Humiliated, worthless — this is how Tamara White felt while working at the Kingston Military Family Resource Centre (KMFRC), which serves Armed Forces members and their loved ones on Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Kingston.
“I was very aware of the fact that I was the only Black person in the office,” White said.
White was an intake worker in the mental health department at the centre for about three years and says the experience made her ill and ultimately forced her out of the city. She has come forward, in the wake of worldwide protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd, to share how her mental health suffered due to alleged racism in the workplace.
During her time at the KMFRC, White claims her executive director, Colleen Fairholme, repeatedly touched her hair and commented on it in front of co-workers. She says she was sent to anti-racism seminars meant for management, despite her entry-level position, was not afforded funds for professional training that she claims were given to white colleagues and says she was excluded from a raise given to her entire department.
White eventually filed a formal complaint with the KMFRC, which launched an investigation that found Fairholme acted inappropriately in relation to one of the above-mentioned allegations and in one other instance. The investigation also found Fairholme’s conduct was “not motivated by a discriminatory intent,” and concluded that 10 other allegations made by White were unsubstantiated.
Alleged instances of racism
White began her employment at the KMFRC in March 2017 and resigned in February 2020, about five months after she complained to the board of directors about her treatment by Fairholme, the executive director of the organization. In June 2019, White also filed a human rights complaint against both Fairholme and the KMFRC, which includes many of the allegations put forward in this story.
Neither Fairholme nor the organization’s board of directors would comment about the allegations put forward by White due to the ongoing process with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). In its response filed in relation to the human rights complaint, KMFRC acknowledges two instances where the independent investigator found Fairholme transgressed, but denies that KMFRC or Fairholme acted out of discrimination.
White’s workplace complaints were investigated by a third party, John Curtis, a local conflict resolution specialist. Curtis has not responded to a request for comment.
According to the KMFRC’s HRTO response, Curtis found Fairholme’s touching and commenting on White’s hair to be “discriminatory harassment,” whereas her inquiry into White’s health issues when she requested a leave was found to be workplace harassment.
“She touched my hair and she’d make comments like, ‘Is it real?’ She would do this in very public settings,” White said.
In White’s official complaint to the board, she said she felt like she was being “petted” like “an animal.”
Simone Bruce, who is currently completing a predoctoral internship at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and specializes in the effects of racism on mental health, says experiences like these are commonplace for Black people and can often be extremely destabilizing.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. You don’t know where you’re going to be touched. That is an insane amount of stress, and it’s intolerable,” Bruce said.
White said co-workers noticed the hair touching and asked her if she wanted to make a complaint.
But at that point, White said she worried about rocking the boat and chose not to come forward because she doubted herself and her feelings.
“I’ve actually experienced people touching my hair, people commenting about my hair, people doing that even to my children. I’ve experienced it so much in my life that I almost had come to accept it as that was just what it was going to be,” White said.
The investigator also found Fairholme at fault for asking White why she was going on medical leave for the third time. Ten other allegations were deemed to be unfounded. Some of these include allegations put forward in this story, while others are related to Fairholme’s alleged treatment of other employees and the mental health team as a whole.
Despite the investigator finding Fairholme not at fault for the following events, White says they slowly chipped away at her mental well-being.
In June 2018, White claims she was asked by Fairholme to attend anti-racism training held by the Kingston Frontenac Anti-Violence Coordinating Committee.
White said Fairholme usually attended these committee events as a representative of the KMFRC but suggested White would be “perfect” for the seminar, despite her entry-level position.
“The connotation was, well, you’re Black, this relates to you, this will affect you so you should be there,” White said.
White said she believed the event was meant for more senior-level staff and says she was humiliated when someone she knew at the event asked her if she had gotten a promotion.
According to the committee, the event was meant for “members of Kingston and Frontenac’s anti-violence community — including staff, directors, survivors and those who advocate for a community free of violence.”
Overall, White felt sending her was an empty gesture, since she claims she was never asked to share what she learned at the seminar with staff at the KMFRC.
White also claims that when she was hired as an intake worker, it was promised that the KMFRC could pay for her to register with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers. Considering she had a three-year degree from Quebec in special care counselling, she said she simply needed the registration to be able to perform counselling services in Ontario.
When two people in the department went on maternity leave, White says the mental health team was struggling to keep up with counselling clients, and she thought she could move into the role of a counsellor if she obtained the professional qualifications. But despite others in the department receiving funding for licensing, White said that option was revoked before she could benefit from it.
“I had asked time and time again for work to pay for me to get my licence. And (Fairholme) just didn’t do it. She refused to do it,” White said.
Global News has been able to independently verify that White was pursuing these qualifications and that others she was working with at the time were afforded these benefits before her.
The KMFRC notes in its HRTO response that White had “taken issue with not being selected for advancement opportunities,” but that she never “submitted any applications for these competitive job processes, which is a key step for being considered for such opportunities.”
After months of the organization having trouble filling those two maternity leave positions — essentially because the pay was too low, according White and other sources — White said Fairholme repeatedly promised those left in the department a raise as compensation for their extra work.
A raise came for some employees in February 2019, but White says she was the only member of the team excluded from the salary hike. A former employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, claims that one employee on maternity leave and two other employees in the department received a small raise, but White did not. They also claim two new employees were later hired on a higher pay scale.
“When I found out, I was livid. It was literally like a smack in the face,” White said.
Global News has spoken to former employees of the organization who said it’s possible that White did not receive the raise because it was meant for counsellors and not for White’s position as an intake worker.
White still stands by her claim that she was included in promises for a raise, and that she was never given a reason as to why she did not receive one.
“The board didn’t give me a good reason. I actually sat in a meeting once with one of the board members who made a comment about people complaining about salaries and we should just be grateful for what we have,” White said.
The complaint process
On Sept. 16, 2019, White sent her formal complaint to the board, listing the above grievances, among several others.
In October, at the next board meeting, four members of the board and two candidate members resigned. Note that sitting on the KMFRC board of directors is a volunteer position. Global News has reached out twice to each of those board members, none of whom would comment on why they resigned.
The current board offered the following statement about White’s allegations:
“Kingston Military Family Resource Centre has taken Ms. White’s allegations very seriously since they were first received. When those allegations came to our attention, the matter was fully investigated by a neutral third party and all individuals involved had the opportunity to speak with the investigator. At the conclusion of the investigation, appropriate action was taken.”
Complaints were also sent to Military Family Services, the umbrella organization that operates a “stewardship” role for all military family service centres across the country. Laurie Ogilvie, director of Family Services, says the KMFRC is a “family-governed, provincially incorporated, federally funded non-profit partner organization. As such, the KMFRC board of directors is the employer of record,” and therefore, she said, Military Family Services would neither comment nor take part in the investigation.
The same complaints were forwarded to CFB Kingston Base Commander Kirk Gallinger, who noted that although the KMFRC is on the base, its board of directors is directly responsible for workplace-related issues.
Gallinger said he was aware of the complaints and felt it was important to take the experiences of the KMFRC staff seriously.
For her part, White said she was never given a copy of the final investigator’s report but was offered to view the report under supervision on KMFRC property, something she said she was not comfortable doing.
Although the KMFRC has opted not to comment on any specifics for this story, Global News has received a copy of the organization’s response to White’s human rights complaint, in which it confirms White was offered the chance to look at the report on KMFRC property.
Further, in its response to White’s human rights complaint, the KMFRC noted the investigator found there was no malice on Fairholme’s part behind any of the allegations listed above by White.
The response from the KMFRC said Curtis found that “while (Fairhome) ought to have behaved in a different manner, her conduct was not motivated by a discriminatory intent. The investigator also found that Ms. White’s allegations, while mostly unfounded, were not brought in bad faith.”
In the end, the results of White’s investigation led the board to implement “corrective action,” according to a letter from board president Catherine MacLean, in the form of diversity training for Fairholme. White, who was on sick leave, took several other weeks off, and then was instructed that her paid and approved leave had run out and that she must come back to work.
Despite the board’s corrective action, White felt the board misunderstood the impact of Fairholme’s actions.
“The explanation was just that Colleen had no ill intentions, and I’m not OK with that. I’m not OK with that as an answer or as an excuse. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are,” White said.
White said that at the very least, she was looking for the board to acknowledge the acts of racism she described in her complaint and their impact on her as a Black person.
“This is a board of directors that has continued to make me feel victimized and has not even, at the very least, not even offered me an apology,” White said.
“I basically begged, pleaded and demanded an apology, and nobody is willing to give me that.”
In their response to White’s human rights complaint, the KMFRC refutes any wrongdoing on its or Fairholme’s part, except in the two instances where Curtis found Fairholme to have transgressed. Still, the organization stands by Curtis’s interpretation that Fairholme was not acting out of discrimination.
“While KMFRC acknowledges that the applicant strongly holds the belief that discriminatory treatment based on race have permeated every element of her employment, the neutral third-party investigation clearly concluded that this is not the case. Strength of conviction should not be mistaken for proof of such treatment,” the response read.
Mental health impacts of racism
Curtis, the investigator, most of the board of directors and Colleen Fairholme are all white. Bruce noted that having a group of white people investigate a Black person’s experience of racism can be problematic because white and Black people have different lived experiences.
“(White people) go into a space, oftentimes, they don’t think about race or think about racial differences, they don’t think about culture in the way that we do,” Bruce said.
She added that in many cases, a white person can’t understand how a Black person may be feeling because the “normative” white experience isn’t one that is attuned to systemic racism.
“(White people) are able to ignore or deny or erase the experiences of people of colour, particularly Black people,” Bruce said.
Ingrid Waldron, a professor in the faculty of health at Dalhousie University who recently finished a report about self-care methods used by Black women who have experienced trauma, said oftentimes, it’s hard for white people to really hear a Black person’s account of racism because it means accepting fault for actions people don’t like to attribute to themselves.
“There’s just kind of a natural inclination on the part of many white people to say, ‘You know what I feel? I feel attacked, you’re calling me a racist.’ It’s easy to get your back up, so then you’re not listening,” Waldron said.
This can lead to self-doubt and confusion for a Black person who may be noticing instances of racism but is not having those experiences validated by the majority of people around them.
“That’s what racism does to racialized peoples. It makes you question yourself because you can’t identify, you don’t know where it’s coming from. You don’t know what’s causing it and then you blame yourself,” Waldron said.
It’s these processes of self-doubt that White described going through while working at the KMFRC.
“I would go through these really dark periods and I would go, ‘Hey, man, you’re imagining things. You’re making a big deal out of nothing. You just need to be more vocal, you just need to be more positive, you just need to do a better job,’” White said.
During her time with the KMFRC, White took three mental health leaves. The first was in late 2017, the second was in late 2018 and the third was in the middle of 2019 and resulted in her complaint process with the organization.
White said each of these leaves was prompted by severe mental illness, and through therapy, she began to understand that these bouts of depression were related to her treatment at work, especially by Fairholme.
“I just started to have this constant feeling of being worthless. I started to dread running into her in the halls. I was having difficulty sleeping. My mood was really affected,” White said.
Waldron said some of the experiences White described, especially the hair touching, sounded like microaggressions — insults based on racist stereotypes experienced by people of colour on a daily basis.
“It’s another way in which white people deny the humanity of Black people, because in many ways, she’s just a symbol. She’s a thing that can be touched,” Waldron said.
These types of daily aggressions can “erode or chip away at a person’s sense of self, their self-esteem and their emotional and mental well-being,” Waldron said.
The undercurrent of these microaggressions is systemic racism, which can be more subtle and difficult to identify.
“If you, for example, keep going up for promotions and you keep being denied it, the natural response would be, there’s something wrong with me. I don’t have the skills. I don’t have the credentials. I’m lacking,” Waldron said.
Waldron also noted the mental health system in Canada is not appropriately set up to treat a Black woman’s experience with racism and that the Canadian Public Health Association has only recently stated that racism is a significant detriment to mental health.
For White, the added stigma of her mental health issues became a contributing factor to her poor experience at work. She said she was feeling sick because she felt discriminated against and that her mental illness was also affecting how she was perceived as a worker.
“It was just like a neverending cycle,” White said.
Waldron said if a Black person’s experience of racism and the resulting mental health impacts are not legitimized, this can cause a Black person to worry about how race is affecting the perception of them in the workplace.
“I heard colleagues of mine say that I always make sure I go to work. I never take (time) off because they are worried about how Black people are seen as always taking a day off, because we might be perceived as lazy,” Waldron said.
Bruce said navigating these two worlds — of how a Black person feels and worrying about how they are perceived — is something white people don’t have to do or think about.
“I’m constantly thinking about not only the job I have to do that day, I’m also worrying about how I’m being perceived by other white people as well. And so that is a dual consciousness thing that we have to do that white people are completely unaware (of),” Bruce said.
White said it was only leaving the job and moving back to Montreal, where she had the support of her family, that allowed her to fully unpack her experiences at the KMFRC and start to try to work through the pain they caused her.
Why she came forward
On June 2, several months after White resigned and following the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, Minn., who was killed in police custody, the KMFRC posted the following statement on its Facebook page: “As many of you may be aware, there is a social media movement happening right now in response to an important matter.”
White, and two other employees quickly commented, calling out the post for neglecting to name the Black Lives Matter movement or mention racism. Considering the post was meant to offer support for people affected by racism, some, including White, found it to be emblematic of the organization’s lack of understanding of racial issues.
The KMFRC responded to the comments as follows:
“Thank you for raising your concerns, we greatly appreciate your input. KMFRC values people, diversity, and equality. We strive to treat all those we partner with, employ, and serve with dignity and integrity.”
But the response did not satisfy Jessica Ho, a former summer worker at the KMFRC’s child-care centre. She says she was so incensed by the post that she sent a letter to the centre and CFB Kingston, asking them to reconsider their social media strategy.
“An important message in this movement is that we can only stop racism if we notice it, name it and act. Racism is therefore not a bad word or topic,” Ho wrote in her letter.
Ho worked at the KMFRC in the child-care department as a summer student for two summers, and despite finishing her employment there in 2016, seeing the post made her realize the centre was not equipped to speak about racism because, as she said, it lacked diversity.
She says she remembered a time from the daycare centre when a white staff member was talking about an Asian child at the daycare centre with behavioural issues that weren’t being treated.
“I remember that co-worker rolling her eyes and saying, ‘Well, it’s for cultural reasons,’ and I was in the room and I don’t remember if we made eye contact or anything, but it’s just that non-understanding and thinking that her culture is better,” Ho said.
Over the last few years, Ho said she has become better educated on issues of racism, and when she saw the Facebook post from the KMFRC, it brought up memories of feeling alone there as one of the only people of colour.
“It frustrated me because they don’t know how to talk about racism. When I was there, and then I realized that that’s what I was feeling at the time, but I didn’t know better and I didn’t know how to express it,” she said.
Ho said she reacted to the post because she was worried for people of colour using the centre going forward.
Ho had never met White and did not know at the time she wrote her letter that just months before, White had quit after years of feeling discriminated against.
The KMFRC did not respond to any of the allegations put forward by Ho.
At the time of the Facebook post, the organization also had two pictures up on its Facebook page of two white men at a Halloween party in 2018 dressed in black afros and gold chains. Those pictures remain on the organization’s page. KMFRC has not responded to a request for comment about the pictures.
As for White, she is currently set to go to mediation with the KMFRC for her human rights complaint. She is employed somewhere else in the Montreal area and says she has made great strides with therapy and the support of her family and was ready to move on from her experience at the Kingston organization.
But seeing the Facebook post, which named the Black Lives Matter movement as “a social media movement” and an “important matter” amidst the fury and the calls for change the movement sparked, White felt that the organization had learned nothing from her complaint process.
“We are here right now as a world because racism has been so hidden and covered up and downplayed and minimized for centuries, and they are directly contributing to the problem by not naming it,” White said.
White said that despite feeling afraid of making her story public, she hoped sharing her experience might be an agent of change at the KMFRC.
“If me speaking out is what drives change, then my experience, as s—-y as it has been, it happened for a reason,” White said.