Being Black in Canada: An interview with CSE employees Jonathan and Marie

Nurturing an equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment at CSE is essential.

As a public service institution and a key member of Canada’s defence, security and intelligence community, we understand that our success depends on integrating broad perspectives, experiences, and worldviews into our mission strategies and operations. Over time, we have invested in incrementally building awareness, credibility, trust and support among Canadians by reflecting the Canadian society we serve. That public support is critical in underwriting our license to operate in today’s complex global environment—one where we strive for transparency in our mission, but where much of our work still needs to remain in protected channels.

In recent years, we have redoubled our efforts to build the community we want to be, including through the creation of a People Committee to hear from employees and hard-wire inclusion in the full spectrum of policies affecting our workforce, by encouraging a wide range of affinity groups led by those seeking equity along with their allies, and through the many, many difficult and uncomfortable conversations that are necessary for healing and reconciliation.

Below is the first in a series of interviews, articles and other focused content intended to showcase the real difference our employees are making through their efforts to promote equity, diversity and inclusion at CSE.

Introduction

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Marie Calixte-McKenzie and Jonathan Gohidé, started talking to their fellow employees about their experiences as Black Canadians. Since November 2020, their presentation, Being Black in Canada, has been given over 20 times at various departments and has reached over 1,400 public servants. It has also been delivered and shared across the security and intelligence community, including with our Five Eyes partners. Marie and Jonathan are scheduled to present another 16 times during Black History Month 2022.

We had the privilege of meeting with them to discuss the impact of their powerful and moving presentation.

Can you tell us a little more about the Being Black in Canada presentation? What is its purpose?

Jonathan: There is so much to say! It is sometimes hard to put into words. For me, I tend to feel it more than I can express it. It was a bumpy road at the beginning. Now, I enjoy it more every time we present it. It is exhausting, but it feels good to share our message. The presentation is first and foremost about awareness of what Black Canadians face on a day-to-day basis: microaggressions, discrimination, and racism. One thing we keep hearing repeatedly is “oh, I wasn’t aware of this.”

Often, when we speak to others about what we go through every day, there are people who doubt our experiences and question us. They often ask, “are you sure that’s what it is?” It is about raising awareness for what it's like to be a Black person living in a country where they are not the majority. We wanted to be able to explain this to people, gain more allies, and help people get curious and do more research about the Black community in Canada.

Marie: The purpose of Being Black in Canada is to create awareness. I’m a change management practitioner, and I’ve done a lot of training on how to bring change into organizations. One of the techniques we learn about is the ADKAR model (Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement), which starts with awareness. And one of the best ways we could do this was by telling our story. Our presentation is made up of a collection of comments we’ve heard from colleagues in the organization over the past year, and it explains what the impact of those perceptions, biases and microaggressions has been on us. It is our way to educate people, so that in the future they cannot use, “oh, I didn’t know,” as an excuse and we can hold them accountable to a higher standard. Now that our colleagues and others know the impact of these comments and understand the ’why’, it will help bring forward the change we are all looking for.

It must be frustrating to learn of other people’s ignorance.

Marie: It’s not surprising. I try to put myself in their shoes. With all the work we've been putting into talking about the experiences of Black people, I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of things about other groups that I don't know about, like Indigenous peoples, for example. We only know what we know, based on our own life experiences. I could easily say I didn’t know about many other colleagues’ realities either until I took the time to learn about their struggles and experiences.

Jonathan: It is not frustrating when people are not in contact with this reality. What is frustrating is when people close to me say that they are unaware, even though I’ve been sharing my experiences with them for some time. What is even more frustrating is having them doubt me. Like Marie said, you don’t know if it’s not part of your world. Please don’t doubt someone that is living it every day, especially if you never lived it. It is easier to share my experiences with other people that are open and willing to learn, since it will result in a mutual exchange and enrichment.

What motivated you to create this presentation?

Marie: To be frank, this presentation was created out of anger and frustration. After the murder of George Floyd, I was mad. I cried. I was livid. I watched the video multiple times and bawled my eyes out watching it. That day, something changed for me, and I felt I wasn’t the same person after. After a few weeks, I started getting emails from corporate brands with whom I shop, denouncing the incident, but still hadn’t heard anything from my own workplace.

At work, almost no one spoke about it – it only came up amongst Black employees. No one reached out to me, or suggested I talk to CAP (CSE’s Counselling Advisory Program). No one checked in on me, and I did not hear anything officially from our organization. I asked some members of our senior management team if they were working on an all-staff communique regarding these traumatic events but was disappointed when a weekly message only referred to “current events” in a minimal way, rather than systemic racism.

I emailed the senior executives again, telling them I was not satisfied with their response. That’s when I received a more positive reply, and an upcoming message from our Chief was shared with me, which finally addressed the situation. That made me wonder, what if I hadn’t spoken up and asked? The event that fundamentally changed me would likely have not been addressed.

They don’t understand, so let me educate them is what I thought to myself. I took those feelings and went to my racialized community and that’s how I built the presentation. It was about 60 per cent done by July 2021, and in the last year, with the community’s feedback, we’ve been able to refine it. Our presentation continues to evolve, in November 2021, we made some updates, including a slide about racial gaslighting.

What kind of response have you received?

Jonathan: I’d say that 90 per cent of the people have had a positive response. They weren’t aware of these realities and were moved by the presentation, especially by Marie’s stories about her family.

One of our senior executives put us in contact with a professor at uOttawa who offers training to Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADMs) across the public service. He invited us to talk to him and see if we could present to the 2021 cohort. The professor was so happy and moved by the presentation, as were the participants in the class – all executive-level public servants. They appreciated how it focused on informing and not shaming, and now we’ll be presenting twice a year as part of their course. This senior executive who put us in touch ultimately saw this as a helpful tool for the whole government, not just CSE.

There were other Black employees who saw the presentation and told us it was nothing new for them, but they appreciated how it was presented. They thought it represented them and their experiences well. The presentation is not done in a disparaging tone, it is educational and encourages people to be curious and want to learn more. Indigenous peoples have also contacted us, saying they’ve felt similarly but not the same, and they were happy it was being talked about, and might have inspired others to talk about their stories.

Marie: There were also some people who were upset about the presentation because it caused them to reflect on how some of their behaviours may be problematic. They were confused as to how actions that seemed innocent to them could have such a negative impact on us.

What actions have been, or are being taken by CSE to address your concerns?

Jonathan: The organization has already evolved from when we first started giving this presentation. There seems to be a genuine desire to learn and speak up from our senior management now. Thanks to this presentation, the awareness it has created, and the conversations it has started, we’ve seen higher levels of management support us for these diversity and inclusion initiatives, when previously others may have tried to brush them off as less important than our day jobs.

There is still so much work to be done, but the Chief and other Deputy Chiefs (ADMs) are on our side to see changes happen, and to encourage us to speak up on topics that may challenge how things are being done or offer different points of view. Deputy Chiefs have asked us to work with them and move meetings around so they could participate in the diversity and inclusion conversations we have directly, not hear about them second-hand.

Marie: I find it has brought together the racialized and Indigenous employees at CSE, and that helped us create the EmbRACE Support Network, an affinity group for racialized employees and allies. As we met more as a community, we came up with eight action items that the organization could take to help our racialized employees. All the items have since been integrated in the Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) framework, so areas of concern will be, and are being addressed. The organization also understands our message about not staying silent when events happen that affect its employees. It is good to see them address it right away.

After the events surrounding the ‘Freedom convoy’, as much as I was upset about our previous silence and lack of action in June 2020, the message we received from the Chief addressing the hate symbols and their impact shows that we were heard. CSE has learned, evolved, and addressed it immediately, not after the fact when people complained.

What has this experience been like for you? What have been the highlights and disappointments?

Jonathan: Everything was a challenge. As a system administrator, I do have some interactions with people, but talking about myself and this topic means being very vulnerable with both colleagues and strangers. It has been quite a challenge, but I enjoy every second of it. At some point, I did have doubts because some people were trying to tell us the presentation should be used to change people’s minds, provide statistics, etc. But I quickly realized that's not what we needed. That's not why we’re doing it. It's to have allies. Convincing someone who doesn’t want to be convinced will lead nowhere. Speaking with people who want to listen and learn, is what this presentation is all about.

As someone who tends to feel things and has trouble putting it into words, it has helped me express those feelings and trust myself. The interactions with people, and the positivity we receive following presentations means a lot.

Marie: I’d like to say that this presentation wasn’t started from scratch. It was inspired by a draft that a friend had done. It was a very therapeutic experience to put my anger on paper, so to speak. The highlight for me was that something bad happened that made me angry, but that I was able to do something productive with it. What surprised me was that my first draft – which did stem from my anger – had such a big, positive impact. It was a constructive experience, and this is being shared across the public service now. The ripple effects of our words are being felt far and wide. After hearing our presentation, the Comptroller General of Canada tasked the whole financial management community to address diversity and inclusion.

The thing that was most disappointing was that the presentation only took traction in January 2021, once our Chief saw the importance of it, supported it, and promoted it. Some people were skeptical about sharing a story that could make others feel uncomfortable or bad about themselves, outside of Black History Month. This conversation should and needs to happen any time, not just because one month is dedicated to a certain topic.

What would you say to people who may want to initiate something similar in their organization?

Jonathan: What are you waiting for? Just go for it! Marie has taught me that things don’t have to be perfect from the beginning, and that workshopping things and adding as you go is okay – you can grow as you go. But having an idea, having a message to share is your first step. As you do it, as you work on it and present it and talk to people, it’ll solidify, and your presentation will become better and easier as you go. Don't worry about having something perfect to start. Perfection doesn’t exist. Begin with something and then it will improve with time and comments, making it the best version it could be

Marie: Go for it! I honestly thought I’d be fired for putting this presentation together, and I didn’t care. The thought of my kids having to go through what I went through... if the consequence was me losing my job, I’d happily go through all that. I want to ensure that if my son or daughter want to join the public service, they won’t have to deal with any negative experiences. It was a worthy sacrifice. It was scary to be so vulnerable, and to share so many personal thoughts, but it was worth it in the end. If I hadn’t done this, and made myself vulnerable, would I have the opportunities I have now? It helped me grow both professionally and personally. If you don’t do it, who will?

Marie and Jonathan are members of the Federal Speakers’ Forum on Diversity and Inclusion. Departments who are interested in hosting them as speakers can do so through the Forum’s website.

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