principles in their policies, practices and action plans, according to the site.
A current student at Ryerson who was present at the negotiation hearing and wished not to be named said that she was not surprised that a negotiation hearing took place. She said she knows Sutherland through the Racialised Students’ Collective, one of seven equity service centres part of the Ryerson Students’ Union.
“From what I know from this case it’s just part of the systemic racism that goes on at Ryerson and unless we make an observation that this is the trend to fire Black women specifically without just cause and without due process,” the student said.
Racism from faculty is something she said she’s experienced. She said she thinks that it’s hard for those who are a part of the institution to see how their individual actions culminate to what the institution is.
“I have a feeling that they know they’re in the wrong here and it’s when you have support that it becomes harder to silence one person and to dismiss one experience,” she said.
Arlain said based on her experience, if Ryerson was more transparent, it would help those who are underrepresented. Increasing transparency would show how people are treated and give those who are underrepresented information that they don’t have access to, said Arlain.
Racialized workers would also know what steps to follow to get access to the opportunities that the language at Ryerson suggests they should have, said Arlain.
“The structure itself I think threatens itself as much as it threatens workers, so transparency would be key I think to unravelling that,” Maria agreed.