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Op-Ed: Taking Action on Fairness

Public Sector employees have filed a class action lawsuit against the Canadian government, seeking systemic changes and compensation for past discrimination.

Lower annual salaries mean that, if a Black worker retired after serving Canada for 30 years, they receive a pension on the poverty line.

I joined the Canada Revenue Agency, the country’s taxation authority, in January 2015. As a young person in my 20s, I was eager to serve my adopted country after migrating from Trinidad as a teenager. But I quickly noticed a troubling trend – Black employees were in the lowest ranks; other racialized employees were just above that and the executive ranks seemed were reserved for white employees.


In 2020, the total number of public service employees in Canada stood at 214,120. Black employees totaled 7,427 (3.5%), making up the largest ethnic minority group. In the executive category, just 99 of 6,212 employees were Black (1.6%). The remaining 98.67% of Black employees were employed in the lowest ranks of the public service.


After George Floyd was murdered in the United States, I knew that, unless something meaningful was done, the protests would end, and we would go back to the same barriers in our workplaces. I mobilized public sector workers – from the Canada Revenue Agency to the Canadian Human Rights Commission to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – to file a $2.5bn class action lawsuit against the entire federal public service – more than 100 departments and agencies.


The claim alleges that Canada’s application of the Employment Equity Act violates the Charter of Rights of Black employees resulting in the exclusion from promotional opportunities and causing them to suffer significant economic harm and lasting psychological damage.


Around 1,300 Black workers have signed up for the lawsuit. The largest group of workers are from the Canada Revenue Agency, which employs more than 50,000 employees. If the claim is certified by the Federal Court in September, all Black workers between 1970-2022 – around 45,000 past and present federal employees – will become class members and eligible for compensation.


We acquired government data indicating that Black workers were being excluded from career opportunities. Treasury Board of Canada data shows that Black employees earning $100,000 or more make up less than 1% of all federal employees. Of 1,981 permanent appointments, the Department of Justice hired only 18 Black employees between 1970 to 2000.


The damage that Black workers face due to systemic discrimination is profound and long-lasting. Lower annual salaries mean that, if a Black worker retired after serving Canada for 30 years, they receive a pension on the poverty line. An eminent research psychologist provided an expert opinion for the case, stating that discrimination elevates depression, anxiety, and PTSD-related symptoms, plus physical fatigue and substance use disorders.


As well as compensation, we are seeking amendments to the Employment Equity Act and an accountability commission to police the public service. The measures will remove barriers for Black workers and all underrepresented groups. This case is not only important to Canada and its Provinces and Territories, but for the rest of the world. The public sector will only realize its full potential when everyone is included. Governments must pro-actively analyze their institutions and take the necessary action to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities. A movement for meaningful change has begun.


Nicholas Marcus Thompson is the president of the Union of Taxation Employees Toronto North, representing employees at the Canada Revenue Agency.


Published in Public Finance Magazine (UK)