The federal government wants a court to dismiss a proposed class-action lawsuit brought by Black Canadian civil servants alleging systemic discrimination.
In a notice filed with the Federal Court on Monday, the government argues the plaintiffs should instead go through the grievance process, and that the court therefore doesn’t have jurisdiction to deal with the case.
“The … grievance process cannot be circumvented by separate action,” says the notice.
The Black Class Action Secretariat, the organization leading the lawsuit, noted in a tweet Tuesday that the government’s move comes just days after a group of Black civil servants filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Council, accusing the federal government of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance.
“It’s horrendous, this move that the government is now seeking to do,” the secretariat’s executive director, Nicholas Marcus Thompson, told the Star. “It’s a clear case of them saying they’re serious about these issues and then moving to dismiss workers in court.”
The proposed class action alleges that more than 30,000 Black civil servants have lost out on “opportunities and benefits afforded to others based on their race” going back to the 1970s.
The statement of claim, filed in Federal Court in 2020, alleges “a de facto practice of Black employee exclusion from hiring and promotion throughout the public service because of the permeation of systemic discrimination through Canada’s institutional structures.”
Among other remedies, the proposed class action is seeking $2.5 billion in general damages, and an order to implement a “justice and equity promotional plan” for Black federal civil servants related to their hiring and promotion.
“The evils of systemic discrimination permeate Canada’s institutional structures and have kept Black public service employees subjugated and ghettoized in the lowest ranks of the public service or have precluded their hiring from the outset,” says the statement of claim.
The allegations against the government have not been tested in court.
“As we respond to questions of law in court, the government is simultaneously working to eliminate racism and discrimination from our institutions,” said a statement Tuesday night from the Treasury Board, the main employer of the federal civil service.
“This work includes passing legislation, creating support and development programs, and publishing disaggregated data. And we know there is more to do.”
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The statement reiterates that the government’s position is that there is an existing grievance process to deal with matters of harassment and discrimination in the public service.
“We also recognize that some employees may not have used existing recourse processes,” the Treasury Board said. “That is why we are reviewing our systems and processes for addressing current and historical complaints to ensure employees can continue to contribute to Canada in a safe and healthy workplace.”
In a tweet Tuesday, New Democrat MP Matthew Green said his party remains in solidarity with the Black Class Action Secretariat.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised by this callous move by the Liberals,” wrote Green, a member of the parliamentary Black caucus.
“I’m not because they’ve been working to dismiss the harms they have caused through perpetrating anti-Black racism within the public service for decades.”
Thompson said the secretariat met with Treasury Board President Mona Fortier and others in Ottawa last week. He said the government recognized the harms experienced by workers and committed itself to creating a diverse workplace.
“And then turns around and moves to completely dismiss workers having their day in court,” he added.
The Federal Court is expected to hear the government’s request next May, when the court is also set to hear the plaintiffs’ motion to certify their lawsuit as a class action.
The secretariat has previously accused the government of dragging its feet in the court process, and said the delays were the reason why it chose to file a complaint with the UN — a move supported by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Amnesty International.
“It only reinforces the value of going to the United Nations to make sure we push on this fight as much as possible,” Thompson said of the government’s move.
“The government has a chance to offer justice and right their wrongs, but they’ve shown us that they’ll continue to deny the real lived and painful experiences of Black workers.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant
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