Confronting Systemic Racism in the Public Service of Canada

The Public Service of Canada promotes diversity and inclusion as vital to the organization’s values. It also hails itself as a model for employers in removing barriers to participation for Black and Indigenous peoples. Despite the Government of Canada’s declarations to achieve equity in the workforce, a recent class-action suit filed in the Federal Court of Canada on December 2, 2020 reveals the failure of the civil service to live up to its self-professed values. Highlighting the experiences of Black employees, the lawsuit indicates the range of systemic obstacles faced by Black employees in government workplaces.  

At the highest levels of the Public Service, black employees are disproportionately underrepresented. Black employees are found primarily in lower-level administrative categories and have little representation at the executive level. Only 1.6 percent of Black workers hold positions at the executive level. Black employees hold 3.2 percent of positions within the entire Public Service, but face barriers in advancing further to management positions.

In its representation of self-identifying Black employees, both current and employed within the past 50 years, the Black Class Action lawsuit underscores decades of systemic discrimination and anti-black racism in the Public Service. The lawsuit details violations of employment law, human rights law, and Charter breaches that have resulted in the unjust and systemic exclusion of Black employees. Additional abuses include the wrongful failure to promote, intentional infliction of mental suffering, constructive dismissal, wrongful termination, and negligence.  Such actions have impeded the progress, promotion, and advancement of Black employees in the civil service. 

As the lawsuit points out systemic discrimination permeates Canada’s institutional structure, and the status quo enforces a practice to exclude Black employees throughout the public service. The purpose of class-action lawsuits is to assess historical wrongs and examine employment rights. Therefore, the lawsuit not only seeks substantial damages but also long-term solutions to provide justice and redress systemic inequities suffered by Black employees. Improved representation, accountability methods, and policy changes to the language of the Employment Equity Act in order to recognize the unique racism faced by Black employees are solutions the lawsuit puts forward to address the issue of underrepresentation of Black workers in the Public Service. 

Incidentally, in 2017, the federal government released a report on its website titled “Building a Diverse and Inclusive Public Service” by the Joint Union/Management Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. Produced within a one-year time frame and in consultation with over 12 000 public servants, this report defines and establishes a case. Just as significant, the report suggests a framework and action plan for diversity and inclusion in the Public Service. The Task Force identifies the following four areas that require action holistically: 1) people management 2) leadership and accountability 3) education and awareness 4) diversity and inclusion lens. In each area of action, the report offers 44 recommendations for change.

The Public Service Employment Act acknowledges that Canada will benefit from a public service “that is representative of Canada’s diversity.” But this shift towards inclusivity and equity will only happen if the Public Service acts on long-term solutions to break down systemic barriers to participation. The Black Class Action lawsuit provides a set of policy measures to consider, such as taking steps to assure that the number of Black employees correlates with the percentage of Black people in the Canadian population and that Black employees are given opportunities to advance so that all levels of employment include their participation. The Task Force’s Report, endorsed by the Federal Government of Canada, provides a comprehensive action plan to transform the Public Service so that the systemic participation of its employees reflects the full diversity of the Canadian population. Solutions have been brought forward to the Government of Canada to act. The question is: will the Government execute change? 

This article is part of the campaign Systemic Participation. Funded by Heritage Canada :

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EcoAmbassadeurs is a non-profit organization providing bilingual services in the fields of health, education, entreprenuership and ecology. Our goal is to support the members of our community for their social, economic and civic development.

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