Ottawa says Human Rights Commission discriminated against its Black employees

Bernadeth Betchi, who was a policy advisor at the Canadian Human Rights Commission, describes it as a toxic and poisonous workplace. (David Thurton/CBC - image credit)
Bernadeth Betchi, who was a policy advisor at the Canadian Human Rights Commission, describes it as a toxic and poisonous workplace. (David Thurton/CBC - image credit)

The federal government says the Canadian Human Rights Commission discriminated against its own Black and racialized employees.

The Canadian government's human resources arm, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS), came to that conclusion after nine employees filed a policy grievance through their unions in October 2020. Their grievance alleged that "Black and racialized employees at the CHRC (Canadian Human Rights Commission) face systemic anti-Black racism, sexism and systemic discrimination."

"I declare that the CHRC has breached the 'No Discrimination' clause of the law practitioners collective agreement," said Carole Bidal, an associate assistant deputy minister at TBCS, in her official ruling on the grievance.

Three major federal public sector unions — the Association of Justice Counsel, the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees — also filed grievances and received the same decision. The grievances focused mainly on claims of anti-Black racism at the CHRC.

The commission describes itself as Canada's human rights watchdog. It receives and investigates complaints coming from federal departments and agencies, Crown corporations and many private sector organizations such as banks, airlines and telecommunication companies. It decides which cases proceed to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

CBC News obtained the March ruling, reviewed documents and spoke to a group of current and former commission employees.

They describe what they call a hostile and racially charged workplace where Black and racialized employees are excluded from career and training opportunities and are shut out of formal and informal networks. They claim the careers of Black and racialized employees remain stagnant while white colleagues advance, and say the ranks of senior management remain predominantly white.

The current and former employees who spoke to CBC say their health has suffered as well.

"I would describe the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the environment, the workplace as toxic, poisonous," said Bernadeth Betchi, who was a policy adviser at the commission before being seconded to another federal department.

"It has affected my mental and physical well-being and health. And I'm not the only one."

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Betchi worked as a political staffer in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) before moving to the commission.

She said she suffered months of sleeplessness and anxiety that led her to take sick leave and enter therapy. CBC News has agreed not to identify the other current and former employees because they fear workplace retaliation, career repercussions and increased hostility.

They said commission staff demeaned and humiliated Black and racialized employees. They said these employees sometimes voiced concerns about the high dismissal rate for human rights complaints from racial or religious minorities. They said the commission usually assigned investigators to such complaints who lacked relevant expertise and experience in investigating racism.

"The commission would, understandably, never assign a group ... of all-male employees to investigate the complaints of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination it receives from the public," said one person who spoke to CBC.

"And yet, for several years, they saw it fit to put a group of exclusively white employees and managers in charge of investigating all of the race-based complaints received from the Canadian public."

Kicked out of the loop

The current and former employees said that when racialized employees attempted to offer advice, their objectivity was questioned and their advice was ignored.

They recalled instances of being abruptly kicked out of — or disinvited from — meetings where race-based complaints were discussed.

CBC requested an interview with the CHRC's executive director Ian Fine and interim chief commissioner Charlotte-Anne Malischewski. The commission declined those requests.

"We accept the findings and recommendations of the (Treasury Board) decision and remain open to working with the parties to reach a meaningful and respectful resolution," Malischewski said in a media statement.

"As this is an ongoing matter and out of respect for the bargaining agents and their members, we cannot comment on the details of this decision at this time. We take this matter very seriously and remain deeply committed to anti-racism action and bringing about meaningful systemic change."

Justice Minister David Lametti said he "had a frank conversation" with the acting commissioner earlier this week to discuss the next steps.

Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press
Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Lametti said in a media statement that the Treasury Board verdict is "both concerning and disappointing," given the CHRC's mandate.

"We are working to appoint new leadership to the commission as the chief commissioner's position is vacant," Lametti said in his statement to CBC. "Dealing with the outcome of these findings will be an important part of their responsibilities."

A group that represents Black civil servants, the Federal Black Employee Caucus, said in a media statement it hopes what follows will be "necessary and institutional change."

One of the unions involved said the ruling undermines the commission's credibility.

"My fear is that Canadians will lose their trust and confidence in the commission," said David McNairn, president of the Association of Justice Counsel. "If the commission itself is guilty of discriminatory practices, really, what chances do Canadians have to rely on the commision to protect them from discriminatory practices?"

The former and current employees who spoke to CBC News called for an independent workplace review of the CHRC focusing on anti-Black racism.

That review, they said, should be led by a reputable investigator with expertise in anti-Black racism, should examine CHRC hiring, promotion and retention practices related to Black employees, and should make its final report public.

They also called on the federal government to eliminate the CHRC's gatekeeper role by allowing Canadians to file complaints directly to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal — something that's already the practice with human rights commissions in certain provinces, including Ontario and British Columbia.

Employees say CHRC should be shunned

They said that unless these steps are taken, racialized Canadians and members of religious minorities should forget about seeking justice through the commission.

"I don't recommend anyone that is Black, racialized, or again from any religious minority group to file a complaint at the Canadian Human Rights Commission," said Betchi. "That is how strongly I think that place is toxic."

The finding comes as a group of Black civil servants takes the federal government to court. They're looking for a judge's approval to mount a class action seeking damages to compensate Black federal employees for mental and economic hardships caused by systemic racism in the workplace and a lack of employment opportunities.

Betchi is part of the proposed class action.

The plaintiffs also are asking for a plan to diversify the federal labour force and eliminate barriers that employment equity laws have been unable to remove.

The federal government, which has asked the court to dismiss the claim, argues Black employees can seek redress through avenues such as their union — or the CHRC.