The Current

Civil servant says he was assaulted on job and faces discrimination because he is Black

A federal public servant who joined a class-action lawsuit alleging Ottawa discriminated against Black civil servants says he believes he’s been unable to get promoted because of the colour of his skin.

The federal government is fighting a lawsuit alleging it excluded Black employees from promotions for decades

A federal public servant whose identity The Current is protecting says he was assaulted at work, and that systemic racism is impeding his ability move up the ladder. He's among more than 500 plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging Ottawa has discriminated against Black employees for decades. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Story Transcript

A federal public servant who joined a class-action lawsuit alleging Ottawa discriminated against Black civil servants says he believes he's been unable to get promoted because of the colour of his skin.

"I would probably feel better about moving up [the ladder] if I was flipping burgers at McDonald's or something," said Armando, who works in IT. "You know, I'd have some sense of hope. Right now I have zero."

The Current has agreed not to use Armando's real name, because he fears he will face repercussions at work for sharing his story.

He's not alone in his experience. More than 500 federal public servants have now joined a $900-million lawsuit claiming the federal government has for decades excluded Black federal employees from promotions. That's up from 12 plaintiffs who were part of the lawsuit when it was launched in December.

Lawyers representing the current and former civil servants have said the lawsuit could ultimately cover tens of thousands of people who have worked in the federal public service since 1970.

Ottawa has since hired a Bay Street law firm to fight the case, the Hill Times reported. This comes after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denounced anti-Black racism last year, and said systemic racism exists in all institutions across the country. 

'I was punched in the face,' says employee

Armando said he believes institutional racism is at play in his own workplace.

In the more than 10 years he's worked in the federal public service, he hasn't been promoted once, even though he said he's had nothing but positive performance reviews.

"Even people hired after me have been moving up," he said. "So it's fairly obvious that something is going on."

He added that he hasn't seen any Black employees hired into management or executive positions in his workplace, and there have been only a few other Black employees there.

But it's not just his career trajectory that's been impacted. Armando said he's also been assaulted on the job.

I was obviously extremely frustrated, annoyed, offended.- Armando, federal public servant

It happened while he was trying to attend a meeting at a federal building one day. He said another employee stopped him and asked if he needed help finding something. When he told the woman, "No," she called security, Armando said. 

Three security guards then approached him, demanding to know what he was doing.

WATCH | Black civil servants allege discrimination in government lawsuit

Black civil servants allege discrimination in government lawsuit

10 months ago
Current and former Black civil servants have filed a suit against the federal government alleging discrimination that led to poor treatment and being overlooked for promotion. 1:58

"At this point, I was obviously extremely frustrated, annoyed, offended," said Armando. "So I just made the decision I wasn't going to attend that meeting. I was going to leave and report the incident to my management."

But one of the security guards prevented him from going, he said. 

"At this point, I took my cellphone out, started recording, and made it clear that all I was trying to do was leave," Armando said. 

"I was grabbed, thrown to the ground. Very quickly after, the two other security guards came and grabbed me from behind, and then I was punched in the face by the initial security guard who threw me to the ground." 

Armando said the police eventually came and arrested him, but let him go after seeing video footage of the incident. When he told the police that he was the one who was assaulted, he said the officer agreed, but said the video footage was grainy.

Update Equity Act, says retired senator

Retired Canadian senator Don Oliver described Armando's story as "frightening."

He said he believes it's typical of what many plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit have experienced, and that the lawsuit couldn't have come soon enough.

The office of the Treasury Board president sent The Current a statement outlining measures the federal government is taking to address racism in the public service, including creating a centre dedicated to diversity and inclusion, and an action plan to increase representation. The Treasury Board is the employer of the federal public service.

"While there has been progress, too many public servants continue to face obstacles," the statement said. "It is time to close the gaps and eliminate the barriers that remain, ensuring the public service is truly representative of the people it serves."

The Treasury Board said it would be premature for it to comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit. 

Oliver called the measures "bureaucratic window dressing." 

Don Oliver, left, is a retired Canadian senator. He says he sees a lack of leadership in government when it comes to addressing anti-Black racism. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Instead, the government needs to come up with "concrete plans of action," including setting targets to have more Black civil servants in senior roles, he said. He added that the Employment Equity Act should also be updated to better protect Black Canadians from discrimination and harassment.

He said he thinks there's been a lack of leadership from the top of the government when it comes to addressing the issue.

"The prime minister really has to follow his own words," Oliver said.

"When he says we've got your back, we're all in this together, and our government is listening — you've listened long enough. Now do something for Black people in Canada."

Courtney Betty is lead counsel for a class-action lawsuit that alleges Ottawa has discriminated against Black civil servants for decades. (Submitted by Sara Fonseca)

Courtney Betty, lead counsel for the class-action lawsuit, agrees. He said he's disappointed with the government's response to the case so far.

"I thought that … this present government, who has waived the multicultural flag, who has waved the equality flag, who has waved the flag of gender equality, that this would have been their moment in time to step forward and [say], 'Hey, you know, we've got a problem. Let us try and address it,'" he said.

But he said his optimism has been destroyed.

"At this point, I have no expectation at all that the government will do the right thing as it relates to Black public service employees."

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Ines Colabrese.

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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