Alberta is calling and professional racialized women are answering — some, to a rude awakening | CBC News

Lungile Tinarwo had high hopes of establishing her own law firm and prospering when she first moved to Edmonton.

“Everybody talks about… there’s an abundance of work, there’s this, there’s that. But I’ve never felt more alone and marginalized than since starting my practice here,” Tinarwo said. 

Ten years after leaving Toronto, and as the province continues to target skilled workers in Ontario and the Maritimes with its Alberta is Calling campaigns, she’s having regrets. 

Work in Edmonton for racialized women is a double-edged sword, experts say. The city is attractive for its affordability and opportunities, but social exclusion, unfair pay, dismissals and inequitable treatment are driving some out. 

Pay discrepancies 

The latest data from Statistics Canada shows median income after tax for Edmonton men was $47,200 in 2020, compared to $36,400 for women. For Black women in Edmonton that median is lower still, at $34,800. 

Bukola Salami, a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said the workforce is separated by gender and race. 

“Racialized hierarchies exist in the workforce,” Salami said, adding that the discrepancies are also having an impact on children. Black children and Filipino children are the only children that do not surpass their parents’ level of education, Salami said.

“One of the reasons is because when you have parents that are highly educated and not doing too well in their profession, then you, as a child looking at your parents, you’re like, ‘Well, you got the education, you’re not doing too well. So why do I have to get the education?’ So it has an influence that crosses across generations,” Salami said. 

Heather Campbell, a Calgary-based energy professional, receives a salary survey annually from her regulatory body, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), that reveals the wage gap between men and women, but does not include race-based data. 

“I know in my heart, in my head, that there is an additional wage gap as a Black woman,” Campbell said. “But I have no data that actually validates it. 

“That’s really, I would say, a symptom of our leadership and our culture in Alberta.” 

“There is this really obnoxious theory about merit. You know, as a Black woman, I couldn’t possibly receive any position or achieve anything based on merit. It clearly has to be some sort of accommodation that has to be made, or they’re hiring me to fill some sort of quota or something like that,” Campbell said. “Um, I have more degrees than the former premier, and more degrees than the current one too. But that’s another story.”

Law field improving

While Edmonton’s Black population has increased to 5.7 per cent in 2020 from 4.4 per cent in 2015, a lack of diversity compared to cities like Toronto is difficult to navigate professionally and socially, Edmonton lawyer Crystal Lawrence said. 

The situation in Edmonton is slowly improving, Lawrence said. 

“You’re going to be able to find a lawyer here, for example, who might also go to a Caribbean party with you,” Lawrence said. “So that culture is, I think, changing a bit faster in Edmonton than it is in Calgary.”

It’s also helpful that younger justices, in their 50s, are being appointed nowadays, Lawrence added. 

“That means that they themselves probably would have been exposed to more diversity when they were in law school or even not in law school, but at least when they were practicing lawyers,” Lawrence said. 

A woman smiles outside at an urban street intersection.
U.K.-based film producer Jimi Okubanjo says her time in the corporate world was a consistent career of verbal abuse, physical threats and sexual harassment. (Submitted by Jimi Okubanjo)

U.K.-based film producer Jimi Okubanjo, a former C-suite executive of multinational corporations, left her high-paying job to create the film Arise Firebird, about women of colour overcoming workplace trauma and finding joy.

“It was a consistent career of verbal abuse, physical threats, sexual harassment, and me just internalizing and normalizing it,” Okubanjo says of her time in the corporate world. “And when I left, not a single member of my peer group reached out to find out what’s going on.”

Some of the women interviewed for the film said they had a fantastic income. 

“And they were still being treated so badly,” Okubanjo said. “To the point where one of them was contemplating taking her life.”

Fired ‘without cause’

In a lawsuit, Dawn Carter, the former executive director of the Pride Centre of Edmonton, claimed that throughout her tenure with the centre, she was “bullied, harassed and unfairly criticized” by the board.

On Feb. 17, 2022, the day after emailing the board outlining “the perceived bias in the workplace against Black women,” Carter was terminated without cause, according to her statement of claim filed in January at the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta.

In a statement of defence filed July 8, the Pride Centre denies that Carter was bullied, harassed, or unfairly criticized by its board. 

“The Pride Centre made this decision to terminate before the Plaintiff raised any concerns of perceived bias, which the Pride Centre maintains are unfounded, and the Pride Centre specifically states that the termination was unrelated to the Plaintiff’s stated concerns,” it states. 

The centre declined an interview request, but in an emailed statement, said it is “committed to fostering a supportive and inclusive environment for all individuals, regardless of attractions, identities, and expressions.”

Edmonton workplaces are not accommodating of racialized women, especially single mothers, Tinarwo said. 

Cultural differences, like spending time at church on Sunday, when many lawyers are attending events like golf tournaments, have resulted in missed opportunities to meet other lawyers or judges who could open doors for her, or connect her with high net worth clients, Tinarwo said. 

For the sake of her daughter, Tinarwo is not giving up on Edmonton. Instead, she’s closing her business here.

In September, she’s going to work for another law firm, in the hopes of removing some of the barriers she’s faced working on her own, including lack of access to financing to fund her firm. 

A woman sits holding a pen to a stack of papers on a wooden bench.
Ten years since moving west, Tinarwo says Edmonton workplaces are not accommodating of racialized women, especially single mothers. (Submitted by Lungile Tinarwo)

Kim-Ann Wilson, president of SASS Marketing Agency, said stories of racialized women being undermined in the workplace are the norm.   

“That sense of overwhelm and having that shared experience in being qualified, having the experience, having the skill set, the knowledge, the know-how, yet still being overlooked constantly,” said Wilson, who decided to organize a conference for women in Edmonton in August, to help them work through the challenges.

“I’ve seen so many women going through the same struggles. And it wasn’t enough just to do a reel on Instagram about it,” Wilson said. 

Anti-Black racism plans

Edmonton should look to cities like Toronto and Halifax for best practices to address racial discrimination, Salami said. 

The City of Toronto’s anti-Black racism plan has been in action since 2018. 

Those struggling could reach out to community organizations, such as the Africa Centre in Edmonton, or the Alberta Black Therapists Network, Salami added. 

Daria Nordell, a policy and communications specialist for the City of Edmonton, said the city committed to developing an Anti-Black Racism Action Plan in 2022, “to address and acknowledge the local and unique experiences of racism by Black individuals and communities in Edmonton.”

The final plan will be released “shortly,” Nordell said.

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