Black public servants’ lawsuit will force public service ‘to look deeply inside its structure,’ says former senator who’s fought for diversity in the PS for decades


While the concerns are legitimate, this focus on Black public servants as being unique and thus needing unique measures downplays the fact that other visible minority groups also are under-represented and some more so than Black public servants (yet again, see my What new disaggregated data tells us about federal public service …). Without situating these concerns in relation to other visible minority (and Indigenous) groups, and with minimal data to support these claims, an opportunity is missed for a more evidence-based and fulsome discussion:
 
 
Plaintiff Kathy Ann Samuel, who has worked within the department of public prosecutions as a legal assistant for the last 19 years, said she’s ‘tired of being tired’ and that ‘change has to start from the top, it has to start with the government.’

Former Senator Don Oliver, who has argued for decades that the government needs to appoint more Black judges, deputy and associate deputy ministers, and chiefs of staff in government offices, says he was not surprised to read about a planned class action lawsuit on behalf of current and former Black employees within the public service, and that he had “predicted and warned about one for 20 years.”

Twelve plaintiffs are involved in the proposed class-action lawsuit by former and current Black federal public servants, which alleges that Black employees have been systematically excluded from advancement and subjected to discrimination within the government for decades. They are seeking $900-million in damages.

“It’s happening now,” said Mr. Oliver. “I am not part of the lawsuit. But having fought hard for 22 years while a Senator to teach diversity in the public service to ‘simply accept difference,’ I was often a lone voice in the wilderness. But given what facts in the planned suit we know to be true, because they are backed by data, I accept and support that.”

“I have deep respect for the public service of Canada,” said Mr. Oliver. “Over two decades I have worked very closely with several eminent deputy ministers and clerks of the Privy Council trying to find ways to change the culture of some 300,000 employees and root out systemic black racism.”

Mr. Oliver said that the class action lawsuit immediately reminded him of a class action lawsuit filed by current and former African American employees against Coca Cola in the United States, something which Mr. Oliver addressed in 2000 in a major speech to the Senate.

“As in the Canadian suit, they alleged racial discrimination that produced lower pay, less promotions, and poor performance evaluations,” wrote Mr. Oliver in an emailed statement to The Hill Times. “The Black employees won the largest settlement ever in a corporate racial discrimination case, $192-million.”

Mr. Oliver also said he’s warned that given the systemic racism that exists in our largest corporations and institutions in Canada, the same thing could happen here. The former Senator now chairs the Black North Initiative committee on public relations and the public sector.

“I can state that the clerk [of the Privy Council], Ian Shugart, has been extremely open and forthcoming in helping us meet our 3.5 per cent targets looking to the future,” said Mr. Oliver. “That is most encouraging. The planned lawsuit looks to actions in the past.”

In regards to the highly publicized death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who was killed by a police officer who pinned him down with a knee to his neck in June 2020, Mr. Oliver called it a “pivotal moment” that “brought to light the insidious but painful truth in Canada about white privilege.”

“The ‘perk’ that white people get by virtue of their colour,” said Mr. Oliver. “The lawsuit is a logical and natural next step after the necessary data has been secured.”

“The lawsuit will force the Public Service to look deeply inside its structure and systems to find ways to eradicate white privilege in performance evaluations and all other known forms of systemic Black racism,” wrote Mr. Oliver. “It must start with some profound personal soul searching that will require all white managers to learn to accept some uncomfortable truths.”

“The machinery of government, i.e., getting a new government department, is something directed from PMO and when that directive comes to PCO one way or another, the Clerk of the Privy Council and all the deputy ministers must fall in line. The ongoing work we are doing in the Black North Initiative to find ways to break down systemic Black racism is going well,” wrote Mr. Oliver. “We have been working with a number of senior bureaucrats of good will. This will continue.”

Nicholas Marcus Thompson, who works for the Canada Revenue Agency as a collections contact officer and a plaintiff in the suit, told The Hill Times that the lawsuit started with the Canada Revenue Agency, calling it a “focal point” of this issue last week.

As a union president in Toronto, representing 800 workers in two offices, Mr. Thompson said he’s been advocating around this issue for years.

“In one of my buildings I have 1,100 workers, and there’s 20 Black people,” said Mr. Thompson. “I asked them to address this issue, to provide developmental opportunities to Black people so when staffing processes come out, they have the experience to apply.”

“They are giving the experience to other visible minorities and Caucasian employees, who are getting that opportunity,” said Mr. Thompson. “So that’s why we say ‘Black employee exclusion,’ and that’s why it’s not about visible minorities, because by far, they are allowing other visible minorities to move ahead and get into the management program and into the executive program.”

Duane Guy Guerra, a full-time employee at the Department of National Defence as a heavy equipment technician for more than 20 years, told The Hill Times that the class action lawsuit “is the next step in doing what I can do, and what seems to be happening now is that people are actually listening.”

Mr. Guerra said that when he first began working for the department in 1999, he was very excited and happy to be there and considered it the next step in his automotive career.

“I worked at General Motors for 13 years, I was proud of that, and I was really good at my job, and I figured, why not take my skills to the next level and try to do something better to serve my country?” said Mr. Guerra. “So I moved to [DND], and I was well received there until I started to try and advance, even though I had the support of my military supervisors.”

Kathy Ann Samuel, who works within the Department of Public Prosecutions as a legal assistant for the last 19 years, said she’s “tired of being tired.”

“Throughout the years, we have marched, we have come together, we have asked, we’ve begged, we’ve done different actions, and no change has been done,” said Ms. Samuel. “The change has to start from the top, it has to start with the government and the law has to be changed.”

“It’s just time, it’s the right thing to do,” said Ms. Samuel.

When asked about the brutal death of George Floyd in the summer, an event caught on video that galvanized thousands of people in Canada and in the United States, Ms. Samuel said the spirit of that moment is still alive.

“For what other people think, it may have passed for them,” said Ms. Samuel. “For us, for the Black community it has not passed. I have children—I have a Black son and I have a Black daughter, and anything can happen—they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it’s very troubling.”

“When it happened with George Floyd, every single video made me cry, because I put my son in that situation, I put my nephews in that situation, and it could be anybody, and it’s disheartening that in 2020, the Black community is still going through these types of incidents that have happened in the past,” said Ms. Samuel.

Courtney Betty, a Toronto-based lawyer involved in the proposed class action suit, told The Hill Times that “immediately, we would like to see the government prepared to enter into a dialogue with the parties to come up with a resolution.”

“It would avoid litigation and what I would say, is also some incredibly embarrassing stories of the pain and suffering that so many individuals [have experienced], and I think it would be a public embarrassment for Canada internationally when these stories become public,” said Mr. Betty. “It is just really beyond description in terms of the pain and suffering that these plaintiffs have faced.”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment for this story.

Source: Black public servants’ lawsuit will force public service ‘to look deeply inside its structure,’ says former senator who’s fought for diversity in the PS for decades

Erica Ifill also misses this opportunity for a more informed discussion:

If the makeup of an organization is such that Black employees are ghettoized at the lower ranks with a mostly white managerial class, that’s not equity; that’s segregation, intentional or not. And yet, for months, we’ve seen many such institutions perform the equivalent of just taking a knee – proclaiming their commitment to resolving anti-Black racism generally without admitting its existence within their structure or committing to concrete action.

But for some institutions, chickens are coming home to roost. That includes Canada’s federal government, which is quick to crow about diversity but apparently needs to clean up its own coop first.

Last week, 12 Black public servants launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, claiming it “failed to uphold the Charter rights of Black employees in the federal public service, shirking its responsibility to create discrimination- and harassment-free workplaces, and actively excluding Black bureaucrats”.

Systemic racism has become the new buzzword, one that many leaders are happy to throw around, but few actually know how to define. That includes RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, who said earlier this year that she was “struggling” with the term and had denied its existence in her organization. It should be no surprise that the RCMP is named among the departments accused in the lawsuit.

To fill folks in, systemic racism is discrimination perpetuated by a system that produces disparate outcomes based on race, despite the racial composition of those within the system, or whether the participants themselves are racist or not. Diversity does not resolve racism. Rather, without equity, it’s just an act of glorified window-dressing. Claiming diversity as your strength – as the organizations named in the lawsuit are wont to do – is not a get-out-of-jail-free card against the possibility of perpetuating systemic racism, just like having a Black friend does not permanently absolve someone of any act of racism.

A spokesperson from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat insists the federal government has taken steps to address anti-Black systemic racism across the country, citing that “the fall economic statement committed $12-million over three years toward a dedicated centre on diversity and inclusion in the federal public service. This will accelerate the government’s commitment to achieving a representative and inclusive public service.” However, recruiting more Black people will not solve the systemic problem of anti-Black racism in the public service. Effectively, the government has offered a solution to the wrong problem.

The government’s response makes clear only that no attempt has been made to review the existing structures and systems of accountability that prevent the promotion of Black people to the senior ranks, where other racialized groups are more represented. Treasury Board Secretariat’s own data show that Black employees’ salary ranges coalesce at the lower ends of the spectrum compared to those of other racialized groups and white employees, with miniscule representation at the higher ends, which would indicate management levels. The problem is the distribution of Black employees, who tend to occupy more administrative roles than analytical ones, which would enable them to move into management positions. Black executives make up only 1.6 per cent of the executive class (96 out of 5,887) yet comprise nearly 5 per cent of the administrative support staff (971 out of 19,900). This indicates that Black people are either not recruited at higher levels or they are not promoted into higher levels.

Dismantling systemic racism necessitates a genuine and effortful cultural shift in organizations that are stubbornly reticent to change. Expecting change from those who have benefitted from the existing structure is a near-impossible feat, which is why much of the work is usually left to a racialized third party.

The way forward includes anti-racism training that features critical race theory and leadership development, instead of the kind of vanilla anti-bias and diversity training that is mostly focussed on reducing legal liability. According to Harvard Business Review, that kind of training has been offered for decades with little effect: “laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out.” Policies, procedures, processes and accountability systems need to be audited for equity and remedies executed. As well, internal communications must be overhauled – not to hedge against liability, but to speak to employees with the intention of transparency and accountability.

Without a systemic and systematic makeover, businesses and organizations all over the country will face a reckoning that could have them spending more time and money in a courtroom, instead of the boardroom. If the federal government can be sued, anyone can, making inaction on dismantling systemic racism a potentially expensive liability.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-ottawa-claims-diversity-is-our-strength-so-why-is-it-being-sued-by/

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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