Black civil servants suing federal government say budget falls short on mental health supports

A group of Black federal workers behind a proposed $2.5-billion class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination by the federal government says they’re disappointed in mental health measures included in last week’s budget.

Last Thursday, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland promised $3.7 million over four years for Black-led “engagement, design, and implementation” of a mental health fund. Karen Marie Dickson and her group Black Class Action Secretariat (BCAS) called for $100 million for a similar fund last year. 

“There has to be trauma-informed care, there has to be culturally-competent care and there has to be race-based data collected on mental health care for Black federal workers,” the former assistant crown attorney said.

“And $3.7 million does not pay for all of that.”

Dickson, 53, told CBC News she was coerced into quitting her job in 2006 after facing targeted attacks from management for advocating for racialized workers in the workplace. After losing her job, she says she eventually became homeless.

Years later, Dickson says she’s still recovering from trauma she never would have experienced if she wasn’t Black.

She alleges the harassment started in 2005 when she took time off to mourn the loss of a grandparent and was told she’d have to undergo psychiatric tests to re-enter the office.

“This was not like a psychologist or something like that. This was a psychiatric assessment that this manager wanted in order for me to resume my job,” Dickson said.

Karen Marie Dickson, a former assistant crown attorney for the federal government says she was stonewalled for promotions and became a target after she started to advocate for racialized workers. (Black Class Action/Youtube)

“If I were a white employee, I would have been referred to employee assistance.”

That, in part, is what led Dickson to join BCAS, the non-profit that launched the lawsuit against the federal government in 2020 over alleged discriminatory hiring and promoting. The allegations in the suit have not been tested in court. It is scheduled for a certification hearing in September.

Feds plan to stay parts of lawsuit, group says

But on Monday, BCAS learned the federal government plans to file a formal motion to stay parts of that suit, alleging overlap with other cases. BCAS spokesperson Nicholas Marcus Thompson says it’s hypocritical of the government to challenge their claim right after acknowledging the state of mental health for Black workers is worrisome.

“When it comes to overlap, the only thing consistent with this government is their willingness to silence individuals who they have discriminated against,” said Thompson, adding the group wasn’t meaningfully consulted before last week’s federal budget.

CBC News asked the federal government for comment on the issue but has not yet received a response.

What do workers do now? Can they put their trauma on hold?​​​​​– Nicholas Marcus Thompson

The idea for a mental health fund came after Black federal workers launched a lawsuit against Ottawa, said Thompson, who’s also the lead plaintiff in the suit. After news of the suit emerged, he said, Black workers came out in droves to share stories of the discrimination and trauma they faced.

Dickson was one of them.

On top of being forced to quit her job, she says, she got promoted only once while white colleagues moved through the ranks despite working for the Department of Justice for over eight years.

The latest available figures from Statistics Canada show Black people make up about 3.5 per cent of the federal public workforce. However, advocates say Black people report an above-average level of harassment and discrimination and are over-represented in the lower ranks of the civil service.

“We’ve done the research. We’ve done consultation. We have the experts. And now the government is saying, ‘We’re going to take four years, we’re going to study this issue,'” said Thompson, who is also the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“But we don’t have that time.”

Nicholas Marcus Thompson, a racial justice advocate, is a lead plaintiff in a proposed class-action lawsuit filed in 2020 against Ottawa. If certified, it could cover thousands of Black employees with the federal public service going back to 1970. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

While it’s encouraging that the government is showing some initiative to address the problem after promising to do so in its 2021 election campaign, Thompson says the funds earmarked in the four-year timeline will leave workers waiting for change that could be taking place now.

“We’ve seen how quickly the government can act when it faces a crisis like the pandemic or global conflict,” said Thompson.

“The government’s response of $3.7 million over four years does not meet the priority and urgency of this crisis. What do workers do now? Can they put their trauma on hold?”

Discrimination ‘nothing new,’ union leader says

About 1,500 Black workers have stepped forward to be part of the class action. But Thompson says about 30,000 Black employees dating back to 1970 will automatically be included if it goes ahead.

Jennifer Carr, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, says it’s been a reality for years that Black, Indigenous and racialized groups experience systematic barriers around harassment, recruitment and retention, education and training, and the need to address past wrongs.

Carr says the institute is “fully supportive” of the class action lawsuit.

“The discrimination, the racism and the lack of timely and effective actions are nothing new for many of the the federal Black employees that we represent,” said Carr, adding the measures in the budget do little to curb their skepticism.

“It’s a start, but it’s definitely not enough. There’s a lot more of the systemic issues that we need to address.”

Thompson says BCAS is in the process of working with racial trauma experts, Black mental health organizations and other social support groups to create a mental health plan that it hopes to present to the government and have implemented within the next six to 12 months.

“We want to work with the government and workers feel a sense of cautious relief that this is a start,” said Thompson.

“But it’s not going to get us to creating this plan. Workers need help now and can’t wait for years.”

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.