Labour Views: Pink Shirt Day

Feb 24, 2021

Today is Pink Shirt Day, or national anti-bullying day, which is officially observed in Canada on the last Wednesday of February each year.

Pink Shirt Day originated in Canada in 2007 when David Shepherd and Travis Price of Berwick, Nova Scotia, bought and distributed 50 pink shirts after a male grade nine student was bullied for wearing a pink shirt at school.

Anti-bullying days are now observed around the world on various dates, and are intended to draw attention to the types of bullying that persist and to encourage open discussions on how to address and eliminate bullying.

Though the original focus of Pink Shirt Day was – and continues to be – addressing bullying in schools, as more people become aware of the characteristics of bullying, we are seeing more and more how it occurs in a wide variety of venues, including workplaces.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that bullying is becoming more prevalent; rather, it is more likely a sign that times are changing and that toxic workplace behaviours that used to be considered normal, or even encouraged, are now no longer acceptable.

The first step to addressing bullying is to call it out. When bullying occurs in a workplace, it is usually up to the person experiencing the bullying to take steps to address any issues. The first step is to determine what, if any, anti-bullying or harassment policies your employer has in place.

The NWT’s Employment Standards Act, which sets the minimum employment standards for private-sector employers in the NWT does not include any clauses pertaining to bullying or harassment. Workplace harassment policies are usually designed and implemented by the employer, and can vary depending on your workplace.

If a worker’s issues are not able to be addressed through an internal complaint process, there may be avenues available through the NWT Human Rights Commission or the WSCC. In order to file a complaint with either of these agencies, the bullying or harassment must fit a certain set of criteria, or “grounds”. Federally regulated employees can also turn to the Canada Labour Code, which now includes language regarding harassment and workplace violence.

The good news is, if you are a unionized worker, you may have additional protections built into your collective agreement. You also have the advantage of having a union rep to assist you throughout whatever process you choose to undertake. Your union can help you assess your situation, work with you on the different options, and support you.

Having policies and processes in place to address workplace bullying and harassment is an important mechanism for workers seeking solutions. They are, however, only as effective as their wording allows them to be. In the larger timeline of the labour movement, they are also relatively new.

As we learn more about mental health and the toll that bullying behaviours can take on worker’s mental and physical wellbeing, we become better equipped to ensure that definitions of bullying and harassment are more comprehensive and provide better protection for workers. It also puts unions in a better position to fight for stronger language in collective agreements.                                                                                    

Though non-unionized workers are not covered by the protections of a collective agreement, history has shown us that the standards that unions fight for often end up influencing – or even becoming – the norm. Minimum wage, hours of work, and overtime pay are some examples of benefits that unions achieved through collective bargaining that have since become basic legal standards for all Canadian workers.

Bullying has no place in a workplace, and every worker has the right to work in a harassment-free environment. When we don our pink shirts and make grand speeches about our desires to eradicate bullying from all aspects of our lives, we need to remember that those words need to be followed up with actions.

Words are powerful when they’re committed to paper in legislation, policies, and collective agreements. Otherwise, they provide little comfort to those who hear the same public promises and platitudes year after year with little or no change to actual behaviours.

This year, let’s spend Pink Shirt Day thinking about concrete ways to meaningfully address bullying and harassment together, and disrupt the generational cycle of negative behaviours in the workplace. Bullying stops here.

In Solidarity,
Todd Parsons, UNW President