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To the uninitiated, Canada may have a reputation for friendly and folksy charm. For Black and Indigenous peoples of the ‘Great White North,’ this veneer belies a white supremacy as vicious as anywhere else. Since 2020, Black Class Action Secretariat has fought to take the federal government to task for rampant and systemic discrimination. The class action lawsuit seeks damages of $2.5 billion. Nicholas Marcus Thompson joins The Real News for a far-ranging discussion on the long history of anti-Black racism in Canada, as well as the efforts of Black Class Action to effect change through organization.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson is a Trinidadian-Canadian social justice advocate and union leader.

Studio Production: Jesse Freeston
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson:

All right, so my name is Nicholas Marcus Thompson, and that’s how I go by my full name. So that’s Nicholas Marcus Thompson. I am executive director for nonprofit organization called the Black Class Action Secretariat, which was formed after workers organized and filed a class action against the entire federal public service of Canada. For anti-black discrimination, essentially failure to hire, and failure to promote black workers based on their race.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Well, Nicholas, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us at the Real News Network. I really, really appreciate it. We are, of course, sitting here at the Action Network temp at the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labor Congress and we’ve been talking to as many folks as we can, learning as much as we can about the state of the labor movement, what our fellow workers here in Canada are going through, and what struggles they’re involved in, and ultimately how those of us in the United States and beyond can stand in solidarity with our siblings across the Canadian border and beyond.

And this story is really, really important and I’m really, really grateful to you for sitting down and chatting to us about it because I really want real news viewers and listeners to understand what we’re talking about here. I mean, this Black Class Action lawsuit and in response to just the deep systemic racism and discrimination that black workers in Canada face. It’s sad to say that I have to imagine a number of folks in the US will just be hearing about this for the first time.

And so I want to make sure that they have all the essential information about how deep this goes, where the movement to redress this systemic injustice came from and how it’s grown and what role you’ve played in that. So I guess take us back to the beginning. Take us back to where the movement started to identify and address the systemic racism and how bad was it? And is it…

Nicholas Marcus Thompson:

Let’s go back.

Maximillian Alvarez:


Nicholas Marcus Thompson:

And in order for you and your viewers to understand, we need to go way back. I’m going to take you back to the 1600s. So black people have been in Canada for over 400 years. It is one of the longest racialized groups that have been in Canada. And from the beginning of when black people were brought here as enslaved people, throughout the passage of time, black people have faced significant oppression in Canada. When slavery was abolished, laws were passed that prevented the full participation of black Canadians. If we fast-forward to the first World War, black people wanted to serve Canada. They tried to sign up and Canada told them, “This is a white man’s war.”

They eventually allowed a few black people to serve in the World War, but the majority were rejected. And then they eventually formed a black battalion, a construction battalion. So what that meant was that black people predominantly could not fight alongside the white soldiers. They were relegated to digging the trenches, disarming the landmines, cutting down the trees. And that’s exactly, fast-forward, 100 years later, more than 100 years later, that’s exactly where black people remain. Digging the trenches and those are still important work in Canada’s public service. And so throughout the passage of time, systems were created because black people were viewed as subhuman, not good enough. And throughout the passage of time, those systems continues. Now we have it in a very Canadian way. It’s not overt, it is covert now. It is with a smile. It is with, “I’m following the procedures.” It is with the law states this, and we’re following the law.

So Canada has had a very oppressive history when it comes to black people. And it has not come to terms with how it has treated people who have been here, lived here, fully participated, contributed, helped to build Canada into the economic powerhouse that it is while facing significant oppression from the Canadian people, from the Canadian government, state sponsored discrimination and racism because it’s happening at the state level intentionally and in some cases unintentionally.

So fast-forward to 2020 and the murder of George Floyd in the US. And we really felt that pain, we connected with that suffering because we had an economic knee on our necks. So for a long time we couldn’t breathe and we stood in solidarity with the Floyd family and Americans and global citizens to stand up and march and protest. And as I led a protest in Toronto and I looked around and I saw all the different races for once in the history of time supporting black people. And it came to me and I says, “Well, what if we really have this support where we can actually get changes to remove that knee from on our necks in every possible way?” And I had this thought and the thought was, this protest is going to end and things are going to go back to normal and nothing is going to change.

So how do we utilize this support now to try to bring about some tangible change? It was 2020 at that point, and nothing was changing for black people. It was just being dressed up in a very Canadian way. And Canada is known around the world as a beacon of hope, a country that thrives with multiculturalism and diversity and inclusion, welcoming and… It reminds me of one government department, that immigration and refugee board, it welcomes refugees from around the world. And here you have a white manager telling a black employee, we should go back to the good old days where we had slaves. That’s Canada, but it is not the Canada that we hope of, that we dream of, that we know it has the potential to be. So in that moment, protesting, I was determined that we had to take some type of tangible action to bring about massive change because we would never get the opportunity to do so again.

So I started looking in our workplaces. At the time I was employed by the Canada Revenue Agency. That agency is responsible for administering Canada’s income tax, excise tax and other legislation. Essentially the taxation regime for the country. It administers billions and trillions of dollars. It’s the only revenue collecting central body for the government. And essentially almost every Canadian has to deal with this. One of the only bodies in the government that every Canadian has to pass through somehow or the other. And at this employer, there were about 50,000 employees and 100s of executives. And there are about one or two black executives and rarely any black people in management positions. And we had been trying to address the huge gap from entry level employees who are predominantly black to management and some leadership and having some opportunities.

At the time, we had workers who were there for 30 years, no promotion, still in an entry level position, retiring. Their pension is based on their best five years. And the really the heartbreaking part is that these were mostly women. And when I look around, seeing faces that look like my mother, my grandmother, and the dispare and the hopelessness in their faces, I knew we had to do something about it. So I wrote to the commissioner of the CRA and I said, “Hey, we have a major problem here. You’ve issued a statement talking about anti-black racism in the US and your attention was on the US but we have a huge problem right here in Canada and it’s insulting that you’re not acknowledging that and it’s causing even more damage and we want you to address this issue.”

And so they set up a task force to look at the issue and there’s about 50 people on the task force and one black person. And when you-

Maximillian Alvarez:

It’s almost, it’s so on the nose, I don’t even know what to do, but with myself.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson:

And when you look at the minutes, this should not be about anti-black racism. Let’s talk about all forms of racism now. So it equated it to an all lives matter approach and it did not specifically address anti-black racism. And then I wrote to the Minister of National Revenue, “I have a problem here, can you help us?” Then I wrote to the clerk of the Privy Council, that is the head of the public service. “We have a anti-black racism problem here, can you help us?” Then I wrote to the prime Minister, “Can you help us?” Then I says, “You know what, let me try to.” That point, I was an elected president within my union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the largest federal public sector union.

And I says, “Hey, we have a problem at the CRA with anti-black racism. Can you please help us? But before we go to the CRA, before we fight this outward, we have a problem in the union. Our union is not representative of our members and there isn’t enough that’s being done to ensure that racialized black and racialized candidates are being put forward or mentored or being supported. Our members do not see themselves in our union and our view, our union, as not supportive on equity issues, not representative of us. So they stay away because they’re already facing enough barriers and racism in the workplace to now join the union to fight there too, not everybody can do that.”

And at the time I was hearing from workers who were having suicidal ideation, who had been on sick leave for long term experts have told us how the discrimination impacts your brain, how it impacts your parenting, your social life. How it causes your brain to actually move in a particular way. So I was talking to all these workers and the response that I got from the union was not commensurate to the urgency that workers were experiencing. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to do something. So I hosted a town hall and I just needed to find a space to give workers a forum to bring awareness to the leaders, to what their members and employees are facing.

So I brought on workers, I brought on an anti-racism educator, I brought on a therapist. Because part of the problem too, when employees go to the employer’s employee assistance program and complain, they they’re experiencing discrimination. They usually white counselor would say, “Well, discrimination’s not there. It’s your perception that you’re being discriminated against. They can’t do that.” Causing even further damage. So from that point on, we have all of these people in the town hall, and I also invited a lawyer, because I knew there were significant legal issues and I needed them to be, the employers and the unions to be aware that you have a legal obligation here to do something. And I wanted a legal expert to speak about that. And the town hall went very well.

And after that, the lawyer called me up and says, “Hey Nicholas, you’re onto something here.” And he says, “There’s a lot of negligence on the employer and on the union side.” And that lawyer, Courtney Betty, he’s a former Crown prosecutor. And having worked for the Justice Department yet a good understanding of how the system worked. And from there on we started exploring taking legal action. Our biggest challenge was finding a way to bring it before the court. Because as unionized workers, you have to utilize the grievance process, the Canadian Human Rights Commission or any of the mechanisms within the labor framework. You can’t just go to court. There’s a threshold for that. And then we realized there was a common theme. And the common theme in all the cases was, racism was happening, but it was around staffing. The staffing mechanism was weaponized to exclude one group and give preferential treatment to others.

Maximillian Alvarez:

So this is both, I imagine, in terms of hiring, who gets hired and who doesn’t.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson:


Maximillian Alvarez:

And who gets promoted and who doesn’t.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson:

Correct. Yes. So what it means for a black person is that you could be how qualified you apply, they’d find a way to screen you out, or they’d find a way to give opportunities to act in higher positions to other employees, developing them in the process, preparing them so that when a poster comes out, they have the experience to apply for it. You can’t even apply because you don’t even have the experience acting. So they could prepare you and tailor a poster to what those operational needs are. And the staffing regime for the public service, a lot of it is discretionary. So the public service has predominantly uses staffing regime to promote non-black racialized groups, to promote white employees, to develop white employees at the expense of black employees. And that’s essentially what this case is about. It means for thousands of black employees from 1970 and onward, that’s our starting period, have faced systemic discrimination in the public service.

And when we were going, we’d finally developed this case, and then I started talking to workers outside of the CRA. I went around to the different departments and I was hearing the same thing from workers. The exact same tools and how they were being used. So it wasn’t just the CRA, it was the Treasury Board of Canada, it was the Canadian Human Rights Commission where you file your complained to, the only institution that’s supposed to be sacred and anti-discriminatory. Workers at that commission told me that they were facing discrimination. And how race-based complaints, when the commission receives race-based complaints, that it’s disproportionately rejected compared to other complaints. That is a much higher dismissal rate for race-based complaints. And that how the leadership of the commission is the same everywhere else in the public service, black and some racialized right up here, and the leadership is white.

I went to the intelligence community, the same thing, the policing law enforcement, the same thing. Essentially all of the institutions were practicing anti-black racism, and it was deeply embedded in all of their systems. It was almost normal, the status quo. And that’s when we decided to extend the claim to the entire federal public service, over 100 departments and agencies and crown entities. And we examine the Employment Equity Act and here’s how, this is the piece of legislation that the employer uses federally to exclude black workers. This legislation was created in 1976 assented to in ’77. And it creates for protection for groups, women, indigenous people, visible minorities, and people with disabilities. It’s worked very well for women, but it’s white women, mostly white women. And we’re happy to see women is now more than 50% of the public service. We didn’t have that before. And more than 50% of the leadership as well. So that’s incredible. But black women are not the beneficiary of that woman category or indigenous or. It’s only been white women have benefited from that category.

And the visible minorities category places every racialized group that’s say, if you’re not indigenous or you’re not white, you’re in this category. And it’s nobody’s defined in there. So to meet employment equity, when there’s a gap for visible minorities, I could pick any group. So if I want, I could always pick Chinese and I’m meetings or exceeding my visible… I picked the visible minorities. So federal employees and the CRA have always told me, “Nicholas, we’re following the law. The law says pick a visible minority and we picked a visible minority. It doesn’t say anything about black. If you want this address, you have to change the Employment Equity Act.”

That’s what they told me. So we set it upon a path to strike down the Employment Equity because how it’s being applied, because it was not clearly defined, how it’s being applied, it is sanctioning allowing discrimination against black people as federal employers have their preferred group for visible minorities. Whoever it deems is the harder worker, the smarter worker, the non-lazy worker. And then when those racialized group gets in, they perpetuates and continue the status quo. And in some of the cases, they ensure that people from their group follow suit. So I’ve seen where a leader of one department is this race and everybody in the department is that race. Or the majority of people.

So we’re seeking to strike down that part of the Act because we believe that how it’s being applied, it contravenes Article 15 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it pertains to non-discrimination. So here we are at a press conference and a national broadcaster, CBC is carrying the story. December 4th, it’s coming out. I’m in front of a camera, I’m nervous, not sure what I was getting signed up for, but I knew we had to do something about it. And the story broke. We filed a claim and what is the claim? We are seeking monumental historic changes to how our public service run, how staffing functions. We want to ensure that our public service is strong and productive. Right now you have a lot of people injured showing up to work, serving Canadians in a minimal capacity due to the discrimination that they face in the workplace. Not performing at their best potential.

So we want to create a stronger public service where everyone is included and where you can reach your full potential, whether that’s at the bottom or mid-level or at the top, wherever that is. And you’d be able to reach your fullest potential based on merit and what you bring to the table. And that’s the public service that we’re fighting for, that is the public service that we’re demanding. It is what Canada purports to be. So we’re holding Canada accountable to the image that it is trying to show the world that it is. So it’s real hard work and a lot of determination and sweat and blood to get there, but we know it’s achievable. So we’re seeking amendments to the Employment Equity Act. We believe the only way to address the problem at the root cause is to amend the Employment Equity Act, is to remove black employees from the racialized category where it’s being left behind consistently and create a new designated group. And that’s the only way you’ll be able to solve the issue of black employee exclusion.

So now what is in a distinct separate category, employers will have to look to see if there is specifically a black gap in the workplace and then appoint a qualified, not just somebody because they’re black. That’s not what we’re trying to do. Appoint a qualified, competent black person to fill that gap.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Man, I mean, this is really an incredible undertaking. Both in terms of the scope and scale of the problem. And I mean, we in the United States are no strangers to systemic anti-black racism. But then to study at the level of the entire workforce of the federal public service workers going back 50 years and trying to account for and atone for and repair. I mean, that’s what reparations means, is repair that which has been broken and those who have been broken by this flawed, racist, bad system that needs to be repaired. I’m wondering how you take on the task of accounting for all of that and fighting for not just fixing the issues within the hiring practices and the Employment Equity Act, but also compensating folks who have been affected by this. And I wanted to ask about that side of things and where the state of the lawsuit is now and what response you’ve gotten from the government and from the labor community.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson:

Those are very important questions. Well, let’s start from the top. The lawsuit is presently awaiting certification. So that’s the first legal hurdle. That’s where the court will determine if it meets the definition of a class action, not so much the merits of the case, but if it has a common class, if it’s clearly this undefined and whatnot and that it meets the definition for a class action. That hearing is scheduled for October this year. Of course, the government can consent to that certification and allow us to move further ahead, they have not. Their position has been completely different in the courtroom than publicly. Publicly most of the institutions have acknowledged that they have systemic discrimination. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that on many occasions. Most recently, there was a finding by the Treasury Board of Canada that the Canadian Human Rights Commission discriminated against its black and racialized employees.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Which just blows my mind. The Canadian, I’m sorry, I know you said this earlier and I was containing myself, but the Human Rights Commission that is supposed to be there to safeguard human rights within the office of that commission, they’re doing the same shit.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson:

And it just goes to show you how bad the problem is. Those who are entrusted to protect human rights were violating human rights with no regard for their mandates. So if the Human Rights Commission was doing this, imagine for the rest of the public service. If the top, the beacon of hope was discriminating against black employees, then everywhere else that’s looking to the commission for direction and for help, for guidance and leadership, the system completely failed black employees. And black employees have no trust in our federal institutions, have no trust in our institutions for redress through the labor mechanisms and view the court as the only place to be able to get remedy on this situation.

Compensation remains an important part of what we’re seeking. So we’re not only seeking the legislative changes to address the present and future, but there has to be remedies to address the past damages. They’ve done it for other groups, for the LGBT community, and we’re not asking for anything new. You’ve acknowledged that there is discrimination, that there is damage, and the pain and suffering that it causes is real. That’s what the Prime Minister said. But with all of that, you’ve ruined a lot of lives, marriages, families, the generational impact. I keep remembering Carol, she’s one of the people that came forward. She’s retired, living in a basement apartment, can barely make ends meet after diligently serving this country for over two decades.

What about all those workers? Will a, sorry, be sufficient for all those lives you ruin? The impact on their children and then their children’s children. How do you just come back now and say, “We’ve passed a law and we’ve fixed this problem,” and you said all these nice things. But you’ve ruined tens of thousands of black people’s lives and the communities that they live in and their culture and their ability to fully participate as Canadian citizens. So there has to be remedies to address those damages, those deep, deep damages. So we’re truly seeking to address the issue from the past, to provide compensation for those who have been injured. To address the present by fixing the systems from the root no Band-Aid solutions. We’re seeking to remedy at the root cause. So let’s say if an employer could be how racist they want, they have to follow the law. If they don’t, we can hold them accountable. They would not be able to hide behind any category and say, well, they’ve hired a racialized person so they’ve met it. They wouldn’t be able to do any of that if we have appropriate legislative safeguards.

And we also want to ensure there’s proportional representation. If the black community makes up this amount of people, that should be reflected in the public service at all levels. And we have to, I started by telling you the history of black people in Canada. All of this has to be within that long history of oppression. So it’s not no special treatment we’re looking for, we’re seeking equality through equity. No handouts, but you’ve damaged us, so you have to compensate us for that, and then you have to stop damaging us. That’s what we’re seeking to do with the Black Class Action. And part of the reason why we’re before the courts is because our unions have failed us. And to understand that, I had to go back into the history books as well. And I found that when unions were just starting up in Canada, their constitution said whites only. So our unions were not built with us in mind. They were built to exclude us.

Attitudes and behavior throughout the passage of time passed down. And out of that fight, black people mobilized back then and formed their own union, their own table. Out of that fight, something came to being called duty to fair representation. It was black people that fought all the way through the courts and gave our labor system the duty to fair representation, yet still cannot benefit from that regime. So our unions have, which essentially come from a workplace. So if you have workplaces where discrimination is rampant, where black people are consistently being excluded, where white supremacy thrives, our unions are going to reflect that too. So it’s the same thing, or probably even worse, replicated within our unions. And our unions have a lot of work to do in terms of turning that corner, accepting responsibility. And we recognize the powerful vehicle that the labor movement is that the huge wins that it has brought home for workers, from maternity leave to sick leave, to childcare, to living wage, to weekends. These things were not given to workers, unions fought and won these things. So we accept and we support and we believe in unionism.

But when it comes to anti-black racism, our unions and unions in general have not mobilized. And that is our goal to galvanize Canada’s labor movement into combating anti-black racism, into actually fixing our systems. Because we recognize the power that labor has, and if one is impacted, then all of us is impacted. And if blacks are being marginalized, then all of us are in the fight together. And that’s really what part of this fight is about, bringing labor together. Because if we can fight this together, it means our workplaces would be barrier free. It means our members can fully participate. And that means our members can also now fully participate in the unions. So ultimately we’ll have stronger workplaces and stronger unions.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Hell yeah. Well, and I guess on that note, and I can’t thank you enough for sitting and talking with me this long, man. I really, really appreciate it. And I just wanted to ask in the final couple minutes I’ve got you is, what should that look like from the union side? Actually rising to that occasion looking inward and fixing the problems that we have still within the movement. Excluding black workers or having leadership that is not representative of our membership or not making these issues enough of a priority in our contract fights and beyond. So I wanted to ask A, what should the union effort to address systemic racism look like? And B, what can folks in the labor movement and beyond in Canada, in the US and beyond, what can we all do to support y’all in this fight?

Nicholas Marcus Thompson:

Well, let me say this. The labor movement knows how to fight, it knows how to mobilize, it knows how to bring people together, it knows how to run campaigns. That’s what we need. The full force of the labor movement coming together on this, sharing resources, running campaigns, lobbying, talking to MPs, mail campaigns, TV campaigns, social media campaigns, our labor movement knows how to fight for issues, how to fight for social justice. So we need our unions to fight for social justice. This is about human rights. So our unions know what to do. And the wider labor movement knows about solidarity. We’ve had issues in one area and it’s so egregious, unions from across the country come together. Because the same premise applies that if you touch one, you touch all, and that if you hurt me, you’re hurting all of my brothers, sisters and friends.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Right. Like you saw the national support for the Ontario educators like last year. Exactly. Taking on Doug Ford and trying to strip their rights. So where is that for this cause?

Nicholas Marcus Thompson:

That is exactly, unfortunately, we have to go begging for that support, we have to go running down leaders, pleading. There’s 17 federal unions and only two are providing some support for us. We want to be able to have the support of the entire federal public service, the entire labor community. Like unions, I don’t even want to say these things, but unions know they could just issue a letter of support, they can post a town hall, they can do stuff to raise awareness. This is about public awareness. This is about bringing to the Canadian public, to their attention, how our institution treats the workers that is serving them. It’s fundamental, basic human rights. And if we can do that and bring people together, I think that’s where we’ll win. So labor needs to come together to combat anti-black racism. And when it does that, we will all win.

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Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
Follow: @maximillian_alv