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Groups fighting anti-Black racism file complaint against Canadian Human Rights Commission

Nicholas Marcus Thompson, executive director of the Black Class Action Secretariat, outlines steps his group and others want the federal government to take to combat racism in the public service.  (CBC - image credit)
Nicholas Marcus Thompson, executive director of the Black Class Action Secretariat, outlines steps his group and others want the federal government to take to combat racism in the public service. (CBC - image credit)

A coalition of human rights groups advocating for Black and racialized Canadians has lodged a formal complaint against the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) for discriminating against its own employees.

The coalition also outlined a number of actions Monday it wants the federal government to take to combat what it calls "systemic discrimination within its structures."

"We're relying on the Canadian Human Rights Commission to play a role in the fight to dismantle systemic discrimination, not to be the perpetrator in all of this," Nicholas Marcus Thompson, executive director of the Black Class Action Secretariat (BCAS), said in Ottawa Monday.

The coalition said it has asked the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) to review the CHRC's accreditation with the group.

GANHRI is an umbrella organization that coordinates policy and action between the United Nations and domestic human rights organizations.

The coalition said it wants Canada's human rights body reviewed by GANHRI for violating international human rights law and failing to adhere to the Paris Principles.

Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993, the Paris Principles are a set of principles national human rights organizations have to follow to access the United Nations Human Rights Council and other bodies.

The CHRC receives and investigates complaints from federal departments and agencies, Crown corporations and private sector organizations such as banks, airlines and telecommunication companies. It decides which cases will proceed to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

Racism within the CHRC

Last spring, the Canadian government's human resources arm, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS), reported that the CHRC had discriminated against its own Black and racialized employees.

The TBCS came to that conclusion after nine employees filed a policy grievance through their unions alleging that "Black and racialized employees at the CHRC face systemic anti-Black racism, sexism and systemic discrimination."

"The organizations remain hopeful that this action will lead to significant reforms within the CHRC, ensuring it can effectively safeguard human rights and foster an inclusive society," the coalition said in a statement released Monday.

The coalition said it does not wish to see CHRC's funding cut but wants it to fulfil its role of combating systemic racism.

"We would like to see appropriate funding, and the government not cut funding for the [CHRC] as any type of remedy to address any shortfalls," Thompson said.

President of the Treasury Board Anita Anand speaks during a news conference, in Ottawa, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.
President of the Treasury Board Anita Anand speaks during a news conference, in Ottawa, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

President of the Treasury Board Anita Anand announced the first steps of the Liberal government's action plan to support Black public servants last week. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The coalition is calling on the federal government to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to allow complaints to go directly to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, rather than through the CHRC.

The coalition also wants the CHRC's role changed so that it acts to support people making complaints before the tribunal.

The group said it wants the Employment Equity Act amended "to better reflect intersectionality and to specifically include Black and other equity-deserving groups as designated groups."

The coalition said it also wants the federal government to appoint a Black equity commissioner to serve as an officer of Parliament with powers akin to that of the Auditor General of Canada. The commissioner would be tasked with ensuring equity across "all levels of government and the public service," the coalition said.

The coalition said it also wants public servants found to have committed acts of discrimination to be held accountable for their actions.

Criticism of the federal action plan

Last week, President of the Treasury Board Anita Anand announced the first steps of the Liberal government's action plan to support Black public servants.

It includes boosting the number of Black counsellors providing mental health support to public servants and their family members to 60 across the public service.

Anand also announced the launch of an executive leadership program for Black executives to improve career development services for Black public servants.

The coalition criticized the move on mental health services, saying it would have preferred for the department to work with Black public servant groups to develop the initiatives.

"Black employee networks within the federal government [as well as unions] were not consulted on that … announcement about the employee assistance program," Thompson said. "We're very, very concerned about that. That approach has to change."

The coalition includes the BCAS, the Canadian Black Nurses Alliance, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Red Coalition, the National Union of Public and General Employees, the Federation of Black Canadians and the Black Canadians Civil Society Coalition.

Later Monday, Anand conceded that her government has "a lot of work to do in terms of building trust with public servants from the Black community." She said she did reach out to the community before her announcement last week.

"In advance of that announcement, I and my team engaged in consultations with a number of Black public servants," she said. "Consulting with Black public servants is at the heart of what we are doing as we come forward with supports for Black public servants."