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Racism a problem at Hudson Bay Railway maintenance shop, some employees say

Disrespectful language, the singing of a racist song and lack of advancement opportunities will be investigated, Arctic Gateway Group said Feb. 2.
Several employees of Northern Manitoba’s Hudson Bay Railway told the Winnipeg Free Press that they had seen or been subjected to racist behaviour by colleagues, particularly at the maintenance shop in The Pas. Arctic Gateway Group, which owns the railway and the Port of Churchill, said Feb. 2 that it had appointed a former board member to investigate the allegations.

A former board member of Arctic Gateway Group. which owns the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill, is looking into allegations of racism at the Northern Manitoba company.

Christian Sinclair, a former chief of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, was appointed Feb. 2 to conduct an independent review into allegations of racism reported by the Winnipeg Free Press

The Free Press reported that several employees of the Hudson Bay Railway said they had witnessed or been subjected to racist behaviour at the roundhouse and maintenance-of-way garage in The Pas, where about 15 mechanics maintain locomotives.

One employees said he saw a colleague call another employer a "lazy f***ing Indian” in 2020 and that, in the spring of 2020, four white employees were heard chanting a white-supremacist song about killing Black people and Jews. A formal complaint filed with the railway and Unifor Local 100, which represents most of the employees, alleged that there was harassment, insufficient training and attempts to get Indigenous staff fired. An Indigenous employee told the Free Press that Indigenous employees didn’t get adequate training during their probation period, when they earn 20 per cent less than the full union rate, making it harder for them to pass tests to get promoted.

Arctic Gateway Group CEO Sheldon Affleck told the Free Press that the railway does not have a problem in its shops and that a meeting was held last year during which staff agreed to a fresh start and to stop bringing up past incidents.

Acffleck said there had been zero incidents since then,

Sinclair told the Free Press he had called that meeting when he was co-chair of the board and that the decision to let bygones be bygones was made because there was difficulty establishing what happened and who was at fault.

“In a First Nations-majority owned company that’s the last thing we want,” Sinclair said, referring the fact that Arctic Gateway Group is owned by a consortium of northern First Nations and communities, who were able to purchase the railway and port from former owner OmniTrax with help from millions of dollars in federal government funding. “So I’m hoping the new board that’s there makes that loud and clear to the management team, and they cut that cancer out immediately.”

The Free Press reported that two short-term employees who raised Indigenous employees’ concerns with management land union officials last summer were let go shortly after bringing up the subject.

“Unifor understands that addressing systemic racism and creating a sustained culture of respect and inclusion takes time to embed,” said union spokesman Ian Boyko. “The Unifor representative did commend the parties for engaging in serious efforts to address concerns of racism in the workplace. That does not mean this work is done.”

Federal Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said the allegations were serious and should not be tolerated and urged Arctic Gateway Group management to take them seriously and take appropriate measures.

The Free Press reported that Affleck disputed allegations of racism from anonymous employees and said that making false allegations of racism was as bad as racism. In a statement after the article was published, he said the company wanted to ensure a safe and respectful environment for its 130 employees, 70 per cent of whom identify as Indigenous.

“I have made it clear to all our employees since day one that there is no place for racism in our workplace,” said Wednesday’s statement from Affleck, who became CEO last spring.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said it couldn’t have been easy for the employees who went to the media with their stories to speak up and that he was glad to hear Sinclair was investigating their claims.

“As First Nations citizens, we are constantly confronting racism in various sectors such as health, justice, education, etc,” said Settee. “While institutions have begun developing anti-racism strategies, it would be encouraging to see a concerted effort to address racism at a systemic level. As we can see from recent events across Canada, there is much work to do in addressing racism and confronting white supremacy.”

-with files from Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

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