When they came to power in 2015, the Trudeau Liberals promised to ‘build a government that looks like Canada.’ Now those words have slowly been transformed into actions

Nice profile of a former IRCC colleague and her leadership in anti-Black racism both within IRCC and more broadly.

The percentage of visible minority executives is incorrectly stated at 4.6%, not the 11.1% in the latest employment equity report (for the numbers, see https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/october-2020/what-new-disaggregated-data-tells-us-about-federal-public-service-diversity/):

As she watched the George Floyd story and anti-Black-racism movement unfolding worldwide last summer, Farah Boisclair emailed her colleagues at Canada’s immigration department and called a town-hall meeting to talk about racism.

“I was going through a lot of emotions showing up to work. There’s a global movement and it was plastered all over the media, but no one was talking about it at work,” says Boisclair, director of the anti-racism task force at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

“Part of me saddened, part of me frustrated. Why isn’t anybody saying anything? That’s when I woke up and said, ‘You are a leader. You have the power. You have people who work with you, who look like you and who may be feeling a certain way, like you.”

With the blessing of her boss, she made her first presentation to more than 300 of her colleagues on topics such as experiences of microaggression, white privilege and racism.

Boisclair, whose mother is Haitian and father Guyanese, is now a member of the Federal Speakers’ Forum on Diversity and Inclusion, a platform where public servants share their lived experience with colleagues and management.

Trying to have a conversation about race and racism is tough, let alone at work in a professional setting. However, it’s one of the many initiatives the federal government is banking on in its attempts to make strides in creating and promoting a diverse and inclusive public service.

Earlier this year, with little fanfare, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat unveiled the government’s priorities to increase diversity in hiring and appointments within the public service — a commitment that was reaffirmed in the federal budget in April.

Collecting and breaking down its employee data by disability, ethnic backgrounds and executive roles, and ensuring the statistics are made public;

Launching the Centre for Diversity and Inclusion to lead and keep track of departments and agencies in their efforts to address systemic racism and boost diversity representation through collaboration with diverse community groups;

Revamping the government’s existing mentorship program and starting a sponsorship program to groom civil servants from under-represented groups into leadership and executive roles in their organizations; and

Setting up a speakers’ bureau, to help raise awareness about diversity and inclusion within the public service through a roster of speakers who share their experience across departments and ministries.

“There is good momentum across the government and a desire to make significant progress on diversity and inclusion,” said Paule-Anny Pierre, executive director of the new Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.

“Our actions will help ensure that decisions, initiatives and programs across the public service foster and promote a workplace that is respectful, diverse and inclusive, that represents the population it serves and that enables each employee to feel valued and contribute at their full potential.”

There’s a lot of work to be done to boost diversity in the public service, especially among those in the leadership roles. The latest government data shows visible minorities made up only 4.6 per cent of all executives and Blacks accounted for 1.6 per cent in those roles. [Note: Correct figure is 11.1 percent]

The 2020 Public Service Employee Survey, its results released in May, also added new questions to measure employees’ perceptions of anti-racism in the workplace.

Almost 80 per cent of the 188,786 respondents said they would feel free to speak about racism in the workplace without fear of reprisal and felt comfortable sharing concerns about issues related to racism in the workplace with a person of authority.

Born and raised in Ottawa, Boisclair said no one around her worked for government. However, a co-op opportunity with the federal government while studying finance at the University of Ottawa opened the door for her.

In her 13 years with the government, she has worked in various departments, including Industry Canada (now Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada), Natural Resources Canada and Infrastructure Canada.

On many occasions, she said, she would find herself one of the few or the only person who was a visible minority in her teams.

“I felt hyperaware of myself in these environments. I was constantly like, ‘Be careful what you say, be careful what you do, be careful how you interact.’ With that, I think, I held myself back a lot (in terms of) speaking up on my ideas and my thoughts,” said Boisclair.

“It’s very much like: ‘I’m here to do a job. They’re going to tell me what to do and I’m going to do it.’ … I knew I was different from the others. You don’t want to stick out too much. You try to go along to get along.”

As a Black woman, Boisclair said, she has experienced microaggression at work many times and felt invisible in board rooms.

“I will be joined by a white colleague, a woman around the same age, same group in level, both managers from the same team. I remember the treatment of my colleague when I was working with her for three years, it was very different,” she recalled.

“When we’d go to meetings together, I felt like it’s her race and even the standard of beauty in the North American context, she got very different treatment, more eye contact, more interaction with her. It’s hard and you don’t want it to get into your head.”

The experience, she said, made her feel less important and less valued.

Although the faces in the rank and file of the federal public service are changing, she said all her managers, until now, were predominantly white.

Periodically, Boisclair would have a mentor in her department but only recently was she assigned a Black woman as her official sponsor at work.

“It’s really important to have mentors from different groups and genders, because they each offer different perspectives and each can relate to you on different levels,” she said.

“I have had mentors who professionally give you really good advice but when it came to some of those deeper conversations about race and my identity in the workplace, that’s a bit tough with the white mentors,” she noted.

Dahabo Ahmed Omer, a policy development and employment equity expert, says mentorship/sponsorship and speakers’ bureau initiatives are important tools in building understanding and trust in order to create awareness and cultural change within the organization.

A former human resources specialist with the federal government herself, Ahmed Omer said government mandates, strategies and practices are set by senior leaders who play a key role in the building of an inclusive public service.

“There’s the history of slavery, anti-Indigenous racism. You build trust by listening actively and by implementing solutions that directly come from the community,” said Ahmed Omer, now the executive director of BlackNorth Initiative, an effort led by the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism.

“The voices of the most marginalized have to be at the forefront.”

Organizations must pick the right mentors, give access to as many mentees as possible and make sure the under-represented groups have opportunities to apply what they’ve learned so they can seize those opportunities when they arise at work, she noted.

From reviewing staffing plans to budget priorities and resource allocations through a diversity lens, Ahmed Omer said the effort must be “deliberate” and she is liking the federal plan she has seen so far.

Boisclair said she is grateful to have a sponsor at work, who gives her pointers in her career development, sends her articles to inspire and equip her, expand her network and champion her in the immigration department, which had 8,500 employees in 2020.

Last year, after seeing her anti-racism presentation with her staff, her sponsor invited her to speak to a couple of dozen deputy ministers from different departments in October. Since then, she has done about 25 townhalls within the federal public sector to share her experience and stories.

These conversations are difficult, said Boisclair, because they are “too raw” for a lot of people.

“You are talking about deep, deep, deep emotions, trauma and, in a lot of cases, some people just don’t know how to deal with emotions in the workplace. When some of the people are sharing some of the more intimate experiences, it’s hard,” she said.

“A lot of people don’t want to deal with the feelings of guilt. People don’t like to get uncomfortable,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense for them. Why would I put myself in an uncomfortable position?”

The experience from these candid conversations has also been refreshing and empowering.

“At the time, I was feeling like, I’m just tired of putting on a filter. I need to show my lived experience as a woman, as a Black person, as a Canadian, the full essence of who I am. That doesn’t often happen at the workplace for racialized people,” said Boisclair.

“I have had these dialogues for many, many years in close circles at home. You would never, never have these conversations at work. For me, it’s time to open people’s minds up to the reality of systemic racism and the harmful impacts of it.”

While these conversations, along with the mentorship/sponsorship program, can drive awareness of racial understanding and organizational cultural change, Ryerson University professor Wendy Cukier says disaggregated data can provide the barometer to identify gaps and measure results.

“We need good data to tracking things like what works and what doesn’t work. We need to apply the same gender and diversity lens to how government spends money and who it’s serving. There’s the inward piece but also the outward reaching piece,” said Cukier, founder and academic director at Ryerson’s Diversity Institute.

“It’s not that anybody deliberately puts up bars or gates, but you need the data to see if certain segments of the population are applying for jobs in my department and what I can do to increase engagement.”

The latest statistics on employment equity populations published by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat provide a glimpse at the diversity representation of the federal public service:

Overall, visible minorities made up 656 or 4.6 per cent of all executives;

Black people made up 96 or 1.6 per cent of all executives;

Indigenous peoples made up 239 or 4.1 per cent of all executives;

There were 1,387 persons with disabilities working in administrative support, which was 7 per cent of all these employees; and

People who are blind or visually impaired made up 767 or 0.4 per cent of all employees.

“Leaders have to represent the people they are leading, otherwise they are not going to be very effective. When organizations have leaders who look like the people they are leading, they have higher levels of engagement,” said Cukier.

“People tend to associate with people who look like them. If you’re from a racialized population, you are less likely to have a social network that will help you understand the unspoken rules that will mentor you and promote you at work.”

Cukier said the dominant group in the workforce should not feel threatened fearing that the progress for their under-represented peers will be made at their expense, given the civil service is full of boomers, many of them will be retiring in the near future.

“There is a huge challenge in digital and technological transformation in the public sector, which has one of the most acute skill shortages. This is not a question of new people pushing the established group out, this is a question of meeting concrete need for skills and new thinking,” she said.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to rely on the same kind of people if your goal is to drive transformation. We know there’s a strong link between diversity and innovation.”

Quebec MP Greg Fergus, parliamentary secretary to Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos, agreed.

“You don’t make this a ‘I win, you lose’ kind of equation. It’s not an ‘either or.’ It’s a ‘both and.’ We all benefit by growing the pie. We’re better together,” said Fergus. “This is not about cutting anybody’s career short. This is about building a more resilient public service.”

Source: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/05/23/when-they-came-to-power-in-2015-the-trudeau-liberals-promised-to-build-a-government-that-looks-like-canada-now-those-words-have-slowly-been-transformed-into-actions.html

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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