Racism festering at federal First Nations agency, Calgary lawsuit claims

Indigenous women working for a federal government agency say they’ve suffered harassment, racism and a climate of intimidation, according to a proposed class action lawsuit filed Tuesday at the Calgary Courts Centre.

Claim seeks damages for Indigenous employees at Indigenous agencies like Indian Oil and Gas Canada

Yvette Zentner, left, and Letitia Wells are the named complainants in a lawsuit filed against Indian Oil and Gas Canada, a federal agency where they say they experienced stalled careers and racism. More than two dozen Indigenous employees have signed up for the proposed class action. (Yvette Zentner, Letitia Wells)

Indigenous women say they've suffered stalled careers, harassment and racism at federal agencies, according to a proposed class action lawsuit filed Tuesday at the Calgary Courts Centre. 

The lawsuit names as a defendant all Indigenous ministries.

The two named plaintiffs worked for Indian Oil and Gas Canada (IOGC), which manages and regulates resources on First Nations lands and is an agency under Indigenous Services Canada. 

Complainants Yvette Zentner from Siksika Nation and Letitia Wells, a Blackfoot woman, say they were denied promotions and training, subjected to racist language and sexual advances. 

So far, more than two dozen government employees, all Indigenous and mostly women, have signed on to be part of the lawsuit, according to lawyer Matthew Farrell.

A statement of defence has not yet been filed and the allegations have not been proven in court. 

Abuser promoted, lawsuit claims

The lawsuit alleges one of the women's careers was stalled when she resisted the sexual advances of her superiors. 

In 2016, a formal complaint resulted in a finding that Zentner had been harassed by one of her superiors, yet instead of facing discipline, that man was promoted, the document claims.

Over the 24 years Zentner spent with IOGC, she had "exemplary performance reviews," according to the court document, yet was repeatedly denied promotions for which she was qualified, including one occasion when the non-Indigenous friend of her supervisor was hired instead.

What was supposed to be an independent workplace assessment took place in 2014, yet all of the changes that had been recommended to address harassment fell to the accused harasser to implement.

Not only that, according to the statement of claim, the woman who headed the so-called third party investigation was hired immediately after her report was issued by IOGC on a multi-year contract. 

'To intimidate and silence'

The document suggests Zentner was threatened with legal action for bringing harassment concerns to the human resources manager. 

"These threats were done with the intent to intimidate and silence staff who spoke up about being harassed," reads the claim.

Wells is a single mother of two working 30 hours a week while a full-time student at the University of Calgary. 

Wells began with IOGC in 2015 and was most recently working as a land analyst.

"Letitia has frequently had her intelligence questioned, and believes she was targeted as an Aboriginal woman," reads the court document.

Racist jokes 'frequent'

In 2020, Wells, a domestic violence survivor, was grabbed by her supervisor, who tried to drag her by the arm into a conference room. Wells was crying at the time and, according to the lawsuit, the incident caused her to have trauma flashbacks. 

Wells says she felt unsafe at work and has experienced substance abuse and suicidal thoughts due to the stress of the harassment. 

The lawsuit suggests these women's experiences aren't unique, with micro-aggressions against Indigenous employees being "commonplace."

"Racist jokes or language are frequently overheard at the Indigenous ministries," states the document. 

The discrimination, claims the lawsuit, has led to highly skilled Indigenous employees taking leaves of absence or just quitting the ministry all together.

"This exodus of Indigenous talent is damaging to both the effective functioning of the Indigenous ministries and to Canada's continuing effort for reconciliation with First Nation peoples."