Amnesty International, a global organization with a mandate to protect and promote human rights, has thrown its support behind a multi-billion-dollar proposed class-action lawsuit against the federal government by current and former Black public servants alleging discrimination and lack of advancement opportunities stemming as far back as 1970.
“This is a widespread discrimination with 1,300 employees who are coming forward,” said Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada’s English-speaking branch. “We’re looking at real widespread discrimination within the public service, and we’ve seen that this isn’t progressing yet, at this stage, and it’s time for change.”
She said it’s part of Amnesty International’s mandate to “always observe and prevent human rights violations that are occurring.” The organization operates in more than 150 countries and has a membership numbering in the millions.
“That’s why we got involved in the first place—the right [not to be subjected] to discrimination is a right under Canadian and international human rights law, and employees have a right to have the same opportunities simply on competence and seniority, and not on race,” said Nivyabandi in an interview with The Hill Times. “We’re very disturbed by what we have seen, and this is why we’re very committed to support the Black class action.”
According to Amnesty International’s March 3 release, well more than a thousand Black employees have “courageously shared deeply personal stories” of their experiences working for the government and have described the denial of promotions, mentorship, and other opportunities that were available to non-Black colleagues and were confined to low-level positions.
“These dehumanizing experiences send the message that Black employees are not fit for public service in Canada and perpetuate biases about Black people’s worth and capabilities,” according to the release, which notes that for Black employees who are members of other marginalized groups, such as Black women, Black people with disabilities, and Black LGBTQ2S+ individuals, “the impacts of discrimination are even greater.”
Amnesty International has been involved with a number of cases where “we determined there has been mass discrimination or a violation of human rights,” said Nivyabandi.
“In this case, we’re really monitoring the progress of this class action in the courts, and we’re currently exploring all options,” she said. “We felt that giving our public support to the case will strengthen the case and will give it more visibility. That’s certainly our hope.”
Class members seeking $2.5-billion in damages
Nicholas Marcus Thompson, one of the first of 12 employees from multiple departments within the federal government to file the class action as a representative plaintiff back in December 2020, told The Hill Times that “we are very grateful for the support of Amnesty International in pursuing real justice for current and former public service workers, when Amnesty is in so many different countries championing human rights.”
The support from Amnesty “acknowledges the injustices that Black public service workers have faced, and it also ensures that we can shine a light on these injustices across society, said Thompson. “To have an organization like Amnesty International champion this cause, it demonstrates how significant it is, in terms of the government failing to address this issue.”
A statement of claim for the lawsuit was first filed with the Federal Court in Toronto on Dec. 2, 2020, with representative plaintiffs initially seeking $900-milllion in damages on behalf of public servants employed in the federal government since 1970.
Following a May 2021 amendment to the claim, the number of class members increased from more than 500 to more than 1,000, who are now seeking $2.5-billion in damages. As of late February 2022, the number of class members increased to just under 1,300.
Most recently, the leading lawyer in the proposed multi-billion-dollar class-action lawsuit told The Hill Times that the federal government’s lawyers were attempting to delay proceedings by claiming the Black class action overlaps with other ongoing cases, an argument which he called “insulting.”
In response to inquiries from The Hill Times, Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson Alain Belle-Isle said there was “no intention of delaying the certification hearing,” adding that the 2020 Fall Economic Statement committed $12-million over three years towards an action plan in to increase representation and leadership development within the public service.
“Since then, we’ve made progress on our commitment to fighting systemic racism and discrimination in our institutions,” said Belle-Isle, noting amendments to the Public Service Employment Act, steps taken to close gaps in employment equity representation by raising the visibility of diverse talented employees with the potential to take on senior leadership roles, and the creation and implementation of leadership and mentorship programs.
The class action is now moving towards certification hearing dates, set for Sept. 21-23, 2022, following Federal Court Associate Chief Justice Jocelyne Gagné’s direction for the government and plaintiffs to file additional documentation during the most recent court proceeding on Feb. 16.
Gagné also directed the Crown to serve and file its record no later than June 29, with the plaintiff’s reply to be file no later than July 14.
The Hill Times