February is Black History Month. In celebration, we asked Kemsha-Ann Morrison, Residential Renewals Specialist, to share her perspective and experiences as a Black member of our team.
Kemsha-Ann, when did you join us?
Let me first say that I love First National. It has been such a positive experience. I started in May 2016 as a Customer Service Representative and moved to the Renewals department in 2019 where my job involves sales and client interaction. It’s a great fit for me.
Please tell us about your formative years in Canada as a Black person.
I grew up in Toronto and attended Mowat Collegiate. It was a predominantly white high school with the nickname MoWhite! I was the only Black girl in every single classroom between grades 9 and 12. I knew I was different from everyone else, but I can’t say it was a negative experience. I tried my best to interact with everyone and race was not a factor or a barrier to meeting new friends. It helped to be outgoing because it allowed me to find common ground with my classmates.
Sounds like a positive experience. What about when you hit the workforce?
Leading into adulthood, I never encountered significant issues when it came to race in Toronto. However, what I did realize in working at different financial institutions is that they did not employ managers who looked like me until I came to First National. That’s when things just completely opened up for me. First National was all about diversity. I saw people like me holding management positions of authority and that told me very clearly that it was possible to reach a higher level within our company as a young Black woman. It was very encouraging and made a world of difference in my sense of comfort and confidence.
Has your perception been confirmed in your years at First National?
Very much so. Rising up the ranks here is about skill, experience and hard work. I applied for a sales position three times before I landed where I am now and never once did I feel that the colour of my skin was holding me back. I root for First National 100% because I’ve always been treated as family and my efforts have been recognized.
You interact with clients. How would you describe the experience?
I come across a lot of Caribbean-Canadian clients and when they hear my name Kemsha-Ann, they inquire about my heritage. I tell them my parents are Jamaican and I was born in Canada. When I say that, I can hear the comfort level in their voices. They enjoy working with someone who is like them. It’s such a lovely feeling when I speak to someone of colour who has a First National mortgage. We both feel good at the end of the conversation because the rapport we develop often veers away from just business. Having people of colour working here has a big and positive impact and I know it creates a good impression with our clients.
You mentioned your family is from Jamaica.
That’s right. They came to Canada and my father use to own the second largest trailer repair company in Scarborough. That’s a reflection of what they were able to accomplish. We now live outside Toronto in what is probably the whitest town in Ontario. We’re the only Black people on our street. My parents built a brand-new home here, they bought a new house in Florida. Their hard work paid off.
In your view, is racism a problem in Canada?
It’s not blatant or exposed like it is in the United States. I can run down the street and not be shot in the back. But I have experienced little bouts of judgement in living life. About a month ago, I was using self check-out at a grocery store and I could tell a grocery clerk was looking at me just a little bit harder. I felt her energy. Her eyes were just boring into me. I said to her, don’t worry, I’m not going to steal the milk, nor am I going to steal the eggs. I called her out respectfully, but when I left, I was annoyed. She just cast judgement on me underneath her mask without even knowing who I was. Flippant language is also a problem.
What do you mean?
In my second year here, I was attending a First National party at the Royal York. A young woman got on the elevator with me and said, “what’s up my N-word?” I was shocked. It turned out she was talking to a Black man behind me. In a different circumstance, the use of that word could have resulted in a physical confrontation. Instead, I told her in no uncertain terms that I didn’t appreciate it and that it wasn’t acceptable. She said she didn’t intend any offense. Afterwards, I spoke to HR not because I wanted her to be fired but because I wanted her to learn not to do that again. HR handled it well by addressing it seriously and promptly.
From a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective, would you recommend First National do anything differently or better?
I feel that everyone is treated equally across the board. But I do think we need to encourage more people of colour to step up and apply for management positions. Management representation makes a huge difference to the confidence level of young Black men and women. I know it helped me a lot.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
It means reflecting on the people who worked so hard, with so much courage, to get Black boys and girls to where we are today. It’s a time to give thanks to our ancestors for pushing through barriers and finding hope even when things looked hopeless. Thanks to them, we can sit together at the same table, drink from the same water fountain and love one another. It’s about leadership and integrity and determination to push toward higher heights. I thank God for being a Black woman. We have our hardships but we love one another and are able to love on others. It’s such a blessing. I want to keep it that way for my children.