“Put simply, contemporary racism is historical racism,” wrote Charmaine Nelson in a short article last year. The renowned McGill University historian was expressing frustration with the lack of knowledge most have about the long history of Black people in Canada — an ignorance that often stymies conversations about systemic anti-Black racism.
Nelson’s words also signal the ways that history impacts the present-day experiences of Black women in Canada, including those of attorney Tamara Thermitus, who was recently forced out as head of the Human Rights Commission in Quebec.
Set up to fail
Historically, Black women were represented in popular culture and media representations throughout North America as “Sapphires,” stereotypes of domineering, aggressive, angry Black women. The research of Cheryl Thompson at Ryerson University highlights the history of enduring, racist representations of Black women throughout Canada beginning in the early 20th century and the ongoing impacts of these stereotypes in the present.
The Sapphire stereotype shows up, specifically, in the context of leadership, where women of colour are thrust into leadership positions at times of organizational turmoil, when enormous hierarchical and lateral challenges abound. In business, this tokenizing trend is so common that researchers and analysts have coined it the “glass cliff” effect: Here, the research shows, women of colour are recruited into leadership at a time of organizational dysfunction, quickly scapegoated for failing to fix the mess they found, and then replaced by a “safer” white (and usually male) leader.
Such leaders are “set up to fail … then blamed when failure occurs, thereby confirming the assumption that they aren’t suitable leaders in the first place,” reported an article in the Guardian entitled, “Women CEOs: Why companies in crisis hire minorities – and then fire them.
For Black women, the glass cliff is doubly impactful. Not only are they recruited into dysfunctional organizations as “saviours” and then labelled “the real problem,” but they are also often scarred by accusations of harmful, incompatible management styles and abusive behaviour.
A viral diagram published last spring by the Centre for Community Organizations in Montreal entitled, “The ‘Problem’ Woman of Colour in the Workplace,” also details common patterns of group violence, or mobbing, experienced by women of colour in leadership who are hired as “saviours for change” within organizations: When women of colour identify key problems within an organizational structure, working well within the bounds of existing policies to implement change and accountability, they are often made out as monsters by longtime staff.
First Black woman leader
The recent tenure and resignation of Tamara Thermitus at the Quebec Human Rights Commission is an archetypal case study of how historical racial bias, the glass cliff, and organizational mobbing perfectly intersect to vilify Black women’s leadership.
Throughout 2016, Thermitus was heavily recruited from within for the commission’s top position. At the time, Thermitus, a prominent Haitian lawyer raised in Sept-Îles, Quebec, and lead drafter of the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate, was an attorney with the federal Justice Department, where she was both well settled and well respected.
Noted nationally for three decades of human rights work in Quebec, in 2011 she received the Quebec Bar’s Award of Merit for her work in the fight against discrimination and inequality in the province. Thermitus was among the first to raise issues of racial discrimination within the legal profession in Quebec, and she played an essential role in the development of a course on the social context of law. In 2016, she was chosen by the Quebec Human Rights Commission as a laureate in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedom.
In December 2016, Quebec premier Philippe Couillard publicly nominated Thermitus as the commission’s new president to replace Jacques Frémont, who had resigned nearly six months prior. Thermitus was the first person of colour and, notably, the first Black woman to be nominated as president of an organization long criticized by community members and complainants for its monolithically white, mostly francophone staff and repeated, flagrant mishandling of racial discrimination cases.
After two months of public debate at the National Assembly, where Thermitus was oddly criticized for her commitment to “multiculturalism,” she was, nonetheless, unanimously confirmed to lead the commission in February 2017.
Press joins the mobbing
From the start, Thermitus faced deep-rooted structural, organizational and managerial challenges at the 150-person commission.
Overseeing a $15-million budget funded by taxpayers, she transparently addressed budgetary irregularities she found with her team. These items, as described in her Nov. 29, 2018, resignation letter, included costly, unwarranted staff perks and unjustified positions created to advantage certain employees over others, thus entrenching patterns of lateral conflict within the organization.
At some point afterwards, three staff members took leaves of absence and two filed a complaint with the provincial ombudsperson, Marie Rinfret, alleging that Thermitus’s management style was “disrespectful” and fostered a “hostile” work environment. [Published reports citing three complaints are inaccurate, according to an attorney on the file.] These actions, together, as psychologists have pointed out, constitute the salient features of mobbing in institutions based on bureaucracy, notably government organizations.
By the summer of 2017, less than six months into her tenure, unsubstantiated reports of Thermitus’s “poor” and “hostile” management style began to circulate in Quebec’s French and English media after news of the complaints was leaked to the press. La Presse published a story on Aug. 30, 2017, relying wholly on six anonymous sources — sources, importantly, with no clearly identified relationship to the commission. A number of local papers headlined stories about a “crisis” at the organization, republishing the anonymous “insider” quotes, yet failing to quote or feature Thermitus in any of the reporting.
Extraordinary threats of impeachment
Thermitus took a leave of absence at the end of October 2017. The next month, in a stunning miscarriage of justice, ombudsperson Marie Rinfret failed to give Thermitus the opportunity to testify during her investigation. Crucially, Rinfret also did not give Thermitus the opportunity to review and comment on the draft report, which contained conclusions against her, before it was sent to Quebec’s minister of justice. At the time, this was unbeknownst to Thermitus.
Following this prejudicial act, Rinfret presented a one-sided report, devoid of any information or statements provided by Thermitus. These actions infringed Thermitus’s right to due process and illegally ignored the clear procedures established under Quebec’s law concerning the disclosure of wrongdoing at public organizations.
Then, in the spring of 2018, local papers published details from a separate, investigatory report drafted by former deputy minister Lise Verreault. Relying on more nameless testimonies from employees, the Verreault report harshly, publicly criticized Thermitus’s management style as incompetent, blamed her for the organization’s problems, and called for her immediate resignation. These testimonies were never shared with Thermitus.
These actions were effective. With the ombudsperson’s unjust actions concealed from the public, the very same political parties who had rallied in support of Thermitus one year prior now angrily, adamantly demanded her resignation.
Thermitus sent a letter to the National Assembly asking to be heard, but Parti Québécois justice critic Véronique Hivon publicly threatened Thermitus with impeachment, an exceptional and unprecedented move.
After threats of impeachment by the National Assembly were raised publicly for a second time, Thermitus was forced to submit her resignation on the morning of Nov. 29, 2018. At a press conference later the same day, Rinfret stated that her report was complete, and she issued a singularly incriminating statement: “There have been serious breaches of ethical standards, as well as a serious case of mismanagement, including abuse of authority.” She then refused any follow-up questions about her findings.
As La Presse and others have reported, a motion to impeach Thermitus would have been unprecedented. The threats also provided a clarifying example of political discourse designed to punish and silence: Impeachment is an extraordinary procedural motion that has never been used in the history of Quebec’s legislature.
A violence reserved for Black women
In this case, something much more insidious and profound is now at hand.
On Dec. 3, Philippe-Andre Tessier, interim president of the commission, stated in an interview that the organization was committed to full transparency in the aftermath of Thermitus’s resignation, taken “on her own volition.” This is simply — and knowingly — untrue.
In the same interview, Tessier also deftly avoided questions about the abrupt resignation of his former boss at the commission, Camil Picard, a government bureaucrat who oversaw a network of youth centres during his 40-year career and paid to silence a teenage rape victim who accused him of sexual assault.
We must remain attentive to the special kind of violence reserved for Black people in Quebec and, as Thermitus’s story reveals, the special violence reserved for Black women. In the final section of the viral diagram published by the Centre for Community Organizations last spring, the woman of colour exits the organization after she has been stigmatized as the organization’s real problem and labelled unfit for the position.
The diagram, however, fails to account for the ongoing experiences that detail Thermitus’s brief tenure at the top human rights organization in Quebec. Most stunning about her case is the incessantly misleading press coverage about her time there, and the remarkable political chastisement that has mounted over the last year with each new anonymous leak, each new one-sided news story, and each new half-written “official report.”
This is a particular kind of abuse designed to disappear, to efface the brilliant work of a 30-year career, and to conceal the violence Thermitus navigated and withheld from public view while working at the Quebec Human Rights Commission. This is a violence that Black women have historically been expected to swallow and bear. It is a disciplinary violence designed to shape a vibrant life into a non-story, a non-entity — a violence reserved specifically for Black women who refuse to turn a blind eye and go away quietly.