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If the framed photos on the walls at Queen’s Park don’t lie, I’m the first and only racialized woman to have been appointed Deputy Minister of Economic Development in the history of the Ontario government. Not the only woman, though it’s a post that’s been largely male-dominated, and not the only racialized person, as there have been two racialized men in the job. The photos don’t go back a hundred years, but I’m willing to bet there’s no need for a fact check on this one.
I had a successful, 30-year career in the public service. I worked exceedingly hard and am proud of my accomplishments. I supported the government of the day in managing many tough files – Ontario’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the North American free-trade agreement among them. It was truly a privilege.
However, I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told, in the friendliest way, that I got to where I did because “I checked so many boxes.” Female, racialized, fluently bilingual. Notably in the economic and trade portfolios, but in most others, too, I was often the only racialized female in many rooms, at many tables. I held my own, but I’ve felt invisible, been ignored, even dismissed. I’ve been mistaken for the assistant and asked to fetch coffee, until it became clear I was actually chairing the meeting and in charge of the agenda.
I’ve been told, many times, by white men in positions of power – educated men on boards and executive teams, chief executives of major organizations and institutions – that they’re surprised and impressed by how well I speak English. I’d respond by saying I was impressed by their command of the language, too.
People have said I got ahead because I could “play with the Big Boys” – speak their language, roll with the punches, “fit in.” In a world that values conformity, those are compliments.
I’ve been approached by head hunters seeking “smart, racialized female executives who could transition seamlessly without rocking the boat.” Whenever I declined, I’d be asked if I knew any, since the firm “had no clue where to find them.”
In the workplace, I spoke up regularly on diversity issues, along with my diverse colleagues. I was regularly asked to be a Diversity Champion. And I agreed, because it was, and is, important to me. I’d suggest shaking it up – why not appoint someone who’d benefit from a better understanding of privilege and discrimination in the workplace? But that was rarely done.
I consistently tried to make the case for diversity from a business perspective. Don’t we want the most creative minds at work, to be challenged from all perspectives, to get the best outcomes? If everyone making the decisions looks, smells, sounds and thinks identically, how can we be world-class or address the needs of everyone in the province? Shouldn’t we want to actually be the best – not just best among people we know, who do everything our way?
I worked with extremely talented professionals, the vast majority not racist, the vast majority not racialized. But many leaders I knew struggled to identify examples of bias and systemic racism. They often squirmed about the optics and fairness of pro-active strategies to eliminate it, confusing that with tokenism.
Overt racism must not be tolerated, but systemic racism is insidious and must be eliminated, too. While only racialized people can know what racism feels like, everyone can make it their business to understand what it looks like and call it out. If people don’t recognize the problem, nothing can change.
There’s bias and unfairness everywhere. Some people just don’t have to think about it much, while others do all the time. Two years ago, I was interrogated on a cross-border shopping excursion with my in-laws. I was in a van full of (white) women. Only I was targeted, and more by the Canadian border guard than the American one. It was humiliating. Everyone was stunned. They kept saying “Tell them you’re the Deputy Minister of Immigration!” But I knew that would not have helped. People are always shocked when they hear this. Their incredulity comes from privilege and makes me see how far we have to go.
I’ve always been grateful my family chose Canada. I came here young; I’m proud of my Indian roots, and proud to be Canadian. I love this country and this province. Over the course of my career, I had the good fortune to travel extensively across Ontario to small, medium, large, northern and Indigenous communities. I had the privilege of working with excellent partners on important issues. I’ve had wonderful mentors. While preparing for retirement recently, I felt grateful for all of it. But none of that negates the fact that my family faced racism once here. That, even though I was raised and educated in Toronto, and made it to the top, I face racism still. That my children do, too.
I haven’t had it nearly as rough as others. I’m painfully aware of that. I’m privileged in many ways, but my trajectory was not common. I’m an immigrant, a child of divorce, a latchkey kid. I lived below the poverty line for the first 20 years of my life and was a single mother myself. I didn’t have connections, didn’t come from money. I progressed using intellect, resilience, determination and hard work. I experienced racism in all its ugliness – systemic, microaggressions and overt – at every level, including during my tenure as a Deputy Minister. I developed a thick skin. But, luckily, over the years, I was also given extraordinary opportunities by fair and open-minded people who saw promise and took a chance on me although I was an unknown. Perhaps I checked boxes. But they were smart and knew I’d deliver results. Their “unconventional” approach needs to become the norm.
Children of the Old Boys’ Club checked one big box in particular and benefited from that for centuries, qualified or not. If I ever benefited because I checked certain boxes, I couldn’t have sustained it without being doubly capable. Once, when I worried that would be the perception, a colleague said, “Who cares? Let people think what they want. They’re jealous. They use connections all the time. You competed and won. Take the job. Be a role model so others can see it’s possible. And then – kick ass.” Which I did.
We do not live in a meritocracy. Take a look at our boards and executive tables. Look at the photos and paintings in the halls of power. All lives matter, so until there’s fairness, equity and representation at every level, we have work to do.
Upon retiring, many well-meaning people approached me about what’s next, saying “You’d be great on corporate boards, even the Senate! A bilingual, racialized female. There’s such a shortage of those.”
There isn’t. They just haven’t been given the chance to realize their full potential.
Shirley Phillips lives in Toronto.