Indigenous public servants pursue class-action lawsuit against feds for harassment, discrimination in workplace

On the heels of the class action lawsuit initiated by Black public servants (my sense of looking at employment equity and public service employment survey data is that disparities are greater with respect to Indigenous public servants).

Likely coincidental, but announcement happening in parallel to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation:

Systemic racism in federal Indigenous departments and agencies has led to human rights and Charter violations, allege two First Nations public servants—one current, one former—pursuing a multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit against the federal government. 

statement of claim—the opening salvo for a possible class-action suit—outlining the experiences of lead plaintiffs Yvette Zentner and Letitia Wells was filed with the Federal Court in Calgary on Sept. 14. The pair are represented by lawyer Mathew Farrell of Guardian Law Group LLP. 

Ms. Zentner is a member of the Siksika Nation in Alberta and has been working for Indian Oil and Gas Canada (IOGC), a special operating agency within Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), since 1997. Ms. Wells is from Kainaiwa First Nation, a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy from the Treaty 7 Territory, and is a former contract employee of IOGC, where she worked from September 2015 until the end of March 2020. 

Both women say they experienced harassment and discrimination at work as a result of their Aboriginal identities, including through belittling gestures, microaggressions, racist remarks, and denial of fair advancement opportunities, but felt disempowered from reporting their experiences through internal processes and were denied “Indigenous practices and cultural methods of conflict resolution.”

The proposed class action, first reported by APTN News, is on behalf of all former employees of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and all current and former employees of Crown-Indigenous Relations Canada (CIRNAC), ISC, or IOGC who experienced harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, culture, ethnicity, or gender.

The claim outlines that Ms. Zentner has “frequently” been denied training for advancement offered to others and has been denied “promotions for which she was qualified,” with, in one case, the non-Aboriginal family friend of someone she has filed two formal harassment complaints against being hired instead. Both complaints against that individual were found not to meet the threshold for harassment—one having been handled by the individual’s superior, rather than an independent third party—after which, the statement of claim describes that the person laughed at Ms. Zentner at work. 

Numerous complaints of harassment and abusive conduct by the same individual prompted a 2014 Workplace Assessment, reads the statement of claim, but while meeting with the third party hired to conduct it—who was later awarded a multi-year contract at the IOGC—no notes were taken and Ms. Zentner was allegedly told it was because they’d “already heard it before.” That assessment “was vague and resulted in no meaningful change,” and the individual who was the subject of complaints was given authority over the “steps of action taken to remedy the harassment.”

In another instance in 2016, someone found guilty of harassing Ms. Zentner by an external company was later promoted within IOGC. 

Ms. Zentner, through the statement of claim, reports having been “threatened with legal action in slander for bringing harassment concerns to the human resources manager.”  

“The harassment and dismissal of her complaints have taken a serious toll on Yvette’s physical and mental health, and she has experienced significant depression as a result,” reads the statement of claim. 

Ms. Wells is a single mother of two and is currently studying a double major in law and society and international Indigenous studies at the University of Calgary. She is also a survivor of domestic and sexual abuse, she told The Hill Times

As outlined in the statement of claim, she said she believes she lost her contract as “retaliation for speaking up about her experiences of harassment at the IOGC.” She reports having “frequently” had her “intelligence questioned”; facing “microaggressions, belittling physical gestures” and overhearing “racist language at the IOGC”; and being “singled out as a victim of aggressive micromanagement.” 

In one instance outlined in the claim, Ms. Wells experienced a “trauma flashback when her supervisor aggressively grabbed her arm in an effort to physically remove her from her cubical to have a private meeting in a board room.” An unofficial complaint over this incident “and the surrounding harassment she experienced” resulted in “no meaningful change.” 

Days after a complaint was launched by a superior over the harassment Ms. Wells was experiencing, she was demoted from her position “as retaliation for filing a complaint,” alleges the claim, and when her contract was terminated roughly two months later—after she had gone on sick leave—“no reason” was indicated. The claim also alleges that Ms. Wells “was denied promotions because she resisted sexual advancements by” a superior.

“The assault, ongoing harassment, and dismissal of her complaints have taken a serious toll on Letitia’s health, and she has suffered serious mental health consequences, including suicidal ideation as a result,” reads the statement of claim.

In an interview with The Hill Times last week, Ms. Wells spoke about her experiences and her decision to pursue a class-action suit. 

She said when she left the IOGC, she had intended to “walk away in peace,” but continued to reflect on her experiences and pray for guidance.

Last April, she was contacted by the APTN’s Brett Forester, who was working on a story about Indigenous public servants’ experiences. The resulting piece, “Death by a thousand cuts,” included interviews with “several former and current employees, many of them First Nations women,” who described a “work environment frequently marred by systemic racism, sexism, bullying, insidious revenge and fear,” reads the piece. 

After it went public, Ms. Wells said Indigenous people across Canada contacted her to thank her for speaking out and share stories of their own. Among them was Ms. Zentner—the pair were acquainted from their time working for the IOGC—and it was then that they decided to find a lawyer and pursue a class-action case, driven by their experiences and “the failure of the grievance processes within” the federal government.

“Within that company, we have seen the violence that we’ve endured, the harm that we’ve endured, the microaggressions, the micromanagements, the piling of the exec team, the tactics of toxic authority,” said Ms. Wells. “It’s a poisonous environment for authentic Indigenous people, and all we’ve ever wanted to do was make a change—make a change and contribute to the federal government, and help them reach reconciliation. And they’re failing at it, they don’t understand it.” 

While she’s now gone from the company and “safe,” Ms. Wells said it’s about “the safety of those that are still in there and the hardships they’re continuing to go through.” 

In May, the plaintiffs began to compile the experiences of other current and former Indigenous public servants as evidence of the systemic harassment and discrimination faced within the federal government and now have “well over two dozen” such accounts. 

Specifically, the statement of claim argues their section 15(1) Charter equality right was unjustifiably infringed “through discriminatory harassment which directly and adversely affects Aboriginal and female workers.” 

Moreover, it argues the federal government owed a duty of care, including to “maintain a workplace that is safe and free of harassment,” which was breached, and that multiple sections of the Canadian Human Rights Act have been breached, including for “differentiating against employees based on their Indigeneity and gender,” “limiting advancement opportunities” based on Indigeneity and gender, and for harassment based on “gender, race, colour, and ancestry.” 

It lays out that they are seeking unspecified damages and $25-million in punitive damages. 

But beyond that, Ms. Wells said she wants to see Indigenous-led, trauma-informed “safety outlets placed within the federal government for Indigenous people to turn to,” something she said wasn’t available to her.

“I felt dismissed right from the top. I felt that nobody understood what I was trying to say because they didn’t carry the inter-related trauma experience … to understand the microaggressions and how they triggered me, and the continuous attacks after that from a hierarchy of management,” said Ms. Wells. 

“Those grievance processes aren’t there to support you, they’re there to support the government,” she said earlier in the interview.

“The federal government has absolutely no safety outlets for Indigenous people who govern themselves by Indigenous laws to turn to.”

The federal government’s response

The Hill Times reached out to all three ministers’ offices last week, as well as the Treasury Board Secretariat, seeking a response to the allegations outlined in the Sept. 14 statement of claim and an update on the “thorough review” that had been pledged. Questions to the minister’s offices were directed to their departments’ shared media relations team.

Danielle Geary, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, said “senior officials” at CIRNAC and ISC “began the dialogue of developing a Deputy Minister Action Plan to address the alleged racism, harassment, and discrimination against Indigenous employees” in April, the “groundwork” for which is being led by the Indigenous Employee Secretariat, which serves both departments “in collaboration with the Indigenous Voices Council and sector heads.” No deadlines have been “imposed” on this effort, which is instead “working with an urgency, while at the same time recognizing that an opportunity to engage with Indigenous employees must be provided.” 

CIRNAC, ISC, and IOGC have developed their own workplace harassment and violence prevention policies in compliance with Canada Labour Code regulations which came into force in January 2021, she said, and between March and August of this year an “initial assessment was conducted with all sectors” of the departments to “identify the risk factors, internal and external to the workplace, that may contribute to harassment and violence in the workplace,” including identifying preventative mitigation measures. 

Ms. Geary highlighted the Centre for Integrity, Values and Conflict Resolution as a “resource available” to all departmental staff, including employees of the IOGC, which “can provide support and explore options” for those who have “experienced or witnessed workplace harassment or violence.” The government is also “actively advancing the creation of an Ombudsperson Office in order to help employees and managers navigate existing systems, services and resources, and provide impartial advice on options for resolution to further supplement existing services and resources,” she wrote. 

She also highlighted the ISC’s launch of a task force on diversity and inclusion, equity, and anti-racism last May, and noted that CIRNAC and ISC have developed Indigenous cultural competency learning policies informed by a First Nations expert advisory committee.

“Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), and Indian Oil and Gas Canada (IOGC) are committed to the health, safety and well-being of all employees. As departmental leaders within the federal government when it comes to advancing reconciliation and issues impacting the lives of Indigenous peoples, we recognize that discrimination against Indigenous employees is unacceptable and must be addressed,” reads the statement. 

“Harassment and discrimination can take many forms and can have significant repercussions. We take all allegations of harassment and discrimination very seriously,” she wrote, noting later that “senior management is committed to continued discussions with employees to address any employee concerns raised and further build a supportive environment, adapted to employee needs and experiences.” 

Mr. Farrell told The Hill Times he expects further documents related to the certification process—determining whether the court will hear the case as a class-action suit—will be filed in the coming months. That includes a certification record from the plaintiffs, laying out detailed evidence from the many stories collected.

Hundreds of current and former Black federal public servants are already pursuing a proposed multi-million-dollar class-action suit against the federal government. Launched in December 2020, it alleges the government has failed to uphold the Charter rights of Black employees by failing to provide a harassment- and discrimination-free workplace and by actively excluding Black public servants.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson, a spokesperson for Black Class Action Lawsuit, said of the proposed Indigenous lawsuit: “We welcome this legal action and we are open to working with this group and providing any support for the Indigenous community, which has been left behind for way too long and it must be addressed now.”


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: