Nicholas Marcus Thompson is shown in Toronto on Thursday April 29, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Action needed to end anti-Black racism in public service: advocates

OTTAWA — The federal government must address anti-Black racism in the public service by implementing timely changes to staffing processes and effective training programs for public servants, not by long-term promises, advocates say.

The Liberals pledged in the 2021 budget to make changes to the Public Service Employment Act that aim to promote a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson, one of 12 current and former Black federal workers who filed in December a proposed class-action lawsuit in Federal Court against the government, said their action is one of the reasons the government made this promise.

“There’s a lot of mental health issues associated with the discrimination, the systemic discrimination, that Black workers have faced and continue to face — a lot of racial trauma that Black workers are facing,” Thompson said.

The plaintiffs are alleging systemic discrimination in how the federal government has hired and promoted thousands of public servants for nearly half a century.

“There’s a glass ceiling at the bottom of the public service for Black workers, and the top of the public service is reserved for white folks,” he said.

None of the allegations has been tested in court. The plaintiffs are waiting for a certification hearing scheduled for June.

Treasury Board spokesperson Martin Potvin said it’s premature to comment on the lawsuit, but the government will consider all options, including alternative dispute resolution, as it seeks to address the concerns raised.

The national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada said anti-Black racism in the federal public service is widespread.

Chris Aylward said there’s limited opportunities for career growth or advancement due to systemic exclusion of Black employees.

“Canada’s public service represents itself as merit-based, inclusive and non-partisan but ongoing systemic discrimination and racism basically show that this is not the reality,” he said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind about that and it’s not specific to any one department or agency. I think it’s government-wide.”

Potvin of the Treasury Board said more work is needed to eliminate bias, barriers and discrimination in the public service.

“We must take deliberate and continual steps to remove systemic discrimination from our institutions and from our culture,” Potvin said in a statement.

Norma Domey, executive vice-president of the Professional Institute of Public Service of Canada, said she is the first Black executive in her institute’s 100-year history.

“It’s heavy on me to try to push the envelope for our folks and push diversity, and it just makes my job harder,” she said.

Domey said staffing process in the public service is not transparent, and there’s limited recourse provided to candidates, making it very difficult for them to challenge the system.

She said non-advertised appointments have dramatically increased to 60 per cent in 2020 compared to 29 per cent of all appointments in 2016.

Black employees fear retaliation if they challenge the process, she said.

“It’s the excessive use of non-advertised processes that add to the exclusion to the (marginalized) groups and given the demographics and the biases of hiring managers, it ends up being a huge disadvantage to folks like ourselves,” she said.

Domey said her institution was initially consulted on possible changes to the Public Service Employment Act, but it’s still unclear what changes to the act the government is considering.

“We’re hoping there’s going to be some progress on this whole staffing process, and the revamp of the Public Service Employment Act,” she said.

Potvin of the Treasury Board said information about the changes the government will propose to the act will be made available once legislation has been introduced in Parliament.

Thompson said the government should create a separate category for Black workers under the Employment Equity Act in order to guarantee better representation in the public service.

He said Black people are currently considered a part of the visible minority group.

“What we’ve seen is that they’ve consistently picked one or two groups from the entire visible minority category, (so) they meet (the requirements of) the Employment Equity Act,” he said.

Aylward of the Public Service Alliance of Canada also said federal departments meet the act requirements by hiring non-Black people of colour.

“They say ‘Oh, we’re on target. We’ve met our quota,’ kind of thing. And that’s simply not right,” he said.

He said a complete review of the Public Service Employment Act and the Employment Equity Act has to happen at the same time.

The 2021 federal budget commits $172 million over five years starting this year, with just over $36 million in ongoing funding, for Statistics Canada to develop an action plan on disaggregated data to help better inform federal efforts to tackle gender discrimination and systemic racism. That is part of $285 million over five years, and more than $40 million in ongoing funding, to collect better disaggregated data in Canada overall.

Potvin said the federal government has recently released disaggregated data on the makeup of the public service, using information from employees who self-identified as being part of employment equity subgroups under the broader categories of visible minorities, Indigenous people and persons with disabilities.

For example, the data shows that as of March 31, 2019, there were 6,468 employees across all departments and agencies, or just over three per cent, who self-identified specifically as Black. It also shows that out of 5,887 employees at the executive level, 96 of them self-identified as Black.

Thompson, who wants to see a shorter timeline for collecting disaggregated data more generally across the country, suggested the fact that the government already has this information about the public service underscores the problem.

“It makes it even worse,” he said. “You’ve been collecting the data and doing what with it?”

Domey said there also is a need for more bias-awareness training in the public service.

“People don’t even recognize when they’re being racist, so there’s something wrong with that picture,” she said.

She said the training courses need to be ongoing and entrenched into the public servants’ day-to-day activities.

“I hope it’s not just, ‘Oh, I’ve done my presentation. I’m the champion for diversity. Now, I can tick off that box and get my bonus.’ “

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