Black public servants in Canada having to ‘recount trauma’ in US$1.97bn racism lawsuit, says organiser

By on 29/09/2022 | Updated on 29/09/2022
Nicholas Marcus Thompson stands with representative plaintiffs Michelle Herbert (left) and Kathy Ann Samuel (right). Photo: Cypher Designs via Wikimedia Commons / Black Class Action

One of the organisers behind a legal case alleging black public servants suffered racism over a period of five decades has accused the Government of Canada of delaying the case and causing plaintiffs to recount the trauma they had faced.

Since the case against the federal government was filed in December 2020, the number of claimants who allege they suffered racism while working in the public service since 1970, has risen from 12 to 1,100. They are seeking C$2.5bn (US$1.97bn) in compensation for “pain, suffering and financial losses” and the implementation of a number of workforce policies that would address discrimination.

In an interview aired on political affairs TV programme The West Block last week, Nicholas Marcus Thompson, one of the organisers of the case, said the government was “speaking from both sides of its mouth” – acknowledging racism within the public service and vowing to combat it whilst simultaneously making decisions that he said harmed claimants.  

Read more: New Canadian government faces US$1.97bn class action lawsuit

“They’re saying one thing publicly and they’re fighting black workers in court,” Thompson said, adding that federal lawyers keep bringing forward motions “to delay the case”.

“The government has fully acknowledged that this issue exists in all of its institutions and that the pain and damage that it causes is real. And then it shows up in court fighting black workers, forcing black workers to recount the trauma that they’ve endured at the hands of the government for decades.”

In September last year, Thompson acknowledged that the government was “taking some steps” to address the root cause of the problem but added that it was giving mixed messages. “It’s not giving a clear direction, it’s quite troubling for workers who want to see a settlement,” he said.  

Government: ‘There is still more to do’

In response to Thompson’s comments, Monica Granados, press secretary at the Office of the President, told Global Government Forum: “While we have made progress in fighting systemic racism and injustice in Canada, far too many black Canadians still face discrimination and hate. We thank those advocating for change and sharing their stories.

“The government is actively working to address harms and to creating a diverse and inclusive public service free from harassment and discrimination. We passed legislation, created support and development programs, and published disaggregated data – but know there is still more to do.”

She said government recognised that black public servants “can face barriers in career advancement, as well as distinct mental health challenges” and that it had begun working with black public servants to co-create a Black Mental Health Fund and a plan to address barriers in the workplace.

Read more: Institutional racism: a global government problem?  

She advised that Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board, and Greg Fergus, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, would be meeting Thompson and, separately, black employee networks today (29 September).

On the case, she said “the court has set out the next steps and timeline in the process and the government will respect these requirements”.

Seeking to ‘permanently address discrimination’

The class action states that it is seeking “long-term solutions to permanently address racism and discrimination” in Canada’s public sector. Alongside the compensation fund, it also asks for the creation of a Black Equity Commission charged with investigating the challenges faced by black workers and implementing initiatives to combat them; the creation of an “equitable representation” policy that would require government to ensure the number of black federal employees at least equals that of the general population; and an external reporting mechanism so workers can report racism and harassment. It is also seeking an apology from prime minister Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau acknowledged institutional racism in June last year. “Systematic racism is an issue across the country, in all our institutions,” he said. The Black Mental Health Fund currently being worked up was one of his pledges ahead of the federal election in September 2021, in which he was re-elected for a third term.

Read more: ‘Much more needed’ to combat racism and improve diversity in Canadian public service, says chief

Shortly after the class-action lawsuit was filed, the then clerk of the Privy Council Ian Shugart launched a call to action on anti-racism. In a message to all heads of agencies, Shugart said “we have an obligation to our employees to do better… As public servants come forward to courageously share their lived experiences, the urgency of removing systemic racism from our institutions becomes more evident”.

He gave public service leaders nine areas to address including appointing more black and indigenous employees to leadership roles.

Government data shows that between March 2020 and March 2021, the number of black executives was up 29 to 128.

However, in the public service’s annual report to Trudeau, delivered in August, Janice Charette, the current clerk of the Privy Council, wrote that though much had already been done, “not all voices feel like they are being heard” and that “we can’t underestimate the work ahead of us”. She reiterated the public service’s commitment to confronting racism and becoming more equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible.

A procedural ‘certification hearing’ will be the next major step in what is expected to be a long, drawn-out case. The hearing had originally been scheduled to take place earlier this month but has been put back to 8 May 2023.

Read more: Michael Wernick: Confronted with Canada’s grim history, we must strive to do better on inclusion

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. Jermaine P. says:

    Not one person commented???
    Hard to believe it!

    I am sure someone somewhere must support this case…!

    Right??……Riiight?

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