Witness calls discrimination at the human rights commission a national scandal

Rubin “Rocky” Coward and his wife Deborah appear before the Senate committee on human rights on May 1, 2023. (David Thurton/ CBC - image credit)
Rubin “Rocky” Coward and his wife Deborah appear before the Senate committee on human rights on May 1, 2023. (David Thurton/ CBC - image credit)

Senators heard from a witness Monday night who called the Canadian Human Rights Commission discriminating against Black and racialized employees a national "disgrace."

"All of this is unconscionable, a national scandal," said Rubin "Rocky" Coward, one of several witnesses who appeared before the Senate committee on human rights Monday.

In March, the federal government reported that the Canadian Human Rights Commission had discriminated against its Black and racialized employees. The government's human resources arm, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS), came to that conclusion after nine employees filed a grievance through their unions in October 2020.

Their grievance alleged that "Black and racialized employees at the CHRC face systemic anti-Black racism, sexism and systemic discrimination."

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

They described what they called 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.

WATCH | Former employee shares her experience of working at the commission: 

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 a result of workplace discrimination.

Employees also flagged the high dismissal rate for race-based complaints — an assertion the CHRC's own data backs up — and said all-white teams are typically assigned to investigate them.

Coward appeared before the committee because he filed several human rights complaints before the commission on behalf of others and himself.

The former Royal Canadian Air Force member filed a complaint with the commission in 1993, alleging he experienced racism. He said he was repeatedly called the N-word while stationed at CFB Greenwood in Nova Scotia. His claim was rejected.

Now a community-based advocate for military members, RCMP officers and seniors in Nova Scotia, he helps people file human rights complaints. He said he's noticed that complaints that have nothing to do with race tend to be more successful.

Data from the commission shows that it has dismissed race-based complaints at a higher rate than other complaints in the past.

Coward said no amount of training or anti-racism programs could reform the leadership at the commission. Instead, he called on the federal government to take a zero-tolerance approach to public servants who allow systemic discrimination to happen on their watch.

"We have to send a message to these racists in these institutions," Coward said. "And the message we have to send them is that if you want to practise racism at home, fill your boots.

"But if you come to work with it, we have a place for you. And it's called unemployment."

To fix the commission, Coward told senators, the government needs to appoint a more diverse set of senior executives.

"In my opinion, someone has to be put there who is culturally competent and trauma-informed," Coward said.

Chief commissioner apologizes 

During a sit-down interview in her Ottawa office, interim chief commissioner Charlotte-Anne Malischewski told CBC News that while the commission meets the public sector's employment equity targets, the nature of its work requires a more diverse workforce.

"We know that the diversity that we do have isn't enough," she said. "And we are working on concrete steps as part of our anti-racism action work to ensure that we are hiring, supporting and promoting diverse individuals, and in particular black and racialized Individuals."

CBC asked Malischewski how many Black and racialized employees are in permanent positions in the organization's executive ranks.

"Given the size of the organization, I'm not in a position to identify that personal information about any particular individuals," she replied.

The CHRC, Malischewski said, is committed to ensuring there is "no room for racism" within its organization. She said the commission took the complaints from the employees seriously and began an investigation within a matter of days.

WATCH | Interim commissioner apologizes: 

She said those complaints led the commission to bring in independent experts, launch an employment equity audit, review hiring and retention practices, train staff and create a decolonization and anti-racism committee.

But the commission still hasn't agreed to a key demand of the employees who filed the grievance — for an independent investigation, led by a reputable person with expertise in anti-Black racism, of the CHRC's hiring, promotion and retention practices related to Black employees, to be followed up with a final public report.

"We are very much open to exploring this particular request," Malischewski said as the commission and public sector unions prepare for mediation to resolve the grievance.

CBC asked several times if the interim commissioner apologized to the employees who filed the grievance. Malischewski said the commission acknowledged to employees the findings of the Treasury Board decision.

"I personally deeply regret and apologize for any instances in which the Canadian Human Rights Commission, as an employer or service provider, fell short of our obligations," she said.

'The chickens have come home to roost'

Responding to the interim commissioner's comments, a group of current and former commission employees said,"an apology without adequate individual and systemic remedial action is hollow."

CBC News has agreed not to identify the employees because they fear workplace retaliation, career repercussions and increased hostility.

The co-founder of a group that represents Black federal public servants began flagging problems at the commission in 2019. The Federal Black Employee Caucus, Richard Sharpe, raised issues of the high dismissal rate of race complaints and anti-Black racism at the commission. But he told the senators their concerns went unaddressed at the commission and among some in government.

"Now the chickens have come home to roost," Sharpe said.

David Thurton/ CBC
David Thurton/ CBC

Sharpe and other witnesses recommended senators call on the government to pass a number of reforms that would protect Black workers from institutionalized racism at the commission within the government.

They called for a reform of the Employment Equity Act, the stated purpose of which is to "correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities."

Lumping all visible minorities together, its been argued, makes the unique forms of discrimination Black employees face "invisible" and doesn't account for the unique forms of discrimination that some people face.

Along with such legislative reforms, witnesses also called for a broader study into anti-Black racism in federal institutions and the appointment of a Black equity commissioner. Such a commissioner would be an independent officer of Parliament and would take on a watchdog role for how the federal government treats Black Canadians inside and outside the federal government.

Witnesses also called for the elimination of the commission's gate keeping role and for a direct access model to be adopted where complaints can go straight to the tribunal.

"We have no confidence in the Canadian Human Rights Commission," said Nicholas Marcus Thompson, the executive director of the Black Class Action Secretariat, who also appeared as a witness at the committee.

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.