Civil Rights and Justice

“Powerlessness and silence go together. We should use our privileged positions not as a shelter from the world’s reality, but as a platform from which to speak. A voice is a gift. It should be cherished and used.” – Margaret Atwood

By now some of you may have read or viewed a news story this week about racism and discrimination in downtown Montreal, Quebec. The case, which has been ongoing for the past six years since I filed it in June of 2003, is something personal and at times, has been hard for me to talk about. But I am going to do it now.

Before I do, I think that I should explain why I have been fighting this case for six years. I feel that I owe the people who have come before me, (my ancestors who were slaves and fought for their freedom, those who struggled to survive and defy the whip, the denigration of their existence for the profit and comfort of others) a duty to stand up for my rights as well. They survived so that others would remember what happened to them and survived because they hoped that things would get better and were willing to put themselves on the line and work to make it so.

Hope is why people fight for justice. Hope that the country and society they live in will live up to the principals of its Charters and declared moral standards, hope that the declarations of politicians at election times also have weight and strength inbetween the time they want our votes again. That is why I am still pursuing this case after six years – hope. Hope for myself and hope for Canada.

A few people I’ve met suggested that I must be special or have some deep reserve of inner strength to be able to fight and publicly stand up for my rights. While I am flattered, I am not able to take credit for all my determination and resolve. Being someone who has read a bit about historical figures and struggles of the past, I understand that all that I enjoy today is because others have come before me suffered, fought, marched, petitioned, sang, prayed for and demanded the Civil Rights for all us that are written on our Charters and Constitutions.

Every female professional owns her career to the women who were the first ones through the door and who put up with the scorn, put downs and prejudice from those who wanted to keep women from being doctors, lawyers and whatever else they wanted to be. Every female politician in Canada owes her career in part to women like Agnes Macphail, the 1st female MP elected to parliament and her courage and determination to live her life as she saw fit, not by the limits others wanted to place on it.

Black people in the Americas would still be slaves if it wasn’t for the efforts of a people in Canada, the Caribbean, England and the United States challenging the will and racist policies supported by millions of others in Europe, North America and South America, who kept telling those who demanded their place at the table of freemen to wait just a little bit longer.

In the previous century, the many of the countries of the world twice banded together to challenge and defeat tyranny in Europe and Asia during WWI and WWII. They were fighting for the rights of freedom and justice of the common man and those efforts encouraged and inspired men and women around the world to fight and work for their place as equal citizens in their own countries.

Many countries in Africa and Asia would still be colonies if it wasn’t for the efforts of the freedom fighters and the other brave people who pushed back and demanded their freedom, demanded respect and their Human Rights. From Algeria to South Africa, India to the 1980′s in Poland, millions have done much more than I am doing. That is where my resolve comes from.

For the eighteen months I was employed at Les Ailes de la Mode, I was subjected to harassment and discrimination by my supervisors and the administration of the store. I took my case to the Quebec Human Rights Commission and after six long years, they decided in my favour. The case was referred back to mediation and while I have accepted that option, I have yet to hear anything from Les Ailes de la Mode/Fairweather Group. As it takes two to negotiate, it leaves the case once again in a stalemate of sorts. The question is what happens next? And what does this case say about what is really going on in Canada?

A few days ago, there was a shocking news story about a black man who was attacked by three white men in Courtney B.C., as well as a report of discrimination in Toronto towards non-whites looking to rent apartments. Earlier this year, there were reports of White Supremacist marches in Alberta. These types of stories and incidences lead me to have serious doubts as to the political will of our leaders to defend Canadians from abuse and discrimination.

Has the tension that has engulfed most of the world for so long finally reached us or is the veiled myth of a multicultural and peaceful Canada finally being lifted, exposing the real deeds and attitudes that have long been hidden due to lack of critical self examination of Canada’s identity by governments and the media?

Have the often repeated statements that Canada is a multicultural society and was the refuge of the American slaves via the Underground Railroad, during the mid 1800′s, blinded us to the real problems of discrimination and prejudice that exist within our country?

So far, I have listened to and read three of the news reports regarding my case. While I am sincerely grateful that the various members of the media have covered the story and broadcast it, I was disappointed that in the CBC News at Six broadcast on Wednesday July 8, they translated the meaning of the word Negre to Negro. Black and white people in Quebec know that using the word Negre – while being a literal translation of the word Negro – has the same weight and hateful meaning as the word Nigger. In light of the controversy surrounding Bye Bye 2008 and the racist jokes directed at blacks and Obama by Radio-Canada, I thought that the CBC would be more sensitive. Maybe there needs to be more positive images of blacks in Canada’s media for the news editors and writers to view their role as information providers with greater care and recognition of the pain that hateful slurs and acts cause. The on-air journalist also mispronounced my name by adding an “s” to the end of it. It is a minor detail to some, but when I listened to the report, I couldn’t help thinking about how many other names he has read correctly over the past that are much more complicated than mine, yet “Wood” was not pronounced correctly, he said “Woods”.

It shouldn’t be hard for any news organization (especially one with the important, long standing legacy of the CBC) to properly report on this story. From what I have seen thus far, the Montreal Gazette got it right in terms of the basic issues of the case, based on the information they received from the press release and the interview I had with them and other journalists. I thank them for their report and encourage them to continue their attention to details when reporting other stories.

This story is a big deal to me. It is what happened to me. It is part of my life story. I was repeatedly told by various people while working for a Canadian corporation to step aside, while other, white employees were hired after me and place above me. I wasn’t paid my salary, my hours were reduced by 2/3, while the company continued to hire and place more people in the department I was working in. Six years later, I received validation from the Human Rights Commission and now the case has been sent back to mediation. I am annoyed and frustrated by the time it has taken the decision to come out however, I remain confident that the Quebec Human Rights Commission can successfully fulfill their mandate and that if Les Ailes de la Mode and their current owners, the Fairweather Group are really serious about dealing with this case, a suitable settlement can be arrived at – perhaps before the next Federal election?

I do not know where the journey of my life will lead me but what I can say is that there is no way that I am going to turn my back on my Civil Rights because it is something difficult to do or that I might be met with scorn, jeers, threats or ridicule. If our Charter stands for anything at all, if Canada is really wants to be a world leader, point its finger at other nations, criticizing them for Civil and Human Rights abuses, then our leaders better make sure that the citizens who live in Canada, receive their full protection under the Charter.

This is time of the year when the world looks to Canada during the spirit of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, other music and film festivals that occur in our city, as well as the numerous festivals across our country and soon, the upcoming Winter Olympics. The diseases of racial discrimination and colour prejudice weaken and undermine the efforts of all of those who work to bring people together to celebrate our cultural differences under the banner of our common humanity and it also diminishes the credibility of politicians who are slow to act, when citizens are denied their Civil Rights.

To those of you who think that claims or discussions of discrimination, and prejudice are over exaggerated, I would contend that very often people live with their pain, misery, frustrations and embarrassments regarding this form of abuse in silence. For those of us who live in the western world where our governments and media fill our eyes and ears with the sweet sounds and sights of freedom, liberty, opulence and lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, when people are shut out of the everyday world due to the discrimination and prejudice that violates our hard fought for Civil Rights, many people simply retreat within themselves and hide their pain with bravado and other destructive behaviours to mask the shame they have at feeling powerless. I know because at times, I felt powerless too.

For whatever reason, my spirit will not allow me to become embittered nor wallow in despair and hopelessness. I am an optimist by nature and that is also why I persist. I believe in justice and the principals in our Charter that defend the rights of every Canadian to live a life without discrimination and persecution and to seek restitution against those who would violate those rights.

Good things come to those who work for them.

What is going to carry me through this is my brain, my heart, my will, my optimism and my faith in justice. Those are the fabulous gifts that have been given to me, that have allowed me to make good and dear friends from all walks of life, have wonderful experiences, share with others and guide my heart to a place of love, hope and strength. To those who are struggling with their own doubts, those gifts are there for you to claim too. You were born stronger and more resilient than you know, embrace it, meet the challenges of life head on and you will be rewarded with a sense of self-worth and the true possibilities of life. Do not worry about stumbles and setbacks, they happen to everyone. Just focus on your life and the things you really want.

Harmony, peace and love is the natural order of life. That is why people have fought and worked to defend freedom and Civil Rights, it is the natural law of life. But we must be vigilant and make sure that our laws and actions remain consistent with our true values of equality, liberty and justice.

“We who live in fortunate lands where we have inherited good things, are prone to accept good things, are prone to accept freedom, the most important of these good things, with an indifference which is the greatest threat to its continuance.” – Lester B. Pearson

To those who have fought and paved the path before me, working for the rights of others and their own with actions, words, songs and determination: thank you for the courage your inspiring stories and efforts have given me.

Lincoln Alexander – 1st African-Canadian elected to Parliament 1968
Thurgood Marshall – Lawyer, Supreme Court Judge
Sidney Poitier – Actor
Norman Jewison – Director, Producer
Denzel Washington – Actor
Lester B. Pearson – Politician, Winner 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, 14th Prime Minister of Canada 1963-1968
Pierre Elliot Trudeau – Politician, 15th Prime Minister of Canada 1968-1979, 1980-1984
Gordon Parks – Artist, Director, Photographer
Fredrick Douglas – Activist
Martin Luther King Jr. – Activist
Rosa Parks – Activist
Gandhi – Activist
Malcolm X – Activist
Bill Cosby – Comedian
Andrew Young – Activist, Politician
Jesse Jackson – Activist
W.E.B Du Bois – Activist, Writer
Muhammad Ali – Athlete
Steven Biko – Activist
Nelson Mandela – Activist, Lawyer, 1st Black President of South Africa
NAACP – Civil Rights Organization
Berry Gordy – Founder of Motown
Duke Ellington – Musician
James Brown – Musician
Miles Davis – Musician
Richard Pryor – Comedian
Dave Chappelle – Comedian
Eddie Murphy – Comedian
Oprah – Journalist
Quincy Jones – Music Producer
Jackie Robinson – Athlete
Maya Angelou – Writer
Stevie Wonder – Musician
Bob Marley – Musician
Krishnamurti – Teacher
Spike Lee – Director, Producer
Tyler Perry – Director, Producer
Will Smith – Actor, Producer
Robin W. Winks – Writer
Robert Johnson – Founder of BET
Barack Obama – Politician, Teacher, 1st African-American President and 44th President of the United States of America
and so many others…

Below you will find the press leases on my case. I thank CRARR for helping me with this case thus far and putting the press releases together. I encourage any and all of you to read them, reflect on them and come forward to your local Human Rights Commissions with your own stories and file complaints. The best way to deal with colour prejudice, discrimination and racism is to denounce it and expose it.

Press Release: com-wood-e-07-09 winstonwood-case-summary WinstonWood Chronology

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