New Canadian government faces US$700m class action lawsuit

By on 19/09/2021 | Updated on 19/09/2021
Canada has a good reputation for supporting diversity – but a court action alleges ongoing, widespread discrimination against black civil servants. Photo courtesy GoToVan via Flickr

After the polls close in the Canadian federal election scheduled for 20 September, the newly-formed government will have to decide its next steps on a C$900m (US$711m) class action lawsuit brought by its black federal workers. Alleging decades of systematic and institutional racism, the class action – filed in the Federal Court of Canada in December last year – has grown from 12 initial claimants to more than 520. The case has been brought on behalf of all black federal employees that have experienced discrimination and racism in their employment since 1970, and could cover 300,000 past and present workers.

Prime minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged that institutional racism is rife within the country’s public sector. “Systematic racism is an issue across the country, in all our institutions,” he said in June. During the election campaign, he has pledged that a re-elected Liberal government would establish a fund to support the “mental health of black Canadians in the public service”. The pledge was viewed as a softening in stance, after the government had maintained that it already had systems in place to help black workers.

Liberal Party spokesperson Alex Wellstead recently commented that “Black Canadians face unique challenges in the workplace,” adding: “That is why we’ve committed to work on the design and establishment of this fund, which directly responds to calls from black employees in the public service and will ensure that black public servants are supported,’ CBC reported.

However, claimants vowed to press on with the action. Black Class Action, which is co-ordinating the suit, said it hopes that whichever party forms the next government will work with black civil servants to address their concerns. “If they do, then they will have a willing partner,” said Hugh R. Scher, a Black Class Action lawyer. “If they don’t, they will have a worthy adversary in court.”

The asks

The action states that it is seeking “long-term solutions to permanently address racism and discrimination” in Canada’s public sector. Alongside the creation of a C$900m financial compensation fund to address the “pain, suffering and financial losses” of black workers over the past 50 years, it asks for the creation of a Black Equity Commission charged with investigating the challenges faced by black workers, implementing solutions and holding  other public bodies to account. It is also seeking an “equitable representation” policy, to ensure the number of black federal employees at least equals that of the general population, and an apology from the prime minister. In addition, it wants an external reporting mechanism so workers can report racism and harassment; and an option for people to declare themselves as ‘black’ in employee monitoring forms rather than ‘visible minority’.

The next potential step for the case is for it to be certified. As the landmark suit brings together three initial claims, a court judge must approve it as a class action, thereby binding all the claimants together. There is no set timetable for this yet. This approval would then pave the way for court proceedings. Any new government will have to decide whether to continue negotiations, or challenge the certification in court.

In the final days of election campaigning, several of the claimants spoke out about their experiences. Carol Sip, a former employee of the Canada Revenue Agency, said her time there became a “nightmare”. She reported multiple incidents of racism and harassment by her supervisor, but only two of her complaints were upheld. She told CBC that she felt blacklisted for complaining, and in 26 years was never promoted beyond her clerical position. “I look at the young children growing up and I don’t want them to go through what I personally went through, or the others have gone through,” she said.

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