Black civil servants working on mental health program accuse Treasury Board Secretariat members of racism

It was supposed to be a program to help Black federal civil servants suffering from the trauma and stress of racism — but it was itself hit by allegations of racism before it even began.

Black federal civil servants who are developing a mental health action plan for their colleagues say they’re facing anti-Black racism from senior government officials who are supposed to be working with them on the plan, according to an email obtained by CBC News.

“We showed up to support the government of Canada to address anti-Black hate within the public service only to be continuously faced with the crushing weight of it,” says the email, addressed to the government’s chief human resources officer Christine Donoghue in the Treasury Board Secretariat.

The Federal Black Employee Caucus wrote the email. The group was formed in 2017 to address racism and a dearth of career advancement opportunities reported by Black employees working for the Canadian government.

A protester holds up a Black Lives Matter sign behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as people take part in an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, June 5, 2020.
A protester holds up a Black Lives Matter sign behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as people take part in an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill on June 5, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

The mental health action plan is meant to target racism directed specifically at Black public servants. Anti-Black racism exploits prejudices, stereotypes and myths unique to the Black experience of slavery and colonization.

A team of almost two dozen mostly Black employees is working at the Treasury Board Secretariat to develop the plan. The project is backed by a $3.7 million federal budget commitment over four years.

The email alleges that senior Treasury Board Secretariat officials created a toxic workplace culture. When the Federal Employee Black Caucus members pushed back, the email states, they were met with micro-aggressions and “character assassinations.”

A source — who was not authorized to speak publicly and who attended the meetings at the Treasury Board Secretariat — told CBC News that Black employees left some of those meetings in tears.

The email claims senior Treasury Board officials told Black employees working on the project that they were “asking for too much” and asked “what do you people want?” Officials also questioned why it was necessary to have a program specifically for Black employees or led by Black managers, the email states.

Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.
Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Amnesty International Canada said the experience described in the email runs contrary to the Liberal government’s commitment to tackling racism in the public service.

Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said the Liberal government and the public service seem to speak two different languages.

“It’s contrary to the commitments that this government has made. It works in the complete opposite direction from [the government’s] public commitments,” Nivyabandi told CBC, citing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kneeling during a protest following the murder of George Floyd.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wears a mask as he takes a knee during a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd on June 5, 2020. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Donoghue declined CBC’s request for an interview. Monica Granados, press secretary to Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, said in a media statement that she can’t comment because the mental health plan is subject to cabinet confidence.

“We remain committed to advancing our mandate commitment to establish a mental health fund for Black public servants,” Granados wrote.

The relationship between Black civil servants and the federal government has been strained lately. A proposed $2.5 billion class-action lawsuit alleging discriminatory practices within the public service is making its way through the courts.

The courts will rule on whether the lawsuit can proceed in 2023. The government opposes the lawsuit and has asked the court to dismiss it.

Mental health is front and centre in that lawsuit, which alleges Black employees have been denied promotions and jobs because of their race and have faced harassment and belittlement. The claim seeks damages for mental harm, along with efforts to diversify the federal labour force and eliminate barriers that employment equity laws have been unable to remove.

The executive director of the Black class action secretariat behind the lawsuit, Nicholas Marcus Thompson, said he wasn’t surprised by the contents of the Federal Black Employee Caucus’s email.

“The contents of the [email] demonstrate a very toxic work environment,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to speak with the workers who were working on this program. And they tell me how it has impacted their mental health.”

The Federal Black Employee Caucus declined CBC’s request for interview. In a statement, it said it would be meeting with its membership next week to decide on next steps. It also called on the government to adopt an approach to mental health that goes beyond “just tweaking the previous Employee Assistance Program.”

The Black employee caucus called on the federal government to establish an office of Black equity and inclusion, and to appoint both a senior deputy minister responsible for Black employees and a Black equity commissioner, similar to positions created to deal with antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“The mental health issues faced by Black employees are a symptom and are rooted in racial trauma,” the statement said.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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