Racism gets easy ride at Hudson Bay Railway, past and present workers allege CEO denies tolerating mistreatment, harassment of Indigenous staff at company partly owned by First Nations communities

Management of Manitoba’s northern railway has been turning a blind eye to workplace incidents of racism, former and current workers charge.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/01/2022 (422 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Management of Manitoba’s northern railway has been turning a blind eye to workplace incidents of racism, former and current workers charge.

“We shouldn’t have to come to work worrying about what’s going to happen today,” said one of the employees of the Hudson Bay Railway in The Pas, who is Cree.

The railway insists it has ironed out the problems, but more than five current and former employees say that isn’t the case.

The railway, which connects Churchill and remote communities to southern rail lines, was transferred to Arctic Gateway Group in August 2018 by the Trudeau government. The consortium is owned by Indigenous communities and towns that rely on the rail line. Ottawa has pledged $157 million for the railway, in part to hire Indigenous people.

But those workers aren’t always welcome at the company’s roundhouse and maintenance-of-way garage, where roughly 15 mechanics maintain the fleet just down the tracks from its corporate office.

One staff member saw a white colleague berate a Cree colleague in 2020 over a minor mistake, “calling him a ‘lazy f—-ing Indian’ and ‘good for nothing;’ I’d say that’s pretty extreme.”

“We shouldn’t have to come to work worrying about what’s going to happen today.” – Employee

An Indigenous staff member said local Cree don’t get adequate training during their probation periods, in which they earn 20 per cent less than the full union rate, setting them up to fail the tests needed for promotion.

“We get paid less than everybody and we do more than the rest of these guys,” the staff member said.

The Free Press is withholding the names of current and previous staff who fear retribution for speaking out.

Arctic Gateway Group CEO Sheldon Affleck said that makes it hard to test the claims, which he found alarming.

“We do not have a problem in our shops,” said Affleck, who started leading the group last March.

“We will not tolerate racism or bullying, or false accusation for that matter — which in my opinion is equal to that,” said Affleck, adding that a longtime Indigenous employee promoted to shop manager has improved output and employee morale.

Months before Affleck took over, in spring 2020, four white staff members were heard chanting The White Man Marches On, a white-supremacist song that praises the slaughter of Black people and Jews, which was featured in the 1998 violent crime drama American History X.

In July 2021, an employee filed a formal complaint to the railway and Unifor local 100, which represents most of workers, alleging harassment, insufficient training and attempts to get Cree staff fired. The complaint mentioned the 2020 singing incident.

Affleck visited The Pas shortly after, and held what he said was a heartfelt meeting in which staff agreed to start fresh and stop bringing up past incidents.

“I saw some of the accusers, to the accused and vice-versa, with a nice hand on the shoulder, some bear hugs between. It was just an awesome signal to me,” he said, adding the workplace has had “zero issues since.”

Former Opaskwayak Cree Nation Chief Christian Sinclair, who held that post and was co-chair of the company board at the time, called that meeting, saying he was alarmed to hear his band members raise those concerns.

He said the company tried to start fresh because it had difficulty establishing what had happened and who was at fault.

Sinclair was disturbed to hear Monday that allegations of racism persist.

“In a First Nations-majority owned company, that’s the last thing we want. So I’m hoping the new board that’s there makes that loud and clear to the management team, and that they cut that cancer out immediately,” he told the Free Press.

“We will not tolerate racism or bullying, or false accusation for that matter– which in my opinion is equal to that.” – Arctic Gateway Group CEO Sheldon Affleck

Last summer, two supervisors from Winnipeg who were on short-term contracts with the railway raised the Cree employees’ concerns to management and union officials. The railway terminated the pair shortly afterwards, citing performance issues, and Affleck accused both of causing workplace conflicts and now being “informants” to the Free Press.

Since the Free Press sent the Hudson Bay Railway and Unifor a detailed list of allegations on Jan. 19, the manager of the headquarters has started interviewing each employee about workplace issues, which some felt was an attempt to identify workers who spoke to the newspaper.

Union staff reached out to the company and found some signs of progress.

“Unifor understands that addressing systemic racism and creating a sustained culture of respect and inclusion takes time to embed,” wrote spokesman Ian Boyko.

“The Unifor representative did commend the parties for engaging in serious efforts to address concerns of racism in the workplace. That does not mean that this work is done.”

However, current staff say they face a hostile work culture.

Hudson Bay Railway recently promoted two of the four men accused of singing the racist song, and staff say a “cool-off period” to ease tensions in the workplace was never followed by any actual investigation.

“These guys think they’re lawless; they just do whatever they feel like,” said one employee.

Last fall, an Indigenous staff member in the garage reported that a white colleague from the roundhouse walked by and shouted “grow a set of balls” and used a gay slur, which another co-worker said did not lead to any disciplinary action.

Others describe “a constant tattle-tale session” where staff get written up for smoking, but racist slurs are not dealt with.

“This is normal life for us,” said one Cree employee.

“It’s basically like we all have our own groups now,” said another.

A recent dispute over work sections and parking spaces escalated and one employee discovered his truck’s side mirror smashed.

“What will it take (them) to stop?” a colleague asked. “Like, somebody’s going to get killed here.”

Current and former staff said they have pleaded the union to intervene, and that they have little faith in the company’s internal complaint process.

“These guys think they’re lawless; they just do whatever they feel like.” – Employee

At least one of the complainants now works in another role represented by a different union.

Employees in The Pas also questioned the railway’s commitment to training Indigenous staff ; there are few in higher-paying mechanical and administration jobs.

Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said he’s disturbed by the workers’ claims.

“These are serious allegations that are absolutely unacceptable and must not be tolerated,” Vandal wrote in a statement. “I urge AGG management to take this seriously and take appropriate measures as required.”

The workplace issues in The Pas do not seem to extend to the maintenance along the line, where numerous employees and Affleck say staff get along.

“My priority is always that I want to inspire the employees,” said Affleck, who disputed the claims from unnamed employees.

“A false allegation is as bad as racism.”


Railway faces issues

It would never be easy to run a railway in a remote stretch of northern Manitoba, but the Hudson Bay Railway has had a troubled decade, in addition to accusations of racism.

Global warming has become particularly visible in region, lengthening the Port of Churchill’s annual shipping season but putting stress on the rails that link the port, which sit on muskeg and permafrost.

That strain likely contributed to the 2017 washouts of the railway section between Gillam and Churchill.

Back in 2012, the railway was undercut by the dissolution of the Canadian Wheat Board, a federal agency that mandated a certain quota of grain be sent up the rail line and shipped through the Port of Churchill.

More recently, the company has had to beef up its beaver-control program after a derailment over a washed-out portion of track killed conductor Kevin Anderson in September 2018.

The death is the subject of an ongoing inquest that has largely fixated on the lag in paramedic response instead of the maintenance of the track.

However, Transport Canada records obtained by the Free Press show track inspectors had flagged numerous maintenance issues in that area ahead of the incident.

Many in the railway industry suspect the issues stem from the railway’s previous ownership, yet the regulator also found numerous track issues after the derailment, including the clearing of beaver dams that cause washouts and a “failure to keep (safety) records as required.”

In March 2021, Toronto financier Fairfax and Saskatchewan grain giant AGT Foods pulled out of the Arctic Gateway Group consortium, prompting Ottawa to supply more funding for repair and operations.

—Dylan Robertson

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