Local black Canadians face 'systemic barriers' to senior-level jobs, critics say

The population of black Canadians in Ottawa-Gatineau has almost doubled over 10 years — but systemic barriers to achieving senior roles in public service and business still persist.

That's despite the fact the Ottawa-Gatineau population has nearly doubled since 2006

The population of black Canadians in the Ottawa-Gatineau region increased by 73.6 per cent between 2006 and 2016, according to Statistics Canada — but critics say that's not reflected in top-level jobs. (Getty Images)

The population of black Canadians in Ottawa-Gatineau has almost doubled over the last 10 years, but that increase doesn't show up among senior positions in the region's public institutions and businesses, according to some politicians, bureaucrats and settlement workers. 

The black Canadian population in the region increased by 73.6 per cent between 2006 and 2016, nearly doubling from 45,000 to 78,000, according to Statistics Canada's most recent data.

When we look at the two main birthplaces of the black population in Ottawa-Gatineau, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo come first.- Hélène Maheux, Statistics Canada analyst

The increase is mainly due to rising immigration from the West Indies and Africa, with more immigrants arriving from Africa than from Europe for the first time. 

According to the data, 78 per cent of black Canadians live on the Ottawa side, while 22 per cent live in Gatineau.

The Canadian city with the largest population of black people is Toronto, followed by Montreal and the Ottawa-Gatineau area — a ranking that was consistent in both 2011 and 2016.

"When we look at the two main birthplaces of the black population in Ottawa-Gatineau, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo come first," said Hélène Maheux, an analyst with Statistics Canada, in a French-language interview with Radio-Canada.

"In Ottawa-Gatineau, 66 per cent of people reported African origins and 32 per cent of [people reported] Caribbean origins." 

Liberal MP Greg Fergus says there are 'systemic barriers' preventing black Canadians from being adequately represented in the country's government institutions. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

'There are systemic barriers'

This demographic boom, however, is not reflected in the number of black people present in public institutions and businesses in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, according to Greg Fergus, the Liberal MP for Hull-Aylmer. 

"When you look at the profile of newcomers or the black population in the area, you can see they are very well-educated — but they are not found in senior positions in the public service," Fergus told Radio-Canada in French.

"You have to ask ... why it's like that [and] how can you fix the situation."

Seven out of 338 MPs in the House of Commons are black — one of the highest percentages ever, but a sign there are still too few black Canadians in federal politics, Fergus said.

"I think there are systemic barriers that need to be crossed," he said.

Public service 'pitfalls'

Visible minorities accounted for 16.2 per cent of the federal public service workforce in 2016, a slight increase from the previous year.

That data, however, "is not divided into subcategories" such as black-Canadian, said Martin Potvin, a spokesperson at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

Like Fergus, Larry Rousseau, the vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, also spoke of systemic barriers preventing black Canadians from climbing the civil service job ladder.

We [do] not recognize people's skills. And that's unfortunate.- Larry Rousseau, vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress

"There are efforts to hire people. But once people are recruited, we saw that visible minorities, and especially blacks, remained at the level where they were hired," said Rousseau, who once worked for Statistics Canada and was also vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Rousseau said a worker might enter the public service with strong skills, but when those skills aren't recognized or exploited, the psychological impact can be devastating.

"We have seen systemic pitfalls that resulted from racism and intolerance," he said. "We [do] not recognize people's skills. And that's unfortunate."

Rousseau said he does think the environment may be changing — in part because, in the last budget, the federal Liberal government announced a $23-million investment over two years to fight racism and promote multiculturalism.

Justin Trudeau's government also said it recognized the important and unique challenges faced by black Canadians, promising $19 million over five years to support at-risk black youth. The money will also fund programs for black people with mental health issues.

In addition, the Public Service Commission's latest report has recognized that "it is essential to increase and improve communication activities in order to attract candidates from a variety of backgrounds."

Many visible minorities — and especially black Canadians — who end up working for the public service remain at the level at which they were hired, said Larry Rousseau, vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress. (Yasmine Mehdi/Radio-Canada)

Younger, more educated immigrants

Black immigrants are increasingly educated and better equipped to integrate into the labour market, according to some Ottawa-Gatineau newcomer settlement organizations.

"Immigrants who come to see us are very educated, compared to previous years," said Françoise Magunira, a program manager at the Economic and Social Council of Ottawa-Carleton.

"We have many who have a university degree, and others who have a high school diploma," she said in French.

However, there remains a lack of diversity among Ottawa-Gatineau entrepreneurs, said Nada Bensouda, the executive director of the National Capital Business Coalition.

"The reason, perhaps, why our membership is not [so diverse] is that we should work on our message and how to attract them to our group," said Bensouda.

The coalition does not keep precise statistics on the number of black entrepreneurs in the region.

The integration of black Canadians into the local business community is "everyone's business," said George Philippe Jean, vice-president of the Gatineau Chamber of Commerce.

Last year, the chamber of commerce set up a cultural diversity group to show entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds how to increase their visibility and promote their skills.

"This cause belongs to all [of us]," Jean told Radio-Canada.

"If we can increase the pool of black entrepreneurs in Gatineau — and if we manage to exploit their entrepreneurial skills, their expertise, their creativity — everyone will benefit."

With files from Kimberley Molina