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

By on 23/08/2022 | Updated on 23/08/2022
Janice Charette: "We cannot underestimate the work ahead of us".

The Canadian public service has reiterated its commitment to confronting racism and becoming more equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible in its annual report to prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

Making the issue “everyone’s priority” is one of three key action areas pinpointed by cabinet secretary and clerk of the Privy Council, Janice Charette. Though much has already been done, “we cannot underestimate the work ahead of us”, she said.  

The document also set out what the public service has achieved in the last year, the lessons from the pandemic, a commitment to boost employees’ mental health and wellbeing, and acknowledged the challenges of a competitive labour market.

On diversity and inclusion, Charette described what progress had been made since her predecessor Ian Shugart issued a call to action on racism, equity and inclusion in the federal public service last year.  

This includes:

  • The Mosaic Leadership Development Program – launched by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat’s Centre on Diversity and Inclusion – which aims to address underrepresentation at the executive level and increase diversity in leadership positions. It welcomed its first cohort in autumn 2021.
  • The launch of a pilot recruitment initiative to hire neurodivergent candidates into the public service.
  • A whole-of-government apprenticeship programme designed to improve the representation of indigenous peoples in the federal government’s IT community.
  • The rollout of accessibility tools and services from Shared Service Canada’s Accessibility, Accommodation and Adaptive Computer Technology team to help ensure employees with disabilities are equipped to do their jobs and can participate fully in all events and meetings.

Read more: Canada’s public safety agencies told to stamp out institutional racism and discrimination

Charette also touched upon the work of a large number of public service communities, including the Network of Asian Federal Employees, which launched a ‘Return to the Workplace Survey’ to inform departments and central agencies of the considerations and perspectives of diverse federal public service employees on going back to offices following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a start,” she said. “However, I know that there are still challenges that will require practical and thoughtful solutions. I know that implementation has been uneven and that not all voices feel like they are being heard. As we continue to move forward, we must support each other and help bring people along who are not as advanced in their journey.”

Canada forced to confront its ‘grim history’

Tackling racism has been a focus for the Canadian public service and society at large over the last two years, since they were rocked by revelations that forced them to confront examples of institutional racism.

In December 2020, 12 black public servants filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government alleging decades of systematic and institutional racism. By September 2021, the number of claimants had reached 1,100. It was this, in part, that led Shugart to issue his call to action.  

And last year, hundreds of unmarked graves of children were discovered at sites near ‘residential schools’. Funded by government and usually run by Christian churches, indigenous children were forced to attend such schools over a period of 165 years to 1996.

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

“The past several months have precipitated deep reflection on the unjust treatment of black people, other racialised groups, and indigenous peoples in our society. As public servants come forward and courageously share their lived experiences, the urgency of removing systemic racism from our institutions and from our culture becomes more evident,” Shugart wrote in the call to action.

In the document, titled ‘The time is now’, Shugart called on the public service to undertake measures such as:

  • Appointing black, indigenous and members of other minority groups both to the executive level through career development and talent management, and across the public service.
  • Sponsoring and supporting talented employees from such groups into leadership development programmes.
  • Combatting all forms of racism, discrimination and other barriers to inclusion in the workplace “by taking action on what we have learned, empowering employees to speak up about bias and oppression, and better equipping managers to address these issues”.
  • Enabling the work of grassroots networks and communities.
  • Including voices from diverse backgrounds in the identification of systemic racism, discrimination and barriers to inclusion, and the design and implementation of actions to address them.

He called on departments and agencies to measure progress and drive improvements in the employee workplace experience by monitoring survey results and related operational data – including promotion and mobility rates and tenure – and to act “on what the results are telling us”.

Better responding to Canadians’ diverse needs

In the latest annual report, Charette said: “Retaining the confidence of our employees requires us to take seriously the need to stamp out racism and discrimination of all types in our workplaces and make the public service inclusive, accessible and representative of the population it serves.

“Not only is this the right thing to do for our employees, both current and future, but it will allow us to design and deliver solutions that better respond to Canadians’ diverse needs.”

Read more: Canadian government announces new initiatives to boost diversity and inclusion

Though she said most government organisations are “taking concrete action to do better”, she added that “much more is needed”, including recommitting to “listening to diverse voices” and celebrating those who are leading and embracing change while “tackling mindsets” that are hesitant or resistant to it.

“We cannot lose our focus. This is about ongoing action to transform over the long term, and every public servant has a role to play,” she said.

Listen: Canada’s recently retired head of public service accessibility, Yazmine Laroche, discusses the importance of representation in our latest Leading Questions podcast

In Global Government Forum’s latest Leading Questions podcast, the Canadian public service’s recently retired head of civil service accessibility, Yazmine Laroche, talked fervidly about her fears that civil services around the world will become irrelevant “and have terrible outcomes” should they fail to harness the talent in people who are not the accepted norm.

“Talent comes in every shape, colour, size and we have to be able to tap into that,” she said.

“If we’re not as representative as we can be, why would people rely on us and trust us?” 

In his podcast episode, Canada’s former Cabinet secretary and head of the Privy Council Michael Wernick said systemic racism continues to exist in Canadian government processes.

Government data shows that between March 2020 and March 2021, the number of indigenous executives was up 43 to a total of 297, the number of black executives was up 29 to 128, and that the number of what it calls “racialised executives” – members of visible minorities including those who identify as black – was up by 116 to 830.

Read more: Institutional racism: a global government problem?

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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.

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