Black civil servants allege discrimination in proposed class-action lawsuit against Ottawa
A group of current and former Black civil servants has issued a proposed class-action lawsuit against the federal government alleging it discriminated against Black employees for decades.
They claim the government has excluded Black federal employees from being promoted.
“Our exclusion at the top levels of the public service, in my view, has really disenfranchised Canada from that talent and that ability and the culture that Black workers bring to the table and that different perspective,” said Nicholas Marcus Thompson.
Thompson is one of 12 former or current employees from multiple government departments who are representative plaintiffs in the class action. Lawyers representing them say the suit could ultimately cover tens of thousands of people who have worked in the federal public service since 1970.
The lawsuit comes at a time of heightened awareness about systemic and anti-Black racism.
In June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said systemic racism “is an issue across the country, in all our institutions.”
The plaintiffs in the proposed class action are asking for $900 million in damages, a declaration from the government that it infringed on the group’s charter rights and a plan going forward to promote more Black employees.
It was filed in the Federal Court of Canada on Thursday and is awaiting certification. The government is expected to be served in the coming days.
Lack of representation
The lawyers representing the civil servants say the suit is likely the first of its kind in Canada involving Black public servants at the federal level. The statement of claim names more than 50 departments and agencies as comprising the public service.
Last year, two Black Ontario government employees sued the Ontario Public Service, among others, alleging discrimination because they were Black women.
In an interview in Toronto with CBC News, Thompson said that when he joined the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) six years ago, something felt off to him.
“When I became a Canadian citizen many years ago, I remember the citizenship judge saying that Canada is a place where freedom abounds and opportunities are endless. But when I joined the CRA, that was my expectation that I could join, start at any position and climb the ranks. And my goal was really to serve Canadians,” he said.
“I quickly realized that the agency was not, you know, as I thought it would be: all inclusive and diverse.”
Thompson, who was a collections officer, said a lack of Black representation in the agency caused his morale and confidence to suffer. He also said the work environment was toxic and led to illness.
When his doctor gave him a prescription for a “workplace accommodation,” Thompson said he was told to clean closets because no other work was available.
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The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which is the employer of the federal public service, said it could not comment on the allegations in the suit because it was before the courts.
“Systemic racism and discrimination is a painful lived reality for Black Canadians, racialized Canadians and Indigenous people,” said spokesperson Bianca Healy in a statement.
“The government has taken steps to address anti-Black racism, systemic discrimination and injustice across the country.”
She said that includes a recently announced $12 million for “a dedicated Centre on Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Public Service.”
The CRA referred CBC News to the Treasury Board statement.
Complaints in multiple departments and agencies
Bernadeth Betchi is another representative plaintiff who also worked for the CRA off and on for several years.
In a Skype interview, she described a toxic workplace where she said she experienced microaggressions and had to go on sick leave. She had to work twice as hard as her non-Black colleagues to get noticed, she said.
Betchi ended up leaving the CRA and eventually found work at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) — a federal organization that handles complaints about discrimination.
“Everything that they are about was everything that I am about, you know, it resonated with my values. It’s there to help Canadians — Canadians who have been discriminated against, you know, on different grounds. And so I knew that this is where I needed to be,” said Betchi, who’s on a maternity leave from the CHRC.
But her views quickly changed.
“When I started working there, I saw that, unfortunately, what the mandate says and what’s being done inside of the organization is completely different. Black folks within the Canadian Human Rights Commission, my Black colleagues, are suffering. They’re being — there’s a lot of adverse differential treatment.”
When asked to comment on the allegations, CHRC said it “is committed to meeting the highest standards of equality, inclusion and representation” and that it has been “examining how racism may manifest itself within our organization and what steps might be needed to address it.”
“We know that Indigenous, Black and other racialized people face many societal, institutional and structural barriers to equality,” said spokesperson Jeff Meldrum in an email.
“That is why work is underway to ensure that the views and perspectives of Indigenous, Black and other racialized employees on barriers that may exist within the Commission are heard and addressed. ”
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“There is a grave injustice that’s taking place,” said Courtney Betty, a Toronto lawyer involved in the class action.
“I think every Canadian should be troubled.”
Betty and his colleague, Hugh Scher, decided the lawsuit’s time frame would start in 1970, the year Canada ratified the United Nations international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination.
In a joint interview, Betty and Scher spoke about possible solutions they hope will stem from the lawsuit if it’s certified.
“There needs to be a third-party audit undertaken by an independent body, whether that’s a former Supreme Court justice, whether that’s a Black equity commission,” Scher said.
That third party should do a thorough review “to see what are the barriers to true equality and access and inclusion for Black employees, and what can be done about them,” he said.
Scher said another key element would be amending the federal Employment Equity Act.
Its stated goal is “to achieve equality in the workplace so that no person shall be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability.”
The legislation is also designed “to correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.”
But the lawyers argue that because Black employees are grouped together with all non-white and non-Indigenous people as “visible minorities” under the act, they’ve suffered by not moving up in the public service — and the unique racism they have to deal with has been ignored.
Betchi agrees. “There’s not a lot of Black women or Black men at the executive level,” she said. “Our experience has been completely invisible and put aside.”
The Treasury Board has data that breaks down the “visible minority” category in the public service based on self-reporting by employees. It shows that in 2019, Black workers made up a smaller proportion of those in top-level executive positions than those doing administrative support.
Thompson said he’s optimistic the lawsuit will spark change.
“I’m very hopeful that this issue will be addressed in a forthright manner by the government of Canada,” he said. “The government has shown signs that it is prepared. It has done the first major part by acknowledging that this issue exists.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.