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A woman who is part of a proposed $2.5-billion class-action lawsuit filed by Black civil servants alleging discrimination by the federal government says she’s 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 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 says she was coerced into quitting her job in 2006 after facing targeted attacks from management for advocating for racialized workers in the workplace. 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, 53, told CBC News.
After losing her job, Dickson says she eventually became homeless. Years later, she says she’s still recovering from trauma she never would have experienced if she wasn’t Black.
“If I were a white employee, I would have been referred to employee assistance.”
In addition, she says despite working for the Department of Justice for over eight years, she got promoted only once while white colleagues moved through the ranks. The latest available figures from Statistics Canada show Blacks make up about 3.5 per cent of the federal public workforce. However, advocates say Blacks report an above-average level of harassment and discrimination and are over-represented in the lower ranks of the civil service.
That’s what led Dickson to join Black Class Action, 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.
Discrimination ‘nothing new,’ union leader says
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.
“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.”
The idea for a mental health fund came after the group launched its lawsuit. That’s when Black workers came out in droves to share stories of the discrimination and trauma they faced, says.Nicholas Marcus Thompson, the secretariat for BCA.
He says the group wasn’t meaningfully consulted before last week’s federal budget was released.
“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.”
He says 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, 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?”
Government to file formal motion against lawsuit
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.
Thompson says the BCA was notified Monday that the government intends to file a formal motion to stay parts of the suit and end parts of the claim, alleging there is overlap with other cases, despite the court already ruling this out in February. He 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.”
CBC News asked the federal government for comment on the issue but has not yet received a response.
Thompson says Black Class Action 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.
This content was originally published here.