This story is part of a CBC News exploration of systemic racism, including anti-Black racism, and the promises for change made last summer.
A Black federal public servant who launched a racial discrimination complaint against the Canadian government says she felt uncomfortable signing a gag order because she feared it could further entrench a culture of silence around racism within the bureaucracy.
“I was signing a deal to be silent about the discrimination I’ve been through,” said the woman, whom CBC/Radio-Canada has agreed not to name because she fears losing her job. “Throughout my entire career, I noticed colleagues, mostly white colleagues, getting privileges that I didn’t.”
Those agreements are immoral and they need to stop.– Complainant
The woman said the federal government paid her several thousand dollars in exchange for withdrawing the racial discrimination complaint.
Radio-Canada obtained a copy of the legal document, which was initialled by both the employer and the woman’s union. It contains a confidentiality clause preventing her from speaking out about the racism she says she experienced on the job.
CBC/Radio-Canada did not approach the woman’s employer directly because it could risk identifying her.
The woman said the agreement did resolve her specific issue, which she chose not to disclose to Radio-Canada because she worries that, too, could identify her. However, she said the agreement did little to address the bigger problem of systemic racism within federal departments.
Around 800 current and former Black public servants have launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, alleging it has discriminated against Black employees for decades. It was filed with the Federal Court of Canada in December, but the government has yet to file a statement of defence.
The suit, which has not been certified, accuses the government of excluding Black employees from promotions.
‘Making the problem invisible’
Agreements such as the one this woman signed cover a range of issues, from racial slurs to workplace harassment.
Doug Hill, a grievance and adjudication officer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) in Halifax, said about 70 per cent of the complaints he handles are resolved through settlements that contain a similar confidentiality clause. He also said the compensation offered sometimes goes well beyond the maximum $40,000 that can be paid under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
“There is no maximum amount” when it comes to the federal government, Hill said.
But critics say these arrangements are problematic because they cover up the real problem instead of addressing it.
“By making the problem invisible, we’re making the victims invisible, and we basically have no precedent to build on and no lessons to learn,” said Fo Niemi, executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) in Montreal.
Every year, the non-profit civil rights organization helps about 200 people who are victims of discrimination based on race, gender or disability. Niemi said often, people don’t realize the implications of signing an agreement that includes a confidentiality clause.
“Sometimes the complainant or the victim goes alone, feels very much pressured into signing something that that person may not be able to fully understand,” he said.
Need for transparency
When asked about this specific case, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos directed Radio-Canada to his parliamentary secretary Greg Fergus, who said he believes these agreements are only acceptable if they are signed at the request of the complainant.
“You want to really recognize that the problem happened, you want to be transparent so you can fix the problem, so that we can go ahead and create a better public service,” the Liberal MP for Hull–Aylmer said.
Fergus, who also chairs the Caucus of Black Parliamentarians, said the government needs to keep more detailed data regarding complaints that are withdrawn after the complainant signs a confidentiality clause.
“We can’t change things if we can’t measure them,” Fergus said.
This project is a part of Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.