By Manuela Vega
Carol Sutherland’s union is filing three grievances against Ryerson. The former staff member is accusing the university of wrongful termination, discrimination on the basis of disability, anti-Black racism, bullying and harassment.
A closed-door arbitration hearing will be held on Sept. 9, according to Sutherland. She’s represented by Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 596.
In January 2019, Ryerson administration fired Sutherland while she was on medical leave. At the time, she was the special projects co-ordinator in the Vice-President’s Office of Equity and Community Inclusion (OVPECI).
Sutherland had worked at Ryerson for nearly 15 years, created the Ryerson Black Faculty and Staff Community Network and received recognition for being an advocate for Black students, staff and faculty. Sutherland has been vocal about her desire to be reinstated as special projects co-ordinator.
Ryerson’s public relations declined to comment further on the matter, telling The Eyeopener that “Due to confidentiality and privacy requirements [Ryerson] cannot provide information or clarification regarding the particulars of the matter” in an email.
Ryerson did not agree to an open hearing in which Sutherland’s supporters could attend, according to the union lawyer representing Sutherland. After hearing both Ryerson’s and Sutherland’s sides during preliminary hearings, an arbitrator decided that the hearing should be closed-door, said Sutherland.
Sutherland said she sees this as an attempt by Ryerson to silence her and hide the institution’s actions during the hearing.
“People are afraid if they speak out, something is going to happen”
“My story is a very public story,” said Sutherland. “If [Ryerson is] going to lie and they’re going to villainize my character, then they should have the decency to [make the arbitration hearing] public, so everybody can hear the lies.”
Further, Sutherland insists that many Black staff at Ryerson have been “dehumanized” and subsequently “pushed out” of the university.
“People are afraid if they speak out, something is going to happen,” said Sutherland. “It has to stop.”
The Toronto Star first broke the news that Sutherland’s union had filed grievances against the university, that she had filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) and about her accusations. The HRTO hearing will be held off until the end of the arbitration hearing.
In January 2019, Ryerson told Sutherland she was fired for “misappropriating sick leave and for frustrating and/or misusing the complaint process,” according to her termination letter.
This came after Sutherland went to the hospital in December 2018 for what she believed was a heart attack, she previously told The Eye. However, she said she was later told that she was having a panic attack due to workplace stress.
Sutherland said she had to go to Thornhill for an independent medical exam with a psychiatrist recommended by Ryerson—a move that her own psychologist informed the university would cause more stress and anxiety.
Ryerson dismissed her request for a psychiatrist closer to her home before the university’s recommended psychiatrist wrote a 21-page report on her, according to Sutherland. Shortly after, Ryerson terminated her employment.
Sutherland said she believes the psychiatrist did not act as an impartial medical evaluator, but instead, teamed with Ryerson to terminate her employment.
Additionally, Sutherland believes the claim that she frustrated or misused the complaint process in her termination letter was a method for Ryerson to punish her for being critical of the university.
Upon finding out about the termination, the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) condemned the university’s firing of Sutherland in a letter to the administration signed by almost fifty faculty members
“This attack on her employment is part of a larger tradition of systemically erasing Black staff and faculty from Ryerson’s campus,” former Ryerson Students’ Union president Rajean Hoilett, who initiated the letter, previously told The Eye.
“I live with the fear of reprisal or threat of reprisal”
Supporters also marched with Sutherland on Labour Day last year, wearing black t-shirts that read “#IStandWithCarol.”
In 2015, Sutherland said she filed formal complaints that her managers had harassed and discriminated against her. Ryerson hired an external investigator who reported finding no discrimination or harassment. The report was 182 pages long, said Sutherland.
She said she sees this as Ryerson “performing” that it is taking action while reviewing and exonerating itself, since the university chooses and pays the lawyer who conducts its investigation, according to Sutherland.
She further sees a disparity between how Ryerson handled her complaints versus the findings of the Anti-Black Racism Campus Climate Review (ABRCCR).
The report says, “Black staff at Ryerson are adamant that anti-Black racism is a defining feature of their work life at the university.” Staff cited both day-to-day racism and systemic issues such as pay disparities, being stuck with precarious contract positions and “inability to move up the ranks”—all issues Sutherland had brought up in a letter to president Mohamed Lachemi in August 2018.
“It’s a good start that [Ryerson] acknowledges anti-Black racism, but [it has] to go deeper,” said Sutherland.
The Black Liberation Collective (BLC) at Ryerson previously said the ABRCCR gave only vague recommendations and critiqued the administration for failing to publish a plan for implementing the recommendations, as well as for not ensuring that the committee tasked with implementing the recommendations was comprised of people who would be accountable to the Black community at Ryerson.
Sutherland said she believes the report should have addressed her case directly, as well as that of other Black staff. She added that if Ryerson wants people to see that it is a university “that stands on integrity,” then it should reinstate her.
In the 2018 letter to Lachemi, Sutherland wrote of experiencing discrimination on the basis of faith and gender in the OVPECI, in addition to the racism, ableism and bullying she said she had been subjected to since 2015 in numerous departments. “I live with the fear of reprisal or threat of reprisal,” the letter reads.
“The very office that is charged with executing the mandate to hold the university accountable for equity and inclusion has subjected me to the same practice and behaviour it was created to disallow,” it continues.
The Star reported on the discrimination Sutherland said she faced in the OVPECI, which ultimately led to panic attacks, including the one she said she had in December before being fired. It included executive director Darrel Bowden threatening to send Sutherland home for the clothes she wore—ripped jeans and a high-neck shirt.
After Sutherland went to the hospital and took a six-week-leave, Bowden issued a written warning to Sutherland for insubordination, for “not completing work as assigned and leaving the workplace without prior approval”because he said she raised his voice at him on the day that he threatened to send her home, according to The Star.
“This attack on her employment is part of a larger tradition of systemically erasing Black staff and faculty from Ryerson’s campus”
Sutherland told The Star she had gone to the dentist and would not raise her voice, as she was trying to prove she was not a “problem employee.” She then filed a formal complaint, Ryerson launched an external investigation and she was given a new supervisor, she told The Star.
The letter to Lachemi concludes with Sutherland saying she feels “great sadness” that she must consider filing a human rights complaint against Ryerson for the “injustices” inflicted upon herself “and many other Black employees.” Sutherland only filed a complaint with the HRTO in February 2019, after being fired.
Lachemi never responded, but human resources sent Sutherland a note with two dates to pick from to meet with an investigator. The investigator later cancelled for the day Sutherland had chosen, and Sutherland received a date that fell on her medical leave, The Star reported.
Sutherland did not want to come in while on leave—which began a string of issues Tamar Myers, her new supervisor, claimed to have with Sutherland. They included “serious concerns” around insubordination, according to The Star. Myers later suspended Sutherland for three days without pay before the final incident that occured while Sutherland was on medical leave in January 2019.
Sutherland said her priority is to get her old job back. Currently, she is the vice-president of services and finance at CESAR.
CESAR received a request from Lachemi’s secretary for Sutherland not to be present in meetings between the president and the association, said Sutherland.
However, Sutherland said CESAR declined the request. She added that she will continue to “fight for Black workers” and is “obligated to the students.”