Canada’s human rights system faces a “crisis of confidence” after racialized employees blew the whistle on anti-Black racism at the Canadian Human Rights Commission, a Senate committee warns.
The standing Senate committee on human rights is calling on the federal government to commission an independent review of the conditions Black, Indigenous and racialized employees at the commission face, and to undertake a comprehensive review of Canada’s human rights laws.
The Senate committee’s study of the matter was launched after CBC reported the Canadian government had concluded the commission discriminated against some of its employees.
“We’re not talking about a minor issue here. This is major,” said Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard, the deputy chair of the committee.
WATCH | Senator says ‘crisis of confidence’ must be addressed
In March, the federal government reported that the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) had discriminated against its Black and racialized employees. The government’s human resources arm, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS), came to that conclusion after nine employees filed a grievance through their unions in October 2020.
Their grievance alleged that “Black and racialized employees at the CHRC face systemic anti-Black racism, sexism and systemic discrimination.”
CBC News obtained the TBCS’s March ruling, reviewed associated documents and spoke to a group of current and former commission employees.
They described what they called a hostile and racially charged workplace where Black and racialized employees are excluded from career and training opportunities and are shut out of formal and informal networks.
High dismissal rate for race-based claims
They claim the careers of Black and racialized employees remain stagnant while white colleagues advance and say the ranks of senior management remain predominantly white. The current and former employees who spoke to CBC say their health has suffered as a result of workplace discrimination.
Employees also flagged the high dismissal rate for race-based complaints — an assertion the CHRC’s data backs up — and said all-white teams are typically assigned to investigate them.
Data the Senate obtained showed that in 2018, just six per cent of cases based on race, colour or national ethnic origin were deemed credible enough to move on to tribunal.
The committee report said senators were “particularly concerned” about the CHRC’s ability to handle race-based complaints in a fair and equitable way. The committee concluded that the submissions they received pointed to “a crisis of confidence in the federal human rights system.”
“It’s absolutely devastating,” said Sen. Bernard. “I would say it’s one of the most critical issues that needs to be addressed.”
Senate calls for a Black equity commissioner
The committee heard firsthand from CHRC employee Bernadeth Betchi, who also spoke to CBC. Betchi described for senators conversations she overheard as her colleagues assessed complaints to decide if they should be investigated.
“It was commonplace for staff to speculate about how a complainant is imagining things,” Betchi said. “Pre-judging the outcome of a complaint is sadly normalized among all grounds, but the insidiousness of racism meant that almost every race-based complaint I saw was dismissed, irrespective of the evidence presented.”
Betchi left the commission on sick leave in September 2020. She told senators the racism she faced created feelings of anxiety, stress and trauma. She has since returned to her job as a policy adviser at the commission.
She told CBC News she welcomed the Senate’s report but added little has changed at her workplace.
“There are no real changes yet,” Betchi said. “Employees are still waiting and looking for the systemic changes that we asked for.”
Betchi called on the commission and the federal government to move forward with the recommendations from the Senate study. Among the 11 recommendations, the Senate committee calls for an independent review of the conditions Black, Indigenous and racialized employees face at the commission.
It also calls on the government to appoint a Black equity commissioner. Some committee witnesses suggested this role would be comparable to the auditor general of Canada and would confront institutional and systemic racism in the CHRC and the broader public service.
In a joint statement, the three unions representing workers at the CHRC said the Senate committee report validates the complaints of their members.
“The Senate report re-affirms and recognizes that discrimination and systemic anti-Black racism occurred at the CHRC,” says the statement from the Association of Justice Counsel (AJC), the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).
The unions urged the government to implement the recommendations without delay.
The unions and the CHRC are in mediation to resolve the workplace grievance that led to the finding of discrimination. Because of that, the commission said it limits its comments and will not take part in an interview with CBC News.
“We remain committed to doing what is necessary to ensure that everyone in Canada can trust in the commission to conduct its work with integrity and accountability,” said Véronique Robitaille, communications director at the CHRC.
The Senate committee called out the previous justice minister, David Lametti, for not participating in the study, saying it was “disappointing” that Lametti did not appear.
Lametti’s office also rejected several requests for an interview from CBC. His replacement spoke to CBC about the matter.
“What I would say to you is that we have to take these allegations seriously,” Justice Minister Arif Virani said. “Rooting out systemic discrimination of any kind, of particularly anti-Black racism, is a priority for me.”
So far, Virani has not committed to following through on any of the Senate’s recommendations.