Three years ago, a handful of contractors got together and floated the idea of launching a new organization to break down barriers and raise the profile of Black-owned contracting companies in Canada.
This year, they realized that dream with the launch of the Toronto-based Afro-Canadian Contractors Association (ACCA). So far, more than more than 150 contractors have signed up as members of the new organization. Most are in the Greater Toronto Area but there are some from B.C., Nova Scotia and Alberta.
“It was crazy when we launched,” says ACCA president Stephen Callender, who owns Bass Installation, a company that installs glass on skyscrapers. “It has slowed down a bit. Growth is the main thing right now and we’re making sure that we get good contractors coming in because our organization has a standard.”
The contractors had planned to launch the organization in 2020 but when COVID-19 hit it derailed their plans. Following the death of George Floyd last May and after nooses were found at several construction sites in separate incidents over the summer and fall in Toronto, the contractors decided it was time for action.
“When the nooses appeared in Toronto we said, ‘Okay, we have to do something now,’” explains Callender.
Advocate for Black Contractors
The contractors met in August and the rest is history.
The ACCA was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization with a six-member board of directors to advocate for Black contractors and tradespeople and help put an end to the racial discrimination that they face. The organization wants to increase Black representation in the trades, help Black-owned contractors and firms land more lucrative contracts, and form alliances with the broader construction community.
The organization will focus on the principles of Talent-Respect-Unified-Skilled-Trades, or TRUST, and work to increase the presence of Black-owned construction companies and tradespeople by creating a steady pool of experienced and trained contractors in both the residential and ICI sectors.
ACCA notes that racial discrimination and a lack of racial equality permeates Canada’s construction industry and Black workers must overcome major hurdles even before they reach the construction site.
Hoping to Change Attitudes
Callender, who emigrated from Barbados in 1976, is hoping to change that. He started in the industry when there were no Black contractors.
“As a matter of fact, when I started I would not put my face on my website because you would be discriminated against,” he explains.
“As a matter of fact, when I started I would not put my face on my website because you would be discriminated against.”
His goal is to multiply the number of Black-led projects and ensure Black workers are treated fairly and paid equally.
He got involved after attending a meeting where there was a discussion about the Jane and Finch area in Toronto and the high unemployment in the Black communities. It eventually led to dialogue about how to get more people from the Black community into construction. Retention was a problem because the industry was mostly white.
“The point came up that, ‘Well, if we had more Black contractors then the kids can work because they’d have a better chance of getting in the industry.’ That’s what started the talk about the Black contractors’ organization.”
Many Black youth have been held back by racism and have decided to give up on their futures, says Callender.
“They are out there but they are hiding from the system, or they experienced racism and they decided to give up.”
Important First Steps
While the road ahead may be long and difficult, Callender says the organization is an important first step towards the goal.
“One of the problems is that a lot of people got disheartened many years ago by different organizations, so we are offering a free membership for three months to attract members and show them what we are doing.”
ACCA’s focus is presently on signing up new members and educating them about the industry so the contractors can be profitable. Seminars are held on topics such as starting a business, procurement and job execution. Members of the Black community who are in the trades can learn how to be a contractor and start a business.
“Contractors who already have a business can show the new ones how they can grow the business by teaching members how to bid jobs, how to price jobs and how to execute jobs, and for those who want to be a general contractor, what they need in the way of education and where to go to grow their businesses,” says Callender.
The ACCA is also reaching out to businesses and institutions for potential partnership opportunities and working toward further developing an online directory of Black contractors who are available for residential projects.
“But our main goal right now is to get our contractors up and going,” says Callender. “Once you get the contractors going, then we can pull in young people.”