Senate to hold hearings on racism at human rights commission

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard

The Senate will launch a study next week probing complaints of racism at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC).

Sen. Thomas Bernard, deputy chair of the Red Chamber’s human rights committee, said that ever since it was first reported complaints of workplace discrimination made by Black and racialized employees of the CHRC, she’s been hearing from people who have lost trust in the institution.

“Many people who’ve reached out to me to talk about this since the news broke have been saying things like, ‘I’ve lost all confidence,'” she said.

In March, the federal government reported that the Canadian Human Rights Commission had discriminated against its Black and racialized employees. The government’s human resources arm, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS), came to that conclusion after nine employees filed a grievance through their unions in October 2020.

Their grievance alleged that “Black and racialized employees at the CHRC face systemic anti-Black racism, sexism and systemic discrimination.”

The TBCS ruling described what they called a hostile and racially charged workplace where Black and racialized employees are excluded from career and training opportunities and are shut out of formal and informal networks.

They claim the careers of Black and racialized employees remain stagnant while white colleagues advance and say the ranks of senior management remain predominantly white.

Sen. Thomas Bernard, a social worker from Nova Scotia, said she has heard concerns about how the commission processes complaints for some time.

“The Senate human rights committee will be studying this because we feel it’s really important. We feel that we need to unpack this a little bit more,” Thomas Bernard said. “And then out of that, we will determine what should happen next.”

One of the employees, Bernadeth Betchi, who went public with her experience at the commission said she welcomes the study.

She and other former and current employees said such an investigation should be led by a reputable person with expertise in anti-Black racism, should examine CHRC’s hiring, promotion and retention practices related to Black employees, and should make its final report public.

They also called on the federal government to eliminate the CHRC’s gatekeeper role by allowing Canadians to file human rights complaints directly to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. That’s already the practice with human rights commissions in certain provinces, including Ontario and British Columbia.

Sen. Thomas Bernard said that while she doesn’t want to pre-judge the committee’s work or the testimony of witnesses who appear before it, she has doubts about the commission’s ability to deal with these complaints internally.

“If the commission was able to deal with this on their own, then those grievances that were filed would not have been necessary,” she said. “That suggests to many African Canadians that the commission is not in the best position to deal with this.”