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Contractors and trade unions have pledged to crack down on anti-Black racism and hate of all forms after a number of recent incidents

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Black Lives Matter signs adorn construction barriers around the Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto. Last fall, nooses were found on the worksite and someone put anti-Black graffiti on the hoarding.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Marlon Wesley had only been at work for half an hour when he discovered the noose.

A piece of standard yellow rope had been carefully wound and tied in the threatening knot, and was draped across his lift on the half-built Michael Garron Hospital in east end Toronto. A second one, he noticed, was slung over a nearby equipment cupboard.

As a Black pipe welder, Mr. Wesley had learned to stay silent about the racism he’d encountered over 13 years working in Ontario’s construction industry. That’s what his mentors advised him to do, and it’s what they had done before him. But this time, things felt different. It was June 10, 2020, and protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality were raging across North America in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police just two weeks earlier.

It was around 7 a.m. and there were only a few people on site at the time. But as Mr. Wesley looked around, he felt dizzy. Construction work is dangerous. You’re high above ground, using heavy machinery. It’s teamwork, and in that moment, he questioned who he could count on. He decided to report the incident to a supervisor.

“You have to know that the people around you are commendable men and women,” he said.

The incident that morning would mark the start of a disturbing trend. Over the course of the summer and through the fall, at least a half-dozen nooses were reportedly found on Toronto construction sites. At Michael Garron Hospital, two more nooses were reported at that same worksite in September. And in October, someone scrawled anti-Black graffiti on the site hoarding, using a racial slur and calling for a “purge.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory publicly denounced these acts of hate, and within the industry, too, contractors and trade unions pledged to crack down on anti-Black racism and hate of all forms.

A police task force was launched to investigate these cases, made up of officers from the Hate Crime unit as well as investigators from each of the local divisions where they’d been found. But more than one year later, Mr. Wesley’s case is the only one in which charges have been laid – and the man who was charged is now dead. Jason Lahay, 34, an electrician, was charged with mischief and three counts of criminal harassment, before he died in a single-vehicle car crash in March. (His lawyers did not respond to interview requests from The Globe, but confirmed Mr. Lahay’s death during a scheduled court appearance in April).

The charges had been reassuring to Mr. Wesley – an acknowledgment that what happened to him was a crime. He feels for Mr. Lahay’s family, but is also disappointed that there will be no opportunity for justice through the courts.

But ultimately, he said, this problem is much bigger than one noose, or even six. The incidents have laid bare a broader issue of racism within the industry, where workers say racist jokes and slurs are an insidious and endemic part of the culture. This exposure has sparked a reckoning at a critical moment, as the industry pledges to recruit more Black, Indigenous and other racialized or marginalized workers into the trades – a pursuit the provincial government has committed tens of millions of dollars towards in the past year alone.

It is difficult to get a true picture of racial diversity in the construction industry in Toronto, or across the province, because of a lack of data. However, industry stakeholders say racialized and marginalized people have been largely left out of this economy, and that those who do penetrate the sector are more often clustered at the bottom, in the less-desirable positions or trades.

As a result, some fear a recruitment pledge is putting the cart before the horse. Industry leaders first need to tackle the bigger problem: the casual racism that seems to infect so much of the industry.

The Globe and Mail spoke to several Toronto-area construction workers who reported seeing or experiencing racist behaviour from colleagues both in person and online.

“When you complain about it, you’re looked at as a headache, or the problem itself. You’re the problem, because you don’t have thick enough skin,” Mr. Wesley said.

As a result, many are reticent to speak up, said Chris Campbell, a conductor with the Carpenters’ Union, Local 27 – one of the few Black union executives in the city.

“They can only walk away or keep smiling and keep going, because they have their bills to pay and their family to support,” Mr. Campbell said. But there are lots of subtle every day experiences, he said, that are “just as hurtful as seeing a noose.”

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Cars and pedestrians pass the Michael Garron Hospital. Lack of data makes it hard to accurately measure how racially diverse Toronto's construction sector is, but industry stakeholders say marginalized people tend to end up in lower ranks and less desirable trades.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The breadth of the construction industry’s racism problem was illustrated in a 2017 Ontario Human Rights Tribunal decision involving a young Black construction worker who said his boss created a “racially poisoned work environment” that included routine use of racial slurs.

The boss did not only admit to using that language, he argued it’s so common in construction that it should have been expected.

According to the HRTO hearing documents, the supervisor “acknowledged telling the applicant that he had to get used to racial comments because this is how the construction industry is.”

He testified that he says this to everyone, and tells them to “let it run off like water off a duck’s back.”

In his decision, the HRTO vice-chair noted that the boss’s attitude toward racist comments in the workplace “suggests that he has become accustomed to the use of such comments on construction sites and believes that they should simply be accepted.”

The man was fined $20,000, and was ordered to take an online Human Rights 101 course through the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Three years after that decision, last summer’s noose incidents show that little has changed – and attitudes are holding fast.

Just two weeks after Mr. Wesley found the noose hanging on his equipment, a young Black apprentice arrived to work at the CIBC tower project at 81 Bay St., where he found another noose hanging from the ceiling on the 27th floor. “[He] was distraught,” recalled Mr. Campbell, who spoke to the young man that day. “He was worried that someone’s going to throw him off the building.”

Two days after that, another noose was found – this time at a high-rise project in Regent Park, hanging from the ceiling on the 29th floor. The day after that, another one, hanging from a beam at the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project at Fairbank Station.

In an e-mail response to interview requests by The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Police Service said its task force “finalized its operation” back in December, after the arrest of Mr. Lahay, though the other noose files remain open.

A perpetrator was identified in the Eglinton Crosstown LRT case. Though it is unclear whether he was investigated criminally, Mr. Campbell said the man – a carpenter – was fired from the job site, and then resigned from the union.

With many of the noose cases still unsolved, Mr. Campbell acknowledges that it often falls on the victim to ensure their safety. In the CIBC building case, for example, he recalled how the union helped the apprentice to find a new worksite.

He knows it’s unreasonable that the victim of this incident should be the one to have to relocate, Mr. Campbell said, but as long as the perpetrator’s identity remains a mystery, he can’t guarantee safety at that site.

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The future site of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT's Fairbank station. A noose was found at this construction site at Dufferin Street and Eglinton Avenue West.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Since last summer, several new groups and initiatives have cropped up with a goal of addressing the industry’s racism problem.

A new coalition of Black contractors, called the Afro Canadian Contractors Association (ACCA), has launched with a goal of increasing business opportunities for Black-owned contracting companies in the construction industry, not just in Toronto but across Canada.

General contractors, subcontractors and unions have also established individual committees and working groups to address racism within their ranks.

Ellis Don, the contractor for the Michael Garron Hospital site, has launched an internal association known as the Alliance of Black Employee and Experience Leadership (ABEEL), to make workplaces safer and more inclusive. One initiative included putting up anti-racism posters on job sites with a link to an online survey for workers about improving workplace conditions.

Within Mr. Wesley’s own union, the executive team says they have recognized a need to be more pro-active about addressing racism. In the aftermath of the noose incidents, Robert Brooker, the business manager for UA Local 46, said he looked for available educational tools but had trouble finding any.

He does not deny there is a problem, but he believes that the industry is changing. Within their union, he points out, the membership elected its first Black president last fall.

Roodney Clarke said leading the union is meaningful because young Black tradespeople will see themselves represented.

“It means a lot to me too, for the membership to choose me to represent them,” he said.

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At the Michael Garron Hospital site, construction company Ellis Don put up a pro-Black Lives Matter sign last September after the noose incident. It also launched an initiative to put anti-racism posters on job sites that directed workers to an online survey about workplace conditions.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Last summer, Premier Doug Ford pledged $21-million toward preapprenticeship training programs aimed at getting more under-represented communities into the trades. And Ontario’s Prevention Council, a cohort of industry, union and workplace safety experts who advise the government on a range of occupational health and safety issues, has revised its mandate to include issues of racism.

In Toronto specifically, Mr. Tory held a roundtable with construction stakeholders, which led to the drafting of a “declaration of inclusive workplaces,” to signal a zero-tolerance policy for hate within the industry.

Rosemarie Powell, the executive director of the non-profit Toronto Community Benefits Network, believes that more action must be taken to protect marginalized people.

While Ms. Powell welcomes the provincial government’s recent investment in recruitment and training, she stresses that preapprenticeship training programs are not going to be enough.

She wants to see evidence that people are staying and building careers in this industry.

“The government needs to be more intentional to make sure that it is a welcoming place for underrepresented groups,” she said.

On the Eglinton Crosstown project – an $8.5-billion transit project in Toronto – her organization was able to secure a commitment that 10 per cent of all trade or craft hours would be performed by Black or Indigenous people, or people from other underrepresented groups.

The community benefits model is one that’s being slowly adopted across the province, and one Ms. Powell believes has the potential to make a real difference in changing the makeup of the industry.

But in a city as diverse as Toronto, she believes those hiring targets should be mandatory across the board – written into procurement contracts even before the bidding stage.

Still, Ms. Powell believes better data are needed around the career paths of racialized people in the trades.

IBEW Electrician Kimoy Francique, who sits on the board of directors for the Afro Canadian Contractors Association, overseeing apprenticeships, agrees data are key – not just for union membership figures, but also tracking the actual hours worked by members of multicultural backgrounds.

“We get on the job, and then we get laid off,” she said.

In the construction industry, some trade unions effectively operate as staffing agencies, deciding which of their members go to which jobs.

That means that when most of the union is white and male, those are the people who are getting sent to jobs, Ms. Francique says.

Ms. Powell agrees: “If you don’t have a brother, uncle, a father – you know, historic relationships within the industry – it’s extremely difficult for you to be able to penetrate that system.”

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A sign at the Michael Garron site warns people not to post other signs. More than a year after the nooses were found here, the man who reported the first one is frustrated at a lack of transparency in how racism is being addressed in the workplace.Melissa Tait / The Globe and Mail

For Mr. Wesley, the noose was not even the most hurtful part of what happened to him that day last June. It was what came after.

An electrician colleague of Mr. Lahay criticized him for reporting the noose to higher-ups, telling him “you people” blow everything out of proportion.

“Those nooses were meant to be a joke,” Mr. Wesley recalled him saying. “We used to tie those nooses when we were kids.”

The rants continued the following day, when the man got up in his face.

“He goes, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ ” Mr. Wesley recalled. Already on edge, he took a swing.

Colleagues quickly pulled them apart, but the man was injured. Mr. Wesley said that while the man wanted him charged, police – after learning the context of their exchange – declined to lay any. Similarly, though there is a zero-tolerance policy for physical violence on worksites, Mr. Wesley said he was welcomed back by the employer. His union, too, has been in regular contact, stressing their support.

But a year later, he is still unsure what consequences the other man faced for his comments.

In a phone interview, Lee Caprio, who took over as business manager for IBEW Local 353 in December, confirmed the man faced charges internally. But he said he could not offer any details as the matter is before the union’s trial board.

“Obviously, we haven’t done enough,” he said of the industry’s racism problem. “I can’t fix the past. But I can certainly work towards the future.”

That lack of transparency is frustrating for Mr. Wesley. “There needs to be examples made,” he said, saying that members of the electricians’ union petitioned union leaders to take action. “This is not okay. You can’t do this. These men have put my life through hell.”

For years, he has shrugged off racism on construction sites. But there comes a tipping point.

“It gives me great pause,” he said. “I don’t want to do it any more.”

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