A federal employee is breaking her silence about the experience of being Black in the public service after a senior colleague at the Immigration and Refugee Board’s Toronto office allegedly praised “the good old days when we had slaves.”
Monica Agard spoke to CBC News after she says the board failed to act or acknowledge the psychological toll that the racist comment had on her as a Black woman — even after she filed a formal notice about the incident.
What’s worse, she said, only months after the alleged comment, that same employee went on to become Agard’s direct supervisor until she objected, and he was reassigned about a week later.
“In my heart, I believe that there are some underlying racial tones to this, because why would you make comments like that?” Agard told CBC News.
“The comments themselves are clearly racist.”
Issue raised when colleague became supervisor
Her experience is just one of a growing chorus of stories of Black civil servants who say they have quietly faced discrimination in their ranks for decades, be it poor treatment or being passed over for promotions.
Agard said beyond the comments themselves, the lack of action by the immigration board made the situation “doubly hurtful.”
WATCH | Federal employee speaks out about experience of being Black in public service:
“I see it that they don’t value me as a person enough to say, ‘I will deal with this because it is serious,'” she said.
A 30-year veteran of the public service, Agard had been talking with a colleague at her desk in November 2019 about their workloads when a more senior employee passed by and intruded on the conversation, she said.
“We need to go back to the good old days when we had slaves,” she alleges the senior employee said.
“I felt as if I would have a nervous collapse,” Agard wrote in a formal notice this past spring, adding she asked the employee to stop or else she would file a grievance against him.
“Your people were not the only people who were slaves,” she said he replied, before walking away.
Agard didn’t file a complaint at the time of the incident — she says she’d lost confidence in the system after an earlier complaint about the same individual was closed without explanation, and she didn’t raise the issue until he was set to become her supervisor.
Push for mental health fund for Black federal employees
Last December, a dozen current and former federal employees issued a proposed class-action lawsuit against the federal government, naming more than 50 departments and agencies and seeking some $900 million in damages. The suit has yet to be certified, but Agard has since signed on as a member.
At the time the legal action was filed, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which employs the federal public service, said it could not comment on the allegations because the lawsuit was before the courts.
Earlier this month, an update was made to the claim: A motion was filed in Federal Court to order an interim mental health fund of at least $100 million for current and former Black employees who, the plaintiffs say, need immediate support for trauma they’ve faced working in the public service.
“The damages that Black workers have faced and continue to face, it’s real and it’s ongoing…. We cannot afford to wait, you know, four years for a lawsuit to be settled,” said Nicholas Marcus Thompson.
Thompson, a racial justice advocate, is among the 12 current and former federal employees who filed the class-action lawsuit last year. If certified, it could cover thousands of Black employees with the federal service going back to 1970.
“Some of our class members have shared that they’ve had suicidal attempts. They’ve thought about ending their life because it has become so challenging, so difficult to show up for work every day,” Thompson told CBC News.
Federal employees have access to an employee assistance program and the public service health-care plan, which provides up to $2,000 per year to workers and their dependents. But Thompson said those resources are inadequate — often short term, with counsellors lacking the lived experience to address trauma faced by Black employees specifically.
‘Like all organizations, the board has more work to do’
The Immigration and Refugee Board said in an email to CBC News that it “takes allegations of this nature very seriously.” The board said it is aware of Agard’s allegations and that her case is “under review,” but it could not comment on specifics “to protect the integrity of the process.”
“Racism and discrimination in any form are unacceptable and fundamentally incompatible with the IRB’s core values of civility, fairness and respect, as well as our ongoing commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive work culture,” IRB spokesperson Line-Alice Guibert-Wolff.
For a manager to feel so emboldened to make such comments … it demonstrates the amount of privilege that white people wield within the public service.– Nicholas Marcus Thompson
“Like all organizations, the board has more work to do to ensure the experiences of all of its employees align with the values of the organization,” Guibert-Wolff said, adding it established a new ombudsman’s office in 2020 and new mandatory training, and it’s continuing to develop a diversity and inclusion strategy.
In an email to CBC News, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat said amendments to the Public Service Employment Act received royal assent on June 29 — just days ahead of the motion filed earlier this month. The amendments reaffirm the importance of a diverse and inclusive workforce, and strengthen provisions to address potential bias and barriers in staffing, the board said.
The secretariat also said it is studying the motion filed in the lawsuit and is hopeful that the concerns raised may be resolved through further discussions with the plaintiffs.
“The Government of Canada is committed to fostering a healthy, supportive and respectful workplace. A healthy workplace is essential to the physical and psychological health of all public service employees, as it enables them to bring the best of their diverse talents, skills and energy as they deliver services to Canadians,” spokesperson Martin Potvin said.
Symptom of a larger problem, activist says
While Agard’s experience was heartbreaking, Thompson said, it’s a symptom of a larger problem within the service.
“For a manager to feel so emboldened to make such comments not only in front of the employee but in front of another employee as well, it demonstrates the amount of privilege that white people wield within the public service,” he said.
Meanwhile, Agard — who remains an Immigration and Refugee Board employee — said it was important for her to speak out for the benefit of other Black employees who might be struggling by themselves.
“All these people from different areas of the service have similar stories of not progressing, of not being respected, of taking away your dignity and your self-worth.
“Sometimes when you suffer, you think you suffer alone,” she said tearfully. “It’s always stronger together.”
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.