When they took power in 2015, the Trudeau Liberals promised to “build a government that looks like Canada.”
But their government, now in its second mandate, still hasn’t hired enough minority senior staff members to truly reflect the country’s diverse makeup.
Only four chiefs of staff to 37 ministers are people of colour — roughly 11 per cent of the total — while they constitute more than 22 per cent of the national population, according to the last census in 2016.
As protests against anti-Black racism — triggered by George Floyd’s police custody killing in Minneapolis — have grown in size and spread around the globe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been talking more about “systemic” racism in Canadian institutions. The prime minister also kneeled in a crowd of anti-racism protesters in Ottawa last Friday as a symbolic gesture of support for their calls for change.
“Systemic racism is an issue right across the country, in all our institutions, including in all our police forces, including in the RCMP. That’s what systemic racism is,” Trudeau said Thursday morning.
“Here are the facts in Canada. Anti-Black racism is real, unconscious bias is real, systemic discrimination is real,” the prime minister said in a speech in the House of Commons last week, vowing that his government is committed to breaking down barriers and providing opportunities for marginalized communities.
The lack of diversity among Liberal staffers was keenly felt by Omer Aziz, who worked briefly as an adviser to Chrystia Freeland when she was foreign affairs minister.
“I would go into meetings and I’m the only non-white person there. I felt that when I would raise my voice and give my advice, that it wasn’t taken seriously,” Aziz told CBC.
“That is eventually why I left what was my dream job.”
Other senior staffers told CBC that while being one of just a few people of colour around the table may not be an ideal job situation, diversity in the higher ranks of the federal public service has come a long way in the past decade.
The government is also responsible for appointing people to hundreds of bodies outside the core public service, such as agency boards, foreign missions and Crown corporations.
The Trudeau Liberals reformed that hiring process early in its first mandate to serve its goal of attracting diverse applicants. The result: a dramatically improved ratio of people of colour to other hires, from 4.3 per cent when the Liberals were elected in 2015 to 8.2 per cent as of June 2020.
As for the most senior civil servants (deputy and associate deputy ministers), the number coming from diverse backgrounds is still less than 10 per cent of the total — so low that the Privy Council Office won’t release the figure, arguing it would compromise privacy rights because it would be easy to work out who these senior civil servants are.
“We are in 2020. How come it took so long? It shouldn’t have,” said Caroline Xavier, the only Black person serving as an associate deputy minister in the federal government. She was appointed to the post at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada back in February.
“Sometimes the burden is heavy because you have to represent. It’s a burden I’m prepared to take on because it’s my job to open more doors for others.”
Xavier said there’s no easy solution, but conversations about breaking down barriers “are happening” within government.
“There is a recognition at the most senior levels that this has got to be rectified.”
The federal government fares far better when it comes to appointing women; the ranks of deputy ministers and other high-level positions are close to gender parity now.
The Trudeau government isn’t the first to pursue greater diversity in the upper ranks of the public service.
In 2000, a task force struck to look into the participation of people of colour in the federal public service cited an “urgent imperative to shape a federal public service that is representative of its citizenry.”
Seven years later, the Senate published a report on employment equity in the public service with the title: “Not There Yet.” Ten years after that, in 2017, a Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat task force reported that “many gaps in representation persist in the executive category … the very leaders who shape and influence the culture of federal organizations are not sufficiently diverse.”
Since 2000, there has been a slow but steady increase in the number of Canadians of colour in the public service — from just under six per cent of the total then, to more than 16 per cent today.
But annual employment equity reports and the census show that Black civil servants, along with Filipinos and Latinos, are still grouped at the lower end of the salary ladder.
Liberal MP Greg Fergus, chair of the parliamentary Black caucus, told CBC News this week that he wants to see the government address that disparity.
“It doesn’t make sense that there’s been no Black deputy ministers — you can’t convince me that there aren’t Black people who are competent,” he said. “But there’s something that went into the calculation over time, that that person didn’t make the right fit, or didn’t get that promotion. We can justify any individual decision, but when you aggregate all these decisions, you end up with a biased result.
“Those are the things that we’ve got to take a look at. But it’s hard to do the things which are hard to do. And it’s hard to see bias. People don’t want to admit that’s going on.”
Trudeau has tasked his parliamentary secretary, Ontario MP Omar Alghabra, with looking at public service renewal. While the Black Lives Matter protests have given the file more urgency, the government has no clear plan yet.
Sharon DeSousa has suggestions. A regional executive vice president with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, she served on the 2017 task force on diversity in the public service. She points out that only one recommendation out of 43 was implemented.
“We keep having committees and reports and, to be honest, we’re coming up with the same data,” DeSousa said.
“We’ve got systemic barriers and we need to address them,” she said, adding that if the Liberals were serious about going after unconscious bias, they would take a hard look at how data on hiring are being collected, and the problems baked into legislation like the Employment Equity Act.
The Employment Equity Act hasn’t been updated in nearly two decades and still uses the broad term “visible minorities” — a phrase the United Nations has called discriminatory because it lacks nuance and assumes the experience of a Black employee is the same as that of a South Asian one.
Former head of the privy council Michael Wernick said he believes now is the time to look at changing legislation.
“I think to get at issues in the 2020s, you’re going to want to dig down into each of those communities and have more precise strategies for them,” Wernick said, adding that employment equity laws are still an important tool for promoting diversity.
Still, he said, opening the act up for debate could be like turning over a “hornet’s nest” and coming to a consensus won’t be easy.
The Liberals also have flirted with the concept of “name blind” recruitment for the public service — the practice of concealing a candidate’s name to protect those with more ethnic-sounding names from conscious or unconscious bias in the hiring process.
A pilot project in 2017 produced a report suggesting name blind recruitment made no difference to outcomes, which prompted former Treasury Board president Scott Brison to declare that “the project did not uncover bias.”
But it turned out the methodology was flawed. Departments had volunteered to take part in the pilot and knew their hiring decisions would be evaluated.
The Public Service Commission is still examining other random recruitment processes.
Some factors that serve to prevent people of colour from being hired by the federal government — the country’s largest single employer — are harder to work around, said Andrew Griffith, a former director-general with Citizenship and Immigration Canada who has written extensively about the issue.
“There’s a preference in the public service to hire Canadian citizens and not all visible minorities have become citizens yet,” Griffith said. He said he believes that factor narrows the gap between the diversity of the general population and that of the federal public service.
Other factors that could be frustrating the push for a more diverse public service, he said, are language requirements and a need for regional representation in parts of Canada that are not so diverse.
That second factor could be less of a problem in the longer term, with a pandemic crisis forcing many civil servants to work from home. But Griffith said getting into government work is “just a long convoluted process.”