OTTAWA — Monica Agard says she was chatting with a colleague about her workload and looming deadlines when a supervisor passing by cut into their conversation.
"We should go back to the good old days when we had slaves," Agard, a Black woman who works at the Immigration and Refugee Board, recalled in an interview.
"I said to him, 'Stop. Please stop, because I will file a grievance against you.' And he said, 'Your people are not the only people who were slaves.' No apology, no remorse, nothing, and then he just walked away," she said. "I was left then with all the emotional distress of this person — supervisor — making such a comment to me, and I thought it was highly inappropriate."
Agard, who has worked at the Immigration and Refugee Board in Toronto since 1990, said she did not file a complaint against the supervisor immediately after she said he made the remark in November 2019. She said she was not satisfied with the way a previous verbal complaint on a separate issue had been handled several years earlier, when she was told it would not be pursued further.
Then in July 2020 she learned she was being assigned to work under that same supervisor. She sent an email to the registrar, who is at the manager level, to share his alleged remarks about slaves and asked to be reassigned to another supervisor.
"This is a health issue for me," she wrote in the email.
The email exchange was provided to The Canadian Press. It shows the registrar telling Agard to speak to her direct manager about her concerns, with Agard replying to say she did not feel comfortable doing so because she believed he was close with the supervisor in question.
She said in the interview that she felt the registrar was at first "a bit dismissive" of her request to be reassigned at first. She was eventually switched to another supervisor after she explained could not work with the other one because of the emotional stress she felt about him.
Agard said in March this year, the registrar told her during a virtual meeting there had not yet been any communication with the supervisor about the issue. Agard filed a formal complaint of workplace harassment in late April, in which she described the alleged comment as "racist and hateful" and accused the registrar of failing to acknowledge it as a health and safety issue.
"I felt silenced, angry, depressed and disappointed but I said nothing because I understand the system now," Agard wrote in the complaint.
Agard said she has not spoken with the supervisor about the matter and is not aware of any response from him. She said last month, she was asked by the registrar if she wanted an apology from the supervisor, or a mediation meeting.
"I don't think you can mediate racism, so I said 'No.' I don't want to mediate this. This needs for the registrar to take very strong action against the supervisor and not to mediate," she said.
"My heart was just racing. My head hurts. I feel as if I'm suffocating because I am trying to understand why no one is taking any action on a situation like this," she said.
The supervisor did not respond to a direct request for comment in time for publication.
Line-Alice Guibert-Wolff, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Refugee Board, said in a statement that the administrative tribunal is aware of the allegations against the supervisor and "is already engaged in acting on them." She said she could not discuss specifics because the case is "under active review, and to protect the integrity of the process."
She said the IRB "takes allegations of this nature very seriously. Racism, and discrimination in any form, are unacceptable and fundamentally incompatible with the IRB’s core values."
Guibert-Wolff also said the IRB set up a new ombudsperson office, brought in mandatory training and is developing a diversity and inclusion strategy.
Nicholas Marcus Thompson, among a group of current and former Black federal workers who filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in Federal Court against the government in December, said Black employees are facing "racial trauma" as a result of the discrimination in the public service.
The plaintiffs are alleging systemic discrimination in how the federal government has hired and promoted thousands of public servants for nearly half a century. None of the allegations has been tested in court and the lawsuit has not been certified.
The group is set to share a video of Agard telling her story on Monday as part of efforts to raise awareness about the legal action.
Earlier this month, the legal team filed a motion in Federal Court demanding the government to immediately create a $100-million mental health fund to address the issues they say Black public service workers live with in the public service.
The fund aims to provide culturally sensitive mental health support for Black public service employees who live with the consequences of racism and discrimination at their workplaces, according to the motion.
Thompson said existing support programs do not address the unique needs of Black employees, adding that many of the mental health professionals that public servants have access to "do not even know what racial trauma is or how to treat it in the first place."
Treasury Board spokesperson Martin Potvin said the government is committed to "fostering a healthy, supportive, and respectful workplace." He listed some recent steps the government has taken to tackle systemic discrimination in the federal workforce, including amendments to the Public Service Employment Act aimed at removing barriers to hiring and promotions.
He also said the federal government provided the plaintiffs' lawyers with a list of mental health resources that are available to current and former public servants, including an employee assistance program, a health benefits plan that provides up to $2,000 in mental health services per year and other resources.
"We are studying the motion and are hopeful that the concerns raised may be resolved through further discussions with the plaintiffs," he wrote.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press