Lisette Sumbu, phone to her ear, quickly finds a quiet room at her sister’s house while her brother-in-law babysits her toddler son.
She’s holding it together, even belting out a hearty laugh, as she describes a tumultuous year as
Then her voice cracks.
“It broke my heart. I had a lot of love for that woman. It’s just devastating that someone can just not care and treat you like shit after I broke my back for that job,” she says.
Sumbu, a 33-year-old single mom from Amherst, says she’s filed a human rights complaint against Smith-McCrossin for discrimination and harassment.
Since April, Sumbu has been on constructive dismissal. This means she has resigned due to a continuously hostile work environment. Prior to leaving the job, she claims her former boss breached her medical privacy and drove her to take a mental health leave.
“Her behaviour was extremely offensive. The things that she was saying...they were disrespectful and mean,” Sumbu says in a phone interview with The Coast.
Smith-McCrossin did not respond to any of The Coast’s requests for comment, despite several emails and phone calls to her office about Sumbu’s claims.
The MLA is currently contending for the provincial Progressive Conservative leadership. In April, she controversially argued legal cannabis would curb Nova Scotians’ productivity as it has done to Jamaicans.
Smith-McCrossin has since publicly apologized in a now-deleted Facebook post, saying she “sincerely did not feel that my comments would be viewed in a negative light, but I was wrong.”
Sumbu, an African Nova Scotian, says the MLA’s comments were more than just a misunderstanding. The discrimination she says she endured stems from Smith-McCrossin’s racial and classist prejudice, says Sumbu.
“That’s that whole culture of normalizing racism—that we act like it’s not real. And it’s so unfair.”
It all began when Sumbu applied for the constituency position last June. At the time, she was desperately looking to support her small family.
“I took the job because it was an opportunity and she seemed like a business owner, a mom and someone who would really be a good mentor to me,” Sumbu says.
The day she was offered the position, Sumbu says Smith-McCrossin commented on her face tattoos—“blessed life”
As an assistant to the MLA, Sumbu resolved constituents’ problems with government departments. Most days she worked alone with the MLA in her office. Sumbu says, to her knowledge, she was the only Black employee in the workplace.
After contracting shingles, Sumbu says she texted Smith-McCrossin saying a doctor told her the rash was contagious, but that she would like to come into work anyway.
She says the MLA responded by questioning her diagnosis and asked for the doctor’s name.
Sumbu ignored the text and went to work. At the office, Smith-McCrossin confronted her, telling her she knew which doctor she saw and tried convincing her the rash was not contagious.
Sumbu says this incident was a breach of her privacy. Later, the work situation became hostile enough that Sumbu says she decided to take a mental health leave.
Notifying Smith-McCrossin about her decision, Sumbu says the MLA responded by asking if she could afford the time off work.
“I said, ‘I’m suicidal,’ and I left.”
Smith-McCrossin is a former health and wellness critic for the Conservatives and is currently campaigning for improved provincial mental health care.
Two days prior to Sumbu’s return to work, Smith-McCrossin made her legislative argument against legalized cannabis.
Personally offended, Sumbu planned on addressing her concerns during a meeting with the MLA upon her return.
But she was surprised to see Smith-McCrossin’s sister—a woman Sumbu says has no formal position at the MLA’s office—accompanying them during the meeting.
“I felt like it was an ambush,” she says. “At the end of the day, that’s a breach of confidentiality right there. She didn’t even tell me why she was there or give me an explanation.”
When Sumbu suggested how the MLA should handle the backlash against her Jamaican comments, she says she was immediately shut down by both women.
“For her to act like it doesn’t matter that she made those comments—that it’s irrelevant—to me, is racist.”
Sumbu says she told Smith-McCrossin she wasn’t comfortable returning to work unless the MLA completed cultural sensitivity training and publicly apologized.
Though Smith-McCrossin did eventually apologize, Sumbu says the MLA refused to provide documented proof of her completed sensitivity training. That’s when Sumbu had to leave.
“I left crying, I left sobbing. I can laugh about it now, but it was awful,” Sumbu says. “I am still hurt by that altercation.”
She consulted with African Nova Scotian Affairs who referred her to the Human Rights Commission. There, she filed a formal complaint against the MLA.
Sumbu says Smith-McCrossin has since offered her severance pay, which Sumbu declined. She would instead like to return to an improved work environment.
Since her departure, Sumbu says the MLA didn’t return phone calls from Service Canada Employment Insurance Program, ultimately stalling her EI payments nearly two months.
If she can’t return to Smith-McCrossin’s office, Sumbu hopes to be paid for the remaining three years of her contract and the mitigated amounts from Employment Insurance when she was on sick leave.
“I went way above and beyond in that job every single day,” she says. “I love that job, so, so much. And I’m pretty devastated that I’m not there anymore because of her.”