Montreal worker’s death prompts call for city to take action on workplace harassment
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Montreal worker’s death prompts call for city to take action on workplace harassment

Marie-Hélène Henry loved animals and was always around them.

She was a city employee of Montreal, working at the Botanical Gardens. She was also on the autism spectrum and was therefore regularly bullied at work, according to her best friend.

“We comforted her almost every day because going to work was a huge challenge for her,” said Marie-Claude Piguet.

Henry committed suicide on August 12. She was 47 years old.

Her death came just months after a labor union filed a complaint with the city over alleged abuse she suffered at work.

Jean-Pierre Lauzon, President Montréal Blue Team Syndicate (SCFP 301) said in a statement that the union was devastated by the turn of events.

“We supported her,” Lauzon said, citing the union’s efforts to file complaints of psychological harassment with city officials. Division of respect for the respected person — the department that deals with such complaints.

“The procedures in the city of Montreal are always very long.”

Lauzon said the union will conduct a thorough investigation to prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future and will cooperate with the Quebec Workplace Safety Council (CNESST) in launching its own investigation.

7 pages of complaints

Henry’s father died of cancer last October, and Piguet said the abuse had escalated in recent months.

“There are about seven pages of complaints that she filed with her union representative to get help. But no help came,” she said.

On Friday, the Center for Research and Action on Race Relations (CRARR) held a press conference on the ongoing harassment issues among city employees.

“We have a lot of black and Arab blue-collar workers who complain about harassment. Not only are they being harassed, some are also being subjected to physical violence and intimidation,” said executive director Fo Niemi.

Montreal worker’s death prompts call for city to take action on workplace harassmentMontreal worker’s death prompts call for city to take action on workplace harassment

The executive director of the Centre for Research and Action on Race Relations (CRARR), Fo Niemi, said black and Arab manual workers in Montreal often face harassment.

The executive director of the Centre for Research and Action on Race Relations (CRARR), Fo Niemi, said black and Arab workers in Montreal often face harassment. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

When victims complain to their immediate superiors, there is usually no response, he said. Then, when they go through human resources, nothing happens, he said.

In this case, Henry was not a person of color, but a disabled person, he explained.

Also present at the press conference were manual workers who made their own accusations against the city for harassment. Among them was Maxime Charles, who offered his condolences to Henry’s family.

“It really moves us,” he said. “It’s happening in every neighborhood.”

Charles said he took time off work because of the harassment and understands what such treatment can do to a person’s psyche.

“We’re fed up. We’re tired. We’re scared,” Charles said, calling for immediate action.

Harassment complaints prompt promise of change

Harassment among city workers is not a new allegation in Montreal.

A report commissioned by the city’s auditor general and published in April 2021 described a long-standing climate of tension among blue-collar workers.

Employees “almost unanimously report unequal or discriminatory treatment,” says the report, authored by Tania Sabia, an industrial relations expert at the Université de Montréal.

A second report this year, from an expert hired by the union, documented the same problems as the first. The report, written by Université du Québec à Montréal professor Angelo Soares, concluded that the workers’ allegations of discrimination were “substantiated” and called on the city of Montreal, the borough of Montréal-Nord and the union to take “urgent” action to fix them.

Marie-Hélène Henry worked in Montreal at the Botanical Gardens. She was 47 when she died. Marie-Hélène Henry worked in Montreal at the Botanical Gardens. She was 47 when she died.

Marie-Hélène Henry worked in Montreal at the Botanical Gardens. She was 47 when she died.

Marie-Hélène Henry worked in Montreal at the Botanical Garden. She died at the age of 47. (Submitted by Marie-Hélène Henry’s family)

In June, after months of hearings and public meetings, Montreal introduced a new procedure for reporting discrimination and harassment while also overhauling its human resources policies.

But Gino Clyford Lubérisse, a delegate for the Montreal workers union, said that was still not enough and the disciplinary process was taking too long.

“We ask how much longer we will have to wait,” he said. “Who will be responsible for this?”

Mayor says investigation is ‘right’

Montreal’s official opposition said in a statement that what Henry went through was unacceptable. In addition to the CNESST investigation, the coroner’s office is also investigating the circumstances of the woman’s death.

Surviving members of Henry’s family did not want to appear on camera, but told CBC News that the woman’s work environment was toxic and that it contributed to her death.

They are calling on the city to provide managers with more tools and training to help them deal with harassment.

City spokesman Hugo Bourgoin said in a statement that Montreal would maintain confidentiality and would not comment on this specific case.

However, the City is committed to providing a healthy and respectful work environment for all of its employees and is committed to making every effort to achieve that goal, he added.

The HR function also continues to work to educate and equip stakeholders, as well as all managers, to ensure that the principle of zero tolerance is truly embodied when it comes to racism, discrimination and harassment, he added.

There are resources available to employees who are going through tough times, such as the Employee Assistance Program, Bourgoin added.

“There is an investigation underway and I believe it is the appropriate course of action and we will participate in it,” Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said when asked about Henry’s death during a news conference Friday.

“And whatever comes out of that, we will take it and take action.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where you can get help: