Clash over article by Black manager leads to high-profile resignations at PSAC

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is amarkai-laryea.JPG
Amarkai Laryea stepped down from his position as acting director of PSAC’s representation and legal services branch. (Amarkai Laryea/Facebook)

Amanda Pfeffer · 

CBC News · Posted: Sep 25, 2020

The PSAC building in downtown Ottawa. Representing more than 200,000 workers, it’s Canada’s largest public service union. (CBC)

Canada’s largest public service union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), is in turmoil after the resignations of two senior leaders over the handling of allegations of anti-Black racism.  

PSAC national executive vice-president Magali Picard resigned from her elected position on Sept. 16, a week after Amarkai Laryea stepped down from his management position as acting director of the representation and legal services branch. 

CBC obtained an email sent by Laryea on Sept. 9 to his colleagues, explaining his decision to step away from management and return to his original job at the union.

He said he had been approached by Picard and PSAC national president Chris Aylward “raising concerns” about an article he was invited to write for an internal newsletter.

Laryea said the article talked about “microaggressions experienced at PSAC.”

The comment had the impact of telling me that when I am a director, I need to leave my ‘Blackness’ at the door…- Amarkai Laryea

“During that discussion I was told by Magali that, ‘I am talking to you as a director, not as a Black person,'” Laryea wrote.

He said her comments “had the impact of telling me that when I am a director, I need to leave my ‘Blackness’ at the door; that my experiences are not always welcome; and that my experience as a Black person should not always impact my role as a director.”

He said it was “hurtful and ironic” that while discussing his article about experiencing microagressions, “I was subjected to another microagression.”

CBC reached out to Laryea for comment but he did not respond to requests.

Picard: ‘That is not true’

The following Saturday, Picard tried to clarify her version of events during an appearance on a Facebook Live event called Union Matters.

“I know you’ve got information, but unfortunately you have part, and slight, information,” Picard told the host of the program, Nicholas Thompson, who is not a PSAC employee, but a federal worker and local union president.

On Sept. 12, PSAC’s national vice-president, Magali Picard, right, addressed the issue of anti-Black racism during a Facebook Live show hosted by Nicholas Thompson, left. Picard resigned four days later. (Facebook)

Without mentioning Laryea by name, Picard denied that there were “microagressions” perpetrated against someone because of what he wrote in the newsletter.

“I can assure you 200 per cent that is not true, never, ever,” she said, emphasizing the publication was supported and paid for by the union. 

“We have to ask questions before going with assumptions,” she said about the private discussion. 

Picard, an Indigenous woman, said she would never try to muzzle someone, and said as an organization, the union is trying to move forward on the issue of equity for Black, Indigenous and racialized employees.

Calls for Picard to resign

However, her comments seemed to inflame matters for a number of PSAC employees, with at least three widely distributed letters sent to the executive calling on them to repair the damage from Laryea’s resignation. 

One of the letters called for Picard to step down. 

Three different groups of PSAC employees called on the union’s executive to repair the harm cause by the resignation of Amarkai Laryea. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

A day later, PSAC posted a communique on its website announcing her decision to do just that. 

“The past month has been a difficult one, personally and professionally,” Picard is quoted saying in the release. “It is the right time for me to focus on the needs of my family.”

She did not directly address the growing tension over her leadership, but noted the resignation “comes at a difficult time for our organization as we grapple with building a more inclusive union.” 

CBC spoke with Picard, who declined a formal interview. She explained she cannot share the details of what happened in the meeting with Laryea because of employee confidentiality, but said she recognizes that he was hurt by their exchange.

She said the timing of her resignation, which she explained was necessary due to pressing family needs, is unfortunate, and said she’s heartbroken to think that after a lifelong career working for Indigenous and women’s rights, she might be remembered for this incident.

Aylward: ‘I take full responsibility’

Chris Aylward declined CBC’s request for an interview, but provided a statement suggesting that on the issue of addressing systemic racism, “we continue to make mistakes.”

Aylward acknowledged “a recent incident” that led to the resignation of “a director who is a Black Person.”

PSAC national president Chris Aylward said in a statement following the resignations: ‘I accept full responsibility for this and have committed to put the union on a path that will start a process of healing.’ (Robyn Miller/CBC )

“I deeply regret the course of events that led to his decision. Our entire organization is worse off,” he wrote.  

I accept full responsibility for this and have committed to put the union on a path that will start a process of healing…- Chris Aylward, PSAC national president 

“The circumstances of this senior leader’s resignation have upset staff across the union, but Black, Indigenous and other racialized staff have suffered particularly hard — they are hurt, angry and disappointed.

“As PSAC’s National President, I accept full responsibility for this and have committed to put the union on a path that will start a process of healing.” 

Promising to turn words into action, Aylward said PSAC will create a “properly staffed oppression prevention team” to bolster the work of the current “Oppression Prevention Coordinator.” He said the effort would lead to more training and education, adding the union will also create an “anti-racism committee.”

‘No one wins’

Nicholas Thompson, who hosted the Union Matters Facebook event, said employees of the federal public service represented by PSAC — particularly Black, Indigenous and racialized workers — have been alarmed to see their own union struggle as an employer to recognize and address systemic racism within its own organization.  

“I think it’s a sad day for labour,” said Thompson about the two resignations. 

“We’re still facing these issues, and two racialized managers are the casualty, so I don’t consider this a victory.”

Thompson said marginalized groups in the federal public service are counting on their union to learn from this so it can address the very same problems faced by the workers it represents in the public service who in turn serve all Canadians. 

“We can’t get a better workplace that is representative if our own union doesn’t get its act together with regards to systemic racism and systemic barriers.” 

Source: CBC News