Ottawa claims diversity is our strength. So why is it being sued by Black civil servants?

Jan 11, 2021

Erica Ifill is an economist, columnist, and founder of Not In My Colour, an intersectional business consultancy that addresses the systems and policies that prevent equity at all levels in the workplace.

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.