With the Black Lives Matter movement bringing issues of race and discrimination to the forefront in a way that can no longer be ignored, companies and industries across the country are faced with confronting systemic racism, and Toronto’s theatre industry is no exception.
Two former Mirvish employees say they’ve experienced racist comments and behaviour from not only their coworkers, but also patrons.
“If you’re in line to ticket take, they’ll generally go to the white person, there’s a line up of people in front of the white person” said Ashley Mangru of the patrons she served. “I’m like ‘I can help you over here’.”
Kristin Freeland said a coworker complained about an influx of Chinese restaurants in the neighbourhood, saying “This used to be a good neighbourhood.”
“[They were] basically implying that all the immigrants have made it terrible,” said Freeland.
Both women are people of colour and were usher-captains at two Mirvish theatres in Toronto before the COVID-19 shutdowns. They cited several incidents of macro and micro-aggression that they say made the work environment toxic and stressful.
Over the course of three years, they say management has been made aware of these ongoing issues repeatedly. Little to no action has been taken, until they recently approached their managers with concerns surrounding the company’s response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
As BLM experienced a surge of support in June, the women felt the company wasn’t doing enough to pledge support for the cause.
“Shortly after the death of George Floyd the ushers from the Ed Mirvish theatre collectively wrote a letter to head office saying basically, we’ve seen your response to what’s going on, but there needs to be more,” said Freeland.
She felt the company “brushed aside” their concerns, and she found their refusal to make a definitive statement very concerning.
In a virtual meeting with 25 white and POC colleagues, Mangru says management said they were hesitant because they were afraid to say the wrong thing.
“We discussed that if you don’t say anything, you kind of already are saying something,” said Mangru. “[management said] ‘if you say something wrong, they’re going to get mad at you’.”
Freeland and Mangru say those meetings then began to delve into the racism within the Mirvish staff ranks. They presented a survey of their coworkers which they say revealed that 80 per cent of the 43 staff surveyed had seen or experienced harassment in their workplace.
“I think they really felt that they were doing an ok job,” says Freeland. “And we said ‘no, you’re really not, because all of us have experienced workplace harassment, racism and bullying.”
She says the company is now investigating internally, even as the theatres remain closed due to COVID-19.
But when it comes to taking a stance on the BLM movement, both women feel the company is keeping too low a profile.
“I think they’re waiting to ride that out. They’re not going to commit to anything,” said Freeland.
“It seems like [they’re] afraid to say something because [they’re] afraid of losing [their] white subscriber base,” added Mangru.
In June, Mirvish published several social media posts, saying in part that they “along with millions of others around the world, have been examining our own racism and discrimination.” They also used the hashtags BlackLivesMatter, BlackoutTuesday TheShowMustBePaused.
In a statement to CityNews, Mirvish says in part, that they are “investigating the most effective means of combating systemic racism in the field in which it operates. The organization has spent the last two months actively listening, reading and informing itself about equity, diversity and inclusion.”
They added that they have reached out to people of colour in the company and they are currently looking for an equity, diversity and inclusion consultant who will be hired shortly.
“The organization will decide on the best candidate and begin the really important work very soon,” said Director of Sales and Marketing John Karastamatis. “Mirvish Productions is a small family business, as such it may be in a much better position to energetically put into action the consultant’s recommendations.”
Both women say they can go back to work at Mirvish theatres once they reopen, but they no longer feel comfortable doing so.
“It honestly just hurts too much to even think about going back there,” said Freeland, adding that the behaviour of some coworkers was mentally exhausting. “I just don’t think I can put myself through that anymore. It’s not a healthy working environment at all.”
Both women say they are committed to continuing the dialogue with the company so that changes for the better are implemented for those who do choose to return or future employees.
“They have to acknowledge that they’ve benefited from their white privilege, that racism exists within their own company and that they’re going to take actionable steps and be held accountable going forward,” said Freeland.