In 2020, George Floyd’s death and other incidents marked a turning point for many individuals and organizations. Anger and frustration were common reactions, and the events opened the eyes of many to the existence and prevalence of systemic racism in North America.
For Marie Calixte-McKenzie, Manager of Corporate Applications at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), these events led her to create “Being Black in Canada,” a presentation that provides insight into what Black employees at CSE may be experiencing. Marie soon joined forces with Jonathan Gohidé, Computer Systems Analyst at CSE, and the pair became Speakers with the Federal Speakers’ Forum, where they have shared this presentation with fellow public servants across Canada. It is their hope that, by sharing their lived experience, they will pave the way for many more conversations about race in Canada and in the public service.
We sat down with Marie and Jonathan to chat about their backgrounds, the creation of their “Being Black in Canada” presentation, and their experiences with the Federal Speakers’ Forum.
Here is our conversation…
The Federal Speakers’ Forum and “Being Black in Canada”
You are both public servants at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) with an interest in employment equity and diversity. Can you describe your journey to becoming members of the Federal Speakers’ Forum?
Marie: I spent most of my career working in IT. Employment equity, diversity and inclusion were never part of my day-to-day job. I was attracted to it because it was an amazing way to meet and collaborate with others who looked like me, which helped me not feel alone in the organization and build a network of people who understood my reality.
At Industry Canada, I was a member of the advisory committee for visible minorities, and when I arrived at CSE in 2005, I looked for a similar committee, but none existed at that time. When the events of the murder of George Floyd occurred in 2020, a lot of the black professionals at CSE felt overwhelmed with different types of feelings, such as anger, frustration, and feeling misunderstood. Many of us felt as though change was never going to happen.
And this is when we created the presentation. We offered it to the organization during Black History Month and the word got out, connecting us to the FSF.
We’ve given a few presentations to various government departments but we’re hoping to continue to leverage this forum to get our reality as Black Canadians out to the rest of the public service.
Jonathan: I’ve been working at CSE for 20 years, and I was not involved in diversity and inclusion. When George Floyd was murdered, Marie mentioned the deck she was working on and she asked me if I was interested in giving this presentation with her. At that time I was not ready, and told her I would think about it. On my way home my wife told me that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with such an inspiring person. So, I reached out to Marie to join her, and that was my introduction to diversity and inclusion.
Can you tell me more about your “Being Black in Canada” presentation?
Marie: As we get more questions from various folks, as we attend training related to unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion, and as events across the world happen, we take the time to go back to the presentation and modify it to include that new information or the news we’ve heard.
Let’s just say, the version we have right now is night and day from the version we began with. It has to do with the fact that we became more comfortable and more knowledgeable speaking about a topic that is so taboo.
Initially, I thought that the presentation would be career-limiting, if not, I honestly thought that it would get me fired. During our first presentations, I was very hesitant and careful, and I was afraid to push the envelope as much as we are doing now. As we got more comfortable and received feedback from others, we were able to add more content and share more of our personal stories.
I first shared the presentation with my own management team. My DG is the first person I spoke to. He had been my D&I co-champion for about 2 years, so he had a good foundation on diversity and inclusion, and he knew how passionate I was about this topic. So, I tested the waters with him. I sent him the deck, I let him read it, and then he requested to see me. He started to action some of the items that were included in the deck and he apologized for having been silent.
Just by looking at the deck it woke up something in him and educated him. He said, “Marie, you need to share this.”
I hit some roadblocks along the way - some people felt that it was too uncomfortable, and we would turn people that could be allies against our cause because we were making them feel uncomfortable.
I was told that I should remove everything uncomfortable in the presentation. I was asked to remove about 85% of the content.
Finally, my DG asked me what was happening and why I wasn’t presenting it. I told him about the challenges I was experiencing. He thankfully helped me navigate some of these waters. Ultimately, it was when our Deputy Minister Shelly Bruce was made aware of this presentation, that things really took off. She reviewed the deck and didn’t ask us to remove or change anything. She said: “This is your content, Marie. It’s a well-constructed presentation. My over-riding interest is that honest, open conversations happen. Those will be uncomfortable at times, but we must have them, or we won’t go forward. Thanks for sharing.” She became our main supporter, and it is thanks to her support that we were able to present it to the entire organization for Black History Month.
Facing challenges and sharing personal stories
Were you discouraged at any point during this process?
Marie: Yes definitely. I was also worried about how this could impact my career progression in the government. I still pushed forward, as I decided that my career was not as important as the message. I had to do it because I didn’t want my kids to go through what I’ve gone through. It was important that I speak up for them. If, in the end, it impacted me negatively, it was still worth it.
Can you share any of the personal stories that are part of this presentation?
Jonathan: That presentation is hard on us because we are re-living the entire injustice. Every time we talk about it, we’re giving everything we can emotionally. It takes a toll every time. At the end of the presentation, after the adrenaline is gone, we must just try to stop and try to calm down because it’s really taxing.
Myself, it’s not easy to share because most of the things that we are talking about, it’s not necessarily in your face all the time. The way we live with and experience racism in Canada it’s not the same as in other countries like the US. For us it’s not in your face.
For example, I went to pick up my wife at a party and she was with other coworkers in a restaurant, so when I entered there was a lady that started yelling at me. She said, “I’ve been waiting for you!” I said what are you talking about? I don’t know you. She said, “You aren’t my cab driver.”
So, this kind of racism is not obvious, and it can be hard to explain. As part of the presentation, we are giving examples of what we’re living every day as Black people. When you drive your car, and when you see a police officer, you start asking yourself: will this police officer stop me and judge me?
Marie: We talk a lot about our personal lives and our challenges and dilemmas and try to give our audience an idea of what it’s like to be Black, and how to raise our children who will ultimately be treated differently.
I tell the stories of my twin brothers who are 38 years old. They’ve been targeted by the police for quite a while. For a period of 3 months, one of them was being stopped by the police multiple times per month.
I also talk about my experience as a Black woman: How, for some reason, people feel they have the right to come and touch my hair without asking me first. I talk about the importance of hair and what it means. We still need our personal space, and we are not just objects that you can touch without asking. There still needs to be some respect.
We also mention how at work, in meetings, most of the time, we are the only Black person in the room. I also share how I’ve also never had an interview where I’ve had another Black person on the hiring panel.
I end the session with my biggest challenge that has been keeping me up at night for the last few years that I still haven’t solved. How do I tell my son how he needs to behave as a Black young man when he is in the presence of anyone in a position of authority? At 10 years old right now, he’s adorable, but give him a couple of years, he will be perceived as a threat. Right now, I don’t think he realizes he’s Black and people might treat him differently because of it.
As a parent, one of your responsibilities is to protect your kids. Why would I want to damage his innocence by telling him that he’ll be treated differently by police only because of the color of his skin? How do I tell him that if he doesn’t act a certain way, he might get killed at police’s hands … just because he is Black?
Moving out of your comfort zone and having important conversations
When you make your presentation and you talk about your individual experiences, what kind of discussion comes from that? Are there questions that you receive that surprise you?
Jonathan: Most of the questions are in some ways the same, the same topic, but once in a while we get questions like, “what is the advantage of being a Black person?” I wasn’t expecting this at all.
Marie: Yes, that’s the question I had the hardest time answering. “What are the advantages of being Black?” I never framed it that way or thought about it that way, and I still don’t know how I would answer that question.
Overall, I think that the presentation is better received than we thought. The last thing we wanted was to create a presentation that pointed the finger. It’s more of, here is our lived experience. We’re not trying to have an argument here; we’re telling you what our reality is.
By taking this approach, we feel that the comments we get are of a more supportive nature. That being said, there are also some questions or comments that show that we still have a lot of work left to do.
Do you think your experience as an FSF Speaker has changed you as a person?
Marie: Yes, definitely! I’m in management, so there are often situations where I need to have uncomfortable conversations with employees. Now, I feel so comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations.
In the last year, I went in front of well over 1,000 people and for the first time in my life, I admitted that I’m Black. I know that sounds probably strange for you to hear, but I honestly never admitted I was Black because I didn’t think it should matter. It took the murder of George Floyd to open my eyes and start questioning how my Blackness is changing my reality and my experiences.
Until October 2020, I never admitted that I was Black, and I never spoke about race because I always was afraid to put myself in a situation where I would have to fake it not to offend the other person. This presentation has opened the door to my comfort with uncomfortableness.
Jonathan: Same for me. Myself, I’m not a manager yet, but I hope to be at some point. To speak in front of a lot of people about this kind of topic is good for me because I’m not that used to speaking in front of other people, especially not in English. I have a slight French accent.
That helped me a lot. Just to be able to take the time to listen to questions and be able to find proper answers for people. I’m hoping to be better at it and continue improving.
The benefits of allowing yourself to be vulnerable
If a public servant is interested in becoming a Speaker, what would be some words of wisdom you could offer them before getting started?
Jonathan: Be prepared! For us, before being part of this, we had some practice with our co-workers, so we were able to improve our presentation and the delivery method. Not being afraid of what others will think, go with what you have and take the comments in consideration and adjust your presentation, it will improve it along the way.
Marie: What you have to say matters, your experience matters, and it’s by sharing it with others that you’ll be able to open the eyes of someone or provide support to a member of your community.
There is nobody but you who is better positioned to share and explain your own reality. The one thing I say in our presentation is: if I as a Black person am not willing to have these conversations, who will? How will change happen? It’s by speaking up, sharing, telling our personal stories that we can reach others and make them understand. Unfortunately, this is a taxing experience for us, we must put ourselves in a vulnerable position to create empathy and hopefully light up something in someone to join the cause and be an ally. Being a speaker for the FSF is also an amazing way to improve your public speaking skills! Also, a great way to get exposure and create networks.
Anything to add?
Marie: Back in May, we presented at the Office of the Comptroller General’s Town Hall. It is after that event, that I saw how powerful our presentation was. Roch Huppé, the Comptroller General of Canada, was so moved by what we shared that he engaged his executives in the financial management community and challenged them to come up with ideas and create action plans to increase the diversity and inclusion within the financial management community.
We were just sharing our experiences and he heard us. He is in a position of power and was able to use what he heard to change a community to make it more diverse and inclusive.
Jonathan: As Marie said, go ahead if you want to speak! Your voice is important. Even if you are scared to speak in public. I know I said: it was hard for us to present, but what we are getting back from people is wow, so amazing. I’m looking forward for our next presentation.
People are ready to listen and it’s the best time for us to speak. It’s now. Something I’ve noticed is that people are ready to change and sometimes don’t know that they’re doing something wrong. Prepare a presentation and go ahead and present.
Marie: I want to commend this forum for existing and for taking a collection of all the stories and experiences and making them available across the government. What you have done is taking messages that might happen in one department and making them available to the rest.
This shows the commitment that the public service has to try to make it better for everyone. I would like to thank the FSF on diversity and inclusion for the initiative and giving us this opportunity to spread our message not only to our department but across the public service.
Feeling like you want to become a speaker with the FSF? Or just want to learn more about the platform? If you are interested in either becoming an FSF speaker or hosting an event for your team, we encourage you to contact CDI@tbs-sct.gc.ca.
Visit the FSF page on Canada.ca.