A former federal employee who worked on anti-racism programs says she was reprimanded for speaking to HuffPost Canada about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s blackface incidents, and forbidden from talking about racism publicly.
Manjot Bains, 39, was quoted as an individual citizen in the September story and was not identified as a federal employee. Yet, she said blowback at work led to her quitting as a senior program adviser in the Community Support, Multiculturalism and Anti-Racism Initiatives program of the Department of Canadian Heritage, in Vancouver.
“The prime minister is the one who performed blackface, not me. But somehow I faced repercussions for his actions,” Bains told HuffPost in an exclusive interview.
A spokesperson for Canadian Heritage referred HuffPost’s questions about Bains’ situation to the Public Service Commission and the Treasury Board. A spokesperson for the Public Service Commission said that because Bains’ critique was about the head of government, the Treasury Board would have to respond. Staff at the Treasury Board did not provide comment by deadline.
When Bains was hired in May, she was cleared of any conflict of interest related to her activities outside of work. Bains is the editor of the Jugni Style website which covers South Asian art and culture, and also a co-producer of a podcast that shares stories of South Asian history in Vancouver and discusses race and identity.
Since she received a green light to continue her activities on the website and podcast, Bains said she didn’t seek permission from her employer to do an interview with HuffPost about different generational reactions to Trudeau’s use of racist makeup.
Bains flagged the story to her manager in an email the day it was published.
The story said that Bains was shocked when she saw photos of the prime minister in brownface and blackface. “It didn’t connect with who I thought Trudeau is,” she told HuffPost at the time. “For anyone to even do that, whether it’s 2001, 1990 or right now, that doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Bains said her manager told her she had made a serious mistake by speaking to media and could no longer be trusted.
“I feel like by telling them I did the interview, it just snowballed into something really big,” she said. “They escalated it so much when they didn’t have to.”
Bains was called to a meeting on Oct. 1, with her manager and another senior leader.
“I explained to [my manager] why I did the interview, because I think it’s an important issue and it was upsetting to see and read what the prime minister did,” Bains said.
“I felt like I was in an impossible situation where I was hired to do this job that I really cared about, but I also had these outside projects I was working on which they knew about.”
Bains took detailed notes later that day on what was said during the meeting, which have been reviewed by HuffPost.
Bains said her superiors told her that public servants are not allowed to criticize Trudeau, that she would have to re-do her ethics training and complete a “loyalty training.” If she wanted to keep her job, they said, she would have to give up her outside projects, according to Bains.
“I asked my manager, ’Does this mean I need to choose between working for Canadian Heritage or working on my website and podcast? And she said, ‘Yes. You can’t be an activist and work for the government. You have to choose. We’ve all made these choices.’”
At a second meeting on Oct. 11, Bains said her manager told her that she could not speak publicly about race or racism — while working in anti-racism at Canadian Heritage — “because it could be perceived that I was not neutral and that I had bias.”
She was also allegedly told she couldn’t write about arts and culture because it’s related to Heritage department work.
“None of it made any sense and I was getting angry.”
IN HER OWN WORDS
Union encourages political activity
Bains said she was confused because the Union of National Employees that represents her is part of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which encourages its members to be politically active. PSAC tells its members they’re free to share their political opinions in public, fundraise for political parties and write op-eds, as long as they do so outside of work hours and do not identify themselves as public employees.
Her employment contract stated that she had “the right to engage in political activities while maintaining the principle of political impartiality in the public service.”
“Public servants can engage in political activities as long as those activities do not impair, or are not seen as impairing, their ability to perform their public service duties in a politically impartial manner,” Magdalena Bober from the Public Service Commission told HuffPost Canada by email on Thursday.
‘The duty of loyalty is not absolute’
The duty of loyalty document says that public servants are obligated to refrain from public criticism of the government and that failure to do so may result in disciplinary action, which could include dismissal.
“However, the duty of loyalty is not absolute, and public criticism may be justified in certain circumstances,” it says.
Public servants can speak out when the government is doing something illegal, jeopardizing people’s safety, or when the criticism doesn’t affect the employee’s ability to do his or her job or the public’s perception of that ability to do his or her job.
The landmark example given in the duty of loyalty document is an employee who alleged without proof that a government commission was committing fraud, criticized the commission in a newspaper letter to the editor and at a public meeting, and then compared the prime minister and his government to the Nazis.
The employee, who was suspended and ultimately terminated, took his case to the Supreme Court. The 1985 ruling set out principles and qualifications of a public servant’s duty of loyalty balanced with freedom of expression. It outlined relevant factors including the employee’s position and visibility, context such as the frequency of the criticism and in what forum it is made, and the tone in how it’s expressed.
In another example, a labour relations board ruled that a Health Canada drug evaluator was justified when he spoke up about the experiences of people of colour in his department, because the issues of racism and employment equity “transcend” an individual’s job.
“I didn’t do the interview as an employee of Canadian Heritage. I didn’t mention it. As a private citizen, I spoke for myself and even on behalf of my website Jugni Style and the podcast,” said Bains.
At a subsequent meeting with her manager, she said she was told her plans to publish a podcast on racism and the election could not go through if she was still working for the government.
“I felt like what was happening was wrong. It was a matter of principle at this point to be told that I can’t do these things, but they cleared me of conflict of interest. That doesn’t make sense to me,” Bains said. The response was that the approval she received had been an oversight, and officials should have looked more closely at her personal projects.
Bains quit, and they agreed Oct. 16 would be her last day.
“The decision to leave was really stressful. Like, I didn’t have anything lined up,” she said. “I started having panic attacks, which is not normal for me.”
The day before she was to leave her job, Bains sent an email to her manager summarizing their meetings. She replied on Bains’ last day, saying she had a different recollection of their meetings and asked if Bains would reconsider her resignation. She asked to review Bains’ podcast before it came out.
Bains said no.
“They kept flip-flopping. They hire me and say ‘Everything’s fine,’ clear me of conflict of interest. And then they change their minds and say ‘Actually there is a conflict of interest.’ And then they say, ‘No it’s fine you can have your podcast. We just want to review it and have editorial oversight on it,’ which is ridiculous,” Bains said.
Bains has filed a grievance with her union, alleging that the department breached her collective agreement and unfairly deemed her to be in conflict of interest.
Union of National Employees spokesperson Aurélie McDonald declined to answer HuffPost’s questions about Bains’s case, or about general union policy for members to give media interviews or be politically active. McDonald would only say that UNE is part of PSAC but also has its own policies.
Bains said the situation shows how much work the Government of Canada still needs to do on racism. A large part of her job was assessing grant applications for anti-racism programs.
“So they hired a brown woman, a woman of colour, to manage these programs. And that legitimizes what they’re doing,” she said.
“But if I speak up — and my critique was really small, it was so small — they say I need to stay silent. That’s bullshit … It just kills me. Because I think that’s often what’s expected of women of colour, brown women for sure. They expected me to be obedient.
“And then when I fought back, what? I’m going to be perceived as a loud, crazy woman of colour. I am not either of those things.”
Bains said she will look for work in the new year when she’s had some time to recuperate.
“Anti-racism work is something that’s actually really important to me personally,” she said. “I liked going to work every day, which doesn’t always happen … It’s something that I miss.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.