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Death of Montreal worker prompts calls for city to do more to tackle workplace bullying

Death of Montreal worker prompts calls for city to do more to tackle workplace bullying

Marie-Hélène Henry loved animals and was always close to them.

She was an employee of the city of Montreal, working at the Botanical Garden. She also had autism, which is why she was regularly bullied at work, according to her best friend.

“We comforted her almost every day because she found it so difficult to go to work,” said Marie-Claude Piguet.

Henry committed suicide on August 12. She was 47.

Her death comes just months after the workers’ union filed a complaint with the city alleging abuse she endured at work.

Jean-Pierre Lauzon, President of the Syndicate of the regrouped blue cols of Montreal (SCFP 301) said in a statement that the union is shocked by the turn of events.

“We supported her,” Lauzon said, referring to the union’s effort to file complaints of psychological harassment with the city’s police department. Distribution of respect for the person — a department that handles such complaints.

“In the city of Montreal, the procedures always take a very long time.”

Lauzon said the union will conduct a thorough investigation to prevent a similar situation from happening again and will work 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 bullying had gotten worse in recent months.

“There are about seven pages of complaints that she gave to her union representative to get help. But that help didn’t come,” she said.

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

“We have many black and Arab workers complaining of harassment. Not only are they being harassed, but some are also being subjected to physical violence and intimidation,” said Director Fo Niemi.

According to Fo Niemi, director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), black and Arab workers in Montreal are often victims of harassment.

Fo Niemi, director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), said black and Arab workers in Montreal are often victims of harassment. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

When these victims file complaints with their direct supervisors, there is usually no response, he said. And when they go through human resources, still nothing happens, he said.

In this case, Henry was not a person of color, but someone with a disability, he explained.

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

“This really affects us,” he said. “This is happening in every part of the city.”

Charles says he took time off from work because of the harassment and understands how such treatment can affect a person’s mind.

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

Complaints of harassment prompt change

Intimidation among municipal workers is not a new allegation in Montreal.

A report commissioned by the city’s audit office and published in April 2021 noted a long-standing climate of tension among workers.

Workers “almost unanimously report being treated unfairly or discriminatorily,” said the report by Tania Sabia, an expert in labor relations at the Université de Montréal.

A second report that year, by an expert hired by the union, documented the same problems as the first. Written by Angelo Soares, a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, the report concluded that the workers’ allegations of discrimination were “founded” and urged the city of Montreal, the borough of Montréal-Nord and the union to take “urgent” action to correct them.

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

Marie-Hélène Henry worked for Montreal in the Botanical Garden. She was 47 when she died. (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 reviewing its human resources policies.

But Gino Clyford Lubérisse, a representative of the workers’ union in Montreal, said it is still not enough and that the disciplinary process takes too long.

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

Mayor says investigation is ‘right thing to do’

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

Henry’s relatives did not want to be named, but told CBC News that her work environment was toxic and a contributing factor to her death.

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

In a statement, city spokesman Hugo Bourgoin said Montreal will respect confidentiality and will not comment on the specific case.

However, the city strives to provide all its employees with a healthy and respectful work environment and is doing everything it can to achieve this, he said.

The HR department also continues to work to educate and equip stakeholders and managers to ensure there is truly zero tolerance when it comes to racism, discrimination and harassment, he said.

Employees who are struggling can take advantage of resources, such as an employee assistance program, Bourgoin said.

“There is an investigation underway and I think it’s the right thing to do. We will participate in it,” Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said when asked about Henry’s death during a news conference on Friday.

“And whatever comes out, we will take it and act on it.”

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