Northern Exposure

Quebec City shootings: What can we learn from this tragedy?

By Brian Smeenk

Six innocent men were shot in the back while praying in a Quebec City mosque on January 29. The apparently racially motivated act of violence makes us all pause to reflect. How could this happen? In a peaceful city like that? In a peaceful country like Canada? What is happening in our society that would give rise to such hateful violence?  Flag of Quebec

Perhaps we can all learn something from such a tragedyincluding HR professionals, business managers, and even lawyers. Canadians and Americans alike.

Until now, it’s been easy for many Canadians to be a bit smug about what’s been happening in the U.S. We’re pleased to not have a national leader who got elected in part due to targeting certain ethnic groups. We’re pleased to not be a country that bars immigrants and refugees from many other countries, based at least in part on their religion. We’re pleased to not be a country in which racial riots and demonstrations break out repeatedly because of who gets killed by police. We’re pleased not to be a country where gun violence seems rampant.

Until now.

One of the things the Quebec City tragedy brings home is that we in Canada are not immune from many of the same social ills that seem to have infected other countries, including our American friends and neighbours. We too have discrimination based on race and religion. We too have xenophobia. We too have gun violence.

Canadians would like to think that these problems aren’t as bad as in other countries. But we can’t deny they are present.

So, the question that many are asking is, what can we do about this? How can we prevent these inexplicable acts from happening again? To bring it into the context of our workplaces, how can we try to ensure this kind of racial, ethnic, or religious tension does not permeate our organizations? This is a very important question in a country as diverse as Canada.

Some might say that our laws should prevent such things.

But HR professionals and managers know that the law is a very blunt instrument. Our discrimination laws are already very broad and very strong. Some would say they over-reach. Nonetheless, these laws often are ineffective for the most vulnerable who need protection. Conversely, they often are abused and misused by those who are not in need of such protection.

In any event, managers know that laws can’t create a vibrant and productive working environment. Nor can laws create an atmosphere of genuine, mutual respect among workers and managers alike.

No, while discrimination and harassment laws may be necessary, they are not the answer to how we prevent such hateful violence. The answer lies within each of us. The answer lies in how we each consider and treat our peers, our bosses, and our subordinates. Regardless of their race, their ethnicity, or their religion; or their many other characteristics that may make them different from us. It’s about mutual respect, from the top to the bottom of our organizations.

It’s the job of senior managers, and especially HR professionals, to be the driving force in creating and maintaining a positive, respectful work culture.

One great example of a workplace policy that addresses these issues in a positive and productive way was put in place by an organization that has repeatedly been recognized as one of Canada’s best employers: Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre of Toronto. Sunnybrook, which I am proud to call a client, doesn’t just have an anti-discrimination or anti-harassment policy. It has a “RESPECT Policy.” The policy applies to its more than 10,000 employees, its senior executives, and its medical staff alike.

Instead of the normal prohibitions against bad behaviours, this policy sets standards of good behaviours. Here are some excerpts:


The Respect Program and the Respect Policy is meant to give an appropriate focus to one of our most important values. Respectful behaviour will help us build and sustain respectful work relationships and work environments. It will improve our productivity, the delivery of the services we provide to our patients and visitors, and how we interact with each other.

This is a shared responsibility and everyone in the organization – staff, physicians, volunteers and students – must be accountable for their behaviour, actions and work relationships. We must work together as a team to promote respectful behaviour, respect work interactions, and build respectful work environments.

Our actions can make a difference in sustaining a culture of respect for each other.


Corporate Respect Agreement:

By redeveloping our corporate code of conduct, we reinforce to staff, physicians, volunteers and students that respectful behaviour produces respectful work environments. In building respectful work environments we must be committed and share the responsibility to:

RESPECT: the diversity of our staff and their cultural backgrounds.
RESPECT: how we communicate and how we listen to each other.
RESPECT: our differences; in opinion, lifestyle & lifestyle choices.
RESPECT: the needs of different generations.
RESPECT: the value of each and every job and role at Sunnybrook.
RESPECT: the vast array of different personalities that we encounter every day.
RESPECT: that good working relationships builds good work environments.
RESPECT: that good behaviour, respectful behaviour, can make a difference.

R – RESPECTFUL behaviour is everyone’s responsibility.
E – ENGAGE yourself and others to build a respectful work environment.
S – SUPPORT your co-workers; their success is your success.
P – PATIENCE is a virtue, practice it often.
E – EMPATHY towards others will help us understand our differences.
C – COMMUNICATE with care, learn when to talk, learn when to listen.
T – THOUGHTFUL and tactful behaviours will improve work relationships.


  1. Respectful behaviour builds good work relationships and work environments.
  2. Respectful behaviour will improve our customer service. (Delivery of our services to patients, visitors and to each other.)
  3. Respectful behaviour will improve productivity.
  4. Respectful behaviour will strengthen our culture and organization resiliency.
  5. Respectful behaviour will help us achieve our goal, “To Be The Healthcare Workplace Of Choice.”


The Respect Policy is a shared responsibility; we all have a role in maintaining professional respectful work relationships, we all have a role in conducting ourselves within the spirit and intent of this program/policy and for contributing towards a respectful workplace.

These may be aspirational statements. But if you can actually set these standards for your organization, exemplify them yourself, and demand them of others, you will have improved the culture of your workplace. And you will have done your part in reducing the likelihood of more tragedies like the Quebec City shootings.