Bernadeth Betchi, who was a policy advisor at the Canadian Human Rights Commission, describes it as a toxic and poisonous workplace. (David Thurton/CBC)
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.
- Black civil servants working on mental health program accuse Treasury Board Secretariat members of racism
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.”
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.