Proposed class actions claim federal bosses guilty of racial discrimination

Bernadeth Betchi, a representative plaintiff in the class action

HE WASN’T HIRED TO CLEAN CLOSETS. But that’s what Nicholas Marcus Thompson wound up doing. He says it happened to him because he is Black. He says it was racial discrimination pure and simple. The kind Black workers in the federal public service endure on the job every day, he says. It’s why Thompson wants to take the federal government to court.

Thompson is one of 12 former or current employees from multiple government departments who are representative plaintiffs in a proposed class-action lawsuit filed against the federal government on December 3 that alleges the government has discriminated against Black employees for decades.

The suit could ultimately cover as many as 30,000 people who worked in the federal public service since 1970. The $900-million claim seeks damages for “the unjust practice of Black employee exclusion due to systemic discrimination”.

‘Something felt off’

In an interview in Toronto with CBC News, Thompson said that when he joined the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) six years ago, something felt off to him.

“I quickly realized that the agency was not, you know, as I thought it would be: all inclusive and diverse.”

Thompson, who was a collections officer, said a lack of Black representation in the agency caused his morale and confidence to suffer. He also said the work environment was toxic and led to illness.

When his doctor gave him a prescription for a “workplace accommodation,” Thompson said he was told to clean closets because no other work was available.

Bernadeth Betchi is another representative plaintiff who also worked for the CRA.

She describes a toxic workplace where she said she experienced microaggressions and had to go on sick leave. She had to work twice as hard as her non-Black colleagues to get noticed, she said.

She left the CRA for a job at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Despite the mandate of the commission her work experience did not improve.

“When I started working there, I saw that, unfortunately, what the mandate says and what’s being done inside of the organization is completely different. Black folks within the Canadian Human Rights Commission, my Black colleagues, are suffering.”

Union support

The workers seeking the class action have full and strong support from their union. An online statement from the PSAC (Public Service Alliance of Canada) condemns “the pain of Black employee exclusion” and “the systemic practice of limiting skilled Black workers from career advancement opportunities.”

The PSAC statement also calls on the federal government to “identify and tear down systemic barriers in its human resources practices.

“We also expect the government to listen to Black workers and take their lead on how to correct this gross injustice.”

Equity Commission and compensation

The lawsuit asks the federal government to adopt a policy that ensures the number of Black employees is representative of the percentage of Black people in the general population and that they are represented at all levels of employment.

The claim further requests that a compensation fund be established, alongside a Black Equity Commission that will serve to implement solutions on addressing institutional systemic discrimination.

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Indigenous class action

Jennifer Sanderson took it all for 18 years.

Everything from ignorant questions like, “Why aren’t you a drunk” and “Why don’t you wear feathers to work”; to random taunts like, references to it being “residential school Sunday.”

She isn’t ready to forgive and forget any of it.

The 44-year-old member of Wahpeton Dakota Nation, wants Corrections Canada to answer for the 18 years of racial insult and discrimination she says she endured while a corrections officer in the maximum-security unit at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert from 2009 to 2017.

Sanderson, and Jennifer Constant, another Indigenous former corrections officer in Edmonton, are pursuing a proposed class-action lawsuit against the federal government that alleges the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) infringes on the constitutional rights of racialized employees.

“CSC management and staff treat racialized staff as though they are inmates, and not like equals,” says the statement of claim.

“Her [Sanderson’s} time with the CSC was marred by repeated and persistent racist episodes and a culture of racism, which went unchanged even when she was brave enough to complain to CSC management,” the statement of claim says.

Abuses hidden

“Ms. Constant witnessed, experienced and endured from CSC management and staff, racism, discrimination, and verbal and abusive behaviors that were malicious, vindictive and willful,” the suit alleges.

“The mistreatment of prisoners in Canada’s penitentiaries is well known,” the court document says. “In contrast, the abuses within the CSC’s own ranks have been largely hidden.”

The proposed class-action intends to include all current and previous racialized CSC staff. Many other corrections officers have inquired about joining in the class action since the suit was filed on January 11, according to the lawyers for the two women.

The CSC has roughly 18,000 employees and manages 43 institutions across Canada.

The court must certify the case as a class action if it is to proceed.


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