Black perspectives on the health and social services system

Black perspectives on the health and social services system

This summer, the resurgence of the battle against racism in the United States is generating questions and discussion in Québec society. One thing clearly emerges from the debate: if we’re going to fight systemic racism,1 we first have to acknowledge that it exists. We asked two APTS delegates from Montréal’s Black community to share their views and experiences and tell us what they think might help, as potential solutions.

Alexandra Boisrond, who has been active in her local union since the age of 17, was born in Montréal: “My pet peeve is being asked where I’m from.” Arlene Chambers has been working in the field of rehabilitation for 27 years and is the health and safety officer on the local APTS team. Both are specialized educators at the CIUSSS Montréal West Island and are members of their local union executive. We asked them to give us a few examples of the kinds of racism they’ve experienced or witnessed.

“I’ve received racist comments in the guise of compliments,” says Alexandra. “I was criticized for not serving coffee at a meeting with community partners, as if it were obviously up to me to serve people. I’ve witnessed a number of situations where job applicants from racialized groups were rejected because their last name was supposedly hard to pronounce. I’ve seen a manager criticize a person of colour while she was speaking – he said nobody could understand what she was saying.”

Arlene adds: “In another union where I was in charge of grievances, on a number of occasions I saw people of minority background get reprimand letters based on arbitrary reasons.”

What is the explanation for these insidious displays of racism?

“If a workplace doesn’t have very many people of colour at the management level, there’s a good chance that people of colour won’t be appreciated and valued,” says Alexandra. “There’s a lack of awareness that keeps people from acknowledging their own prejudices. And that means they don’t know how to avoid expressing them. They’re uncomfortable with everything that has to do with racialized groups.”

Arlene agrees: the lack of managers from visible minorities helps perpetuate a culture of inequality that tolerates disparaging attitudes and racism. “The white majority won’t find it easy to accept a Black leader, even if it’s someone who’s very competent to do the job,” she says.

How can we rid the Québec health and social services system of these forms of prejudice?

“Education!” is Alexandra’s spontaneous response. “We need to offer more training for both employees and managers. Video clips with concrete examples could help people understand how insidious systemic racism can be and how much damage it can inflict on targeted groups.”

“We need visible action denouncing racism,” adds Arlene, who advocates zero tolerance of racism. “There should be more hiring and promoting of people of colour. And we need to create and encourage a platform where these issues can be addressed.”

What Arlene is calling for is simple: treat people of colour like you would their white counterparts, based on their competence, and let them be judged based on workplace policies and procedures rather than on arbitrary notions.

“What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” she says. “If it’s appropriate for a white person, it should be the same for everyone else. Our workplace should be a sane and safe environment. There are already plenty of challenges for people working in the health and services sector – the government doesn’t respect our work and doesn’t want to pay us what we’re worth. Do we need to demean a particular group of people to make us feel better?”

Are racialized women exposed to even more discrimination than men from the same group?

Alexandra and Arlene immediately affirm that they think so. Their comments reveal a concern shared by many women, regardless of their background: the fear of being seen as “aggressive” if they speak out too passionately or express a strong opinion. In a work sphere ruled by male standards, expressing emotion can be negatively perceived.

Why is it that debates about systemic racism often lead to a defensive response from so-called “old stock” Quebecers?

Alexandra believes that concrete examples would help people understand the issue better without feeling targeted. “It’s time to stop denying the problem out of fear of being called a racist.”

For Arlene, systemic racism is the reality of the society we live in, and people shouldn’t feel they are to blame if they haven’t done anything to warrant criticism. “Often people go on the defensive because they don’t know how to explain the inequality that exists” and don’t want to be the target of blame.

How can a union like the APTS help make the health and social services system more egalitarian?

“The union needs a clear policy direction, and members of cultural communities have to be represented in its structures,” says Alexandra. “The Québécois nation has evolved since the 1940s and ’50s. Quebecers from racialized groups have their rightful place and are entitled to be represented accordingly. Why not create committees to ensure that our members who are people of colour can meet and propose orientations that will benefit everyone? Also, the union should develop ties with community centres for racialized people.”

“As a union, we have a role to play and can make it easier to discuss these issues with the employer,” she adds. “Maybe we need to do a differentiated assessment of complaints related to job insecurity and harassment. That would give us a way to objectively assess whether the opportunities for employees to flourish and advance at work are the same for all groups.”

According to Arlene, in order to combat racism in the union movement, unions first need to admit that racism exists. Without acknowledging this, the motivation to take steps to eliminate racism will not be there.

This should be a priority for a union, whose mission is to stand up for the rights of all of its members.

Arlene also advocates the creation of committees to help people understand what racism is, how it has evolved, and how it can infiltrate and shape our perceptions and judgments in ways we are not aware of.

“The APTS needs to denounce racism publicly and push for change on every platform available to us,” says Arlene. “We have to engage in activities and actions throughout the year, not just during Black History Month. BLACK LIVES MATTER in the health and social services system.”


If you’re interested in sharing your experiences with us,  please send us an email at

1On this topic, see the article “Fighting racism the way we fought sexism.”

Main photo: Alexandra Boisrond (left) and Arlene Chambers (right), specialized educators in rehabilitation.

Interview by Élisabeth Circé Côté | By Chantal Mantha | July 24, 2020