Working While Black: Founders Square tenant Robert Wright says firing of Black janitors is a “travesty of racial injustice”

By El Jones, a Community Organizer, Poet and Academic living on Mi’kmaq territories

On Friday morning, the janitors who clean Founders Square held a press conference and rally outside the building. As explained in the press release sent to the media by Darius Mirshahi, an organizer with Justice 4 Janitors:

Cleaners at Founders Square in downtown Halifax are alleging racial discrimination against in-coming contractor Deep Down Cleaning Services Ltd and the property manager for Founders Square, Armour Group Limited, in a complaint they are filing at the NS Human Rights Commission.

All seven black janitorial workers are set to lose their jobs at the end of March once the cleaning contract at the historic building changes hands.

In this industry, when one cleaning contractor loses a contract to another contractor, it is common for the employees working at a building to be hired by the incoming contractor. However, Deep Down and Armour Group have only committed to hiring 1 of the 8 current non-supervisory cleaners; the only one who is white.

Image by Andrew Vaughan for the Canadian Press.

A statement read at the press conference by Sebastien Labelle of Solidarity Halifax on behalf of Working While Black explicitly identified the termination of the Black workers as an act of systemic anti-Black racism:

For five years, Working While Black has documented incidents of individual and systemic anti-Black racism in Nova Scotian workplaces, and brought together community members to discuss these issues. Many of the stories we feature have been shared with us anonymously, since those facing on-the-job racism fear reprisals from their employers or even their co-workers. To that end, we commend these workers for coming together and taking a public stand and filing a complaint at the Human Rights Commission.

Racism, whether at work or elsewhere, is too often brushed off as something that is no longer a problem in today’s world. People are accused of being too sensitive, as being unable to take a joke, or as imagining things.

The reality is that racism is embedded into our economic system. Low-wage workers are disproportionately people of colour, who face multiple barriers to meaningful, stable employment. From changing a name or an address on a resumé, to fighting against being passed over for promotion, Black workers have always had to raise their voices for fairness and equity at work. This current situation demonstrates yet again the subtle, insidious ways that the odds are stacked against Black workers.


Although media guidelines require reporters to write that the janitors “allege” racial discrimination, as the statement by Working While Black makes clear, Black workers are frequently, commonly, and systematically subjected to racism. These realities have been repeatedly validated and proven. Black people who face high costs of retaliation for speaking out — costs such as job loss and public attacks — do not simply allege racism for no reason.

The Armour Group, the property manager for the building, responded to the janitors’ call for justice by engaging in a public smear campaign against the janitors.

Despite the workers having received no communications about their performance and, prior to the protest, being given no reason for their termination, the company alleged in response to media inquiries that the layoffs were “performance based only.”

As quoted in the Halifax Metro article above:

In a statement, the Armour Group said its decision to part ways with GDI Integrated Facility Services was “performance based only.”

“Our dissatisfaction with the cleaning services being performed was communicated in countless emails, phone calls and several in-person meetings with senior management at GDI over a period of twelve months,” the company said.

The Armour Group said it has a contractual obligation to maintain standards of cleanliness in the building, and that it received over 200 complaints in 2017 about cleaning issues.

Robert S. Wright is a tenant in the building. Upon reading the claims by the Armour Group that the building was not being satisfactorily cleaned, I contacted him and asked him whether he had noticed that the building was dirty or that the janitorial staff were not adequately performing their duties.

El Jones Image Three

Robert Wright

Wright, a clinical social worker and internationally recognized expert on race relations, responded with the following emailed statement:

I was away this week when I heard the disturbing news of the intention of firing all of the cleaners employed by the company that currently holds the contract with Armour Group to clean its property at 1701 Hollis Street.

I understand that as the current cleaning contract expires the new company intends to employ only one of the former cleaners. This in itself is troubling, but made even more so when one realizes that the only employee they intend to retain is White and all those who will be omitted from the rehire are of African descent. Most I believe are African immigrants.

I am particularly interested in this travesty of racial injustice because my offices are in Founders Square and I have gotten to know many of these brothers and sisters. As a person who often works late into the evening I often encounter the cleaners as they efficiently and cheerfully move through my floor collecting trash, vacuuming, and mopping. I have been treated respectfully by each one and have come to enjoy our nearly daily interactions.

Servant-like work is often underpaid work and sometimes those doing these very essential tasks are under-appreciated or even disrespected. I have heard that one excuse for the wholesale layoff of these employees is that there have been numerous complaints made about the standard of cleanliness of the building. I have been in that building foe several years and have never had occasion to complain about the state of cleanliness in the mornings.

Remember, cleaning is done at night and we occupy and work in the building during the day. The state of bathrooms at the end of the day is less a reflection on the competence of cleaners than it is on the building’s occupants and visitors during the day.

Another observation I would make is that when it comes to complaints about those who serve us, people feel more free to complain about the services rendered by immigrants or people of colour. This is not only true of janitorial services, but also about professional roles as well.

Some might suggest that this matter is just about the change of building contractors and that blame and responsibility for any perceived or real injustice lies only with he company that has he new contract. Given that Armour Group is one of the City’s largest downtown landlords, and given that the provincial government is one of its largest tenants, we should expect both entities to be concerned about the treatment of the workers employed by subcontractors within their building.

As a tenant within this Armour Property, I have experienced first hand their generosity and care as an institution. As a former civil servant I am convinced of the goodwill of civil servants responsible for space acquisition and relationships wih landlords. Sadly, though, sometimes the actions of subcontractors that so blatantly affect a small group of vulnerable persons go unnoticed by building owners and major tenants.

Given the circumstances, an easy remedy to this dilemma would be for Armour Group to suggest to the new contractor to right this wrong and for the provincial government, which is a major tenant within Founders Square, to support such an action. The goodwill this would generate to both corporate and political interests would pay greater dividends than are currently being paid through these actions.

I stand in support of the brothers and sisters who have been serving me so faithfully.

As is so often the case when racial injustice is experienced, the perpetrators of that injustice have chosen to attempt to blame the victims and to publicly discredit them. We must recognize this tactic for what it is: an attempt to refocus conversation on speculations about the performance of the janitors rather than on anti-Black racism and on the attack on unionized labour.

We should also recognize that attempts to paint the Black workers as lazy, unclean, and negligent have long historical roots in stereotypes and portrayals of Black people that date far back into slavery.

It is unfortunate that the company seems to hope that the public will be more willing to accept that Black people are simply lazy than that the most vulnerable workers are being exploited and treated as disposable.

Image of Jim Crow era postcard.

White janitors attended the protest in support and solidarity with their Black colleagues. Against the company’s attempt to rely on racist stereotyping and public attacks on Black workers, their actions are a reminder that racism has always been a tactic by wealthy oppressors to divide and rule working people, a move that must be vigorously challenged and resisted by us all.

Founders Square is named for the Eighteenth-Century buildings that were renovated into the current structure. We should not forget that these buildings represent a time only a couple of decades after the end of slavery in the British Empire — and that Halifax merchants petitioned parliament against the end of that slavery.

Formerly enslaved Black Loyalists and Refugees who came to this province not long before this time period were exploited, lied to, coerced into indentured servitude, and faced violent oppression even as they laboured to build this city and province.

The original buildings were constructed largely at the time of Confederation, and as historian Afua Cooper reminds us about this time in Canadian history:

[John A] Macdonald was a hugely problematic figure — for First Nations communities, for Métis communities, for Black communities, even though he had a Black barber. Like Lord Dalhousie he didn’t want Black people in the province. When we think of Macdonald’s National Policy we mostly remember building a railway from coast to coast. And we know that it led to the two rebellions by Louis Riel and the decimation of First Nations communities on the prairies, the decimation of the buffalos because you’re driving these rails across the country.

Another plank [of the National Policy] was immigration — to bring people in to populate the prairies. But Macdonald didn’t want Black people, even though a few decades before 1867 you had the Underground Railroad, you had African-American runaways coming into Canada and officially more or less welcomed. But under the new Canada, Sir. John A. did not think they were desirable immigrants at all. In fact, he said Black men were rapists and a threat to White womanhood.

If this is the moment we confederated, this is our first prime minister, this is his attitude toward the Black community…

Image of election poster from Wikipedia.

One hundred and fifty years after these buildings were erected, African workers are still employed in the lowest-wage jobs and facing the same exploitation of their labour, the same disposability, and the same anti-Black racism.

Among the busts in the lobby of Founders Square is Joseph Howe, whose newspaper occupied the Nova Scotia building. While Howe is celebrated as an advocate for freedom of the press and democracy, his view on Black people is described in this paper as “mixed:”

These [observations] combined socially progressive views with some of the common prejudice of the period. He commented on the frequent sight of African Nova Scotian women on the shores of Bedford Basin, carrying their goods to and from market in Halifax:

“And here too you are sure to encounter a goodly bevy of sable beauties, with their unsophisticated feet, and their wooly heads, adorned…with tubs and baskets of fair dimensions…trudging along with their hearts a great deal lighter than their heads, and caring no more for the fashionable frivolities of their betters…”

In the Rambles Howe disagreed with those who argued that the Black Refugees who fled to Nova Scotia following the War of 1812 were “a burthen to the country” and comprised of “rogues and vagabonds.”

He noted, in a somewhat backhanded manner, that the “immediate descendants of the race” who arrived after the War “may be little better than their parents, as regards industry and intelligence — but there is little in their color to prevent them from eventually becoming as good farmers as your grandchildren…” Howe had at least one elderly black servant, whose cane, a gift from Howe, is in the collection of the Museum.

Image from Jason Michael

Howe’s observations of Black workers remind us of the presence of Black labour in Halifax. We may credit people like Joseph Howe as the “founders” of the city, but the reality is that the people who perform the manual labour and the literal dirty work have always been the true foundations.

The African immigrants who clean Founders Square, like African Nova Scotians in the eighteenth century in this city, are still performing the hardest, lowest-paid, and most stigmatized labour. Just as Howe suggested that the “industry and intelligence” of these workers – who had the will and the courage to survive and flee enslavement only to face poverty and starvation in this province – was lacking, the Armour Group today is still calling Black workers lazy and relying on the same degrading and dehumanizing images.

One hundred and fifty years after these buildings were first erected, it is past time for the Black workers who continue to face anti-Black racism to receive justice.

Image from the Working While Black Facebook.

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