Black History Month - Spotlight on Richard SharpeFebruary 28, 2019
CAPE sat down with CAPE member Richard Sharpe, also Co-Founder of the Federal Black Employees Caucus (FBEC), to talk about the work he is doing to help build a thriving Black community within the Canadian Federal workforce. Richard Sharpe has been working for the federal government for 23 years and is a CAPE vice-president for Local 521.
Hi, Richard, thank you for taking the time to meet with us this week. We wanted to seize the opportunity afforded by Black History Month to bring attention to the work you’ve been doing to support federal black employees. You are the founder of the Federal Black Employees Caucus (FBEC) correct?
R. Sharpe: In fact, I’m a co-founder. I wouldn’t want to say that I did the whole thing. I may have masterminded the initiative, but there are a lot of us that are part of it.
And when did you launch the Caucus?
R. Sharpe: In December 2017. There was a National Black Canadian Summit that was held in Toronto; there were about 800 people from across Canada that gathered for the first time actually, in Canada. When we came back to Ottawa, a number of employees came to me and asked if I would help forming a group specific to the Federal Public Service because there have been long standing issues that we’ve had that have not been addressed within existing employment equity and diversity programs.
What are some of these issues that this Caucus is trying to address specifically?
R. Sharpe: We’re supporting the UN Decade for People of African Descent (The International Decade for People of African Descent.) which spans from 2014 to 2025. The federal government was a bit slow to get going on that. In fact, they didn’t recognize the Decade within the federal government Public Service. So, we thought that we would take leadership and start to have conversations with federal departments, and unions as well. I’ve engaged with CAPE President Greg Phillips. And I think we’re going to have a meeting with him on this in the not-too-distant future, to address what is called ‘anti-black racism.’
Why call it “anti-black” racism?
R. Sharpe: Yes. So, this is a particular form of racism that Black people face here in Canada and in the workforce. This kind of racism is very specific to Blacks: the name calling, the use of the N-word, which happens still in some offices. I’ve been called ‘aggressive’ and ‘intimidating’; these kinds of stereotypes of what a Black person is perceived to be. So, these are the kinds of experiences that can wear on our sense of self.
Many of the Black employees I have represented over the years have had pretty much the same kinds of issues: harassment and discrimination. When they’ve tried to raise it, they haven’t received the kind of support that they’ve needed, sometimes even from the unions. Sometimes unions don’t recognize this as racism. So, I’ve represented people from different unions because I understand this very well. I have anti-racism and anti-oppression background before I came to government. So, we’re able to work within the union structures and mechanisms to address some of those concerns that employees have, oftentimes successfully.
The work that I'm doing with the FBEC right now is a result of employees wanting to get together to address some real concerns specific to our group. Because within the visible minority group we're at the bottom. Asians, South Asians, Latin Americans, they are also considered to be visible minorities. So, when these groups are lumped together it looks like we are doing fine as visible minorities. But when you look at Blacks separately, then you see that there are some major issues.
So, you've noticed that the Black community is experiencing racism differently?
R. Sharpe: What we're concerned about is that there are higher rates of that kind of treatment being experienced by Black employees. So, for example, on the Public Service Employee Survey, I can identify myself as a “visible minority” but that doesn’t mean that my experience as a Black person would be accurately measured - if I say that I've experienced racism and the person who's from South America says they've never experienced racism, then when you tally up the numbers of visible minorities, you might find that the total percentage of people within the visible minority category experiencing racism might be low. But if you create a sub-category for Black employees, you could find out that 80 percent of them may have experienced racism.
Right. So, the Survey is not well designed and therefore skews the real numbers.
R. Sharpe: It skews the number, it masks the experience. It’s similar to what’s happening in the criminal justice system. Visible minorities and Indigenous inmates are pretty much on par, about 18 percent of the federal prison population. But if you look within the visible minority group, you will find that the majority are Black, and that this number is much higher relative to our numbers in the general population. The same is true for Indigenous people. So, you see there’s a problem there and if you don’t disaggregate the numbers then you can’t see, that Indigenous and Black groups are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. In short, I’m not a visible minority, I’m a Black person.
So, one of the things we are pushing for is to break down the visible minority category and maybe open-up the Employment Equity Act, so that Black people are considered a distinct group, similar to Indigenous people.
The United Nations sent an Expert Working Group to Canada in 2016 and they did a review of the state of Black Canadians and found that there were a lot of challenges here, similar to the United States. Our experiences are very similar to the experience that Indigenous people have, but a lot harder to deal with because it's normalized here. The notion of whiteness, that this is a white country, continues to exist. The idea that Black people are immigrants here and that we're never really part of Canada. Even though I was born here, I'm still asked when I came to Canada and where I'm from. Those are not questions that white Canadians are asked.
As a society I think we'll be dealing with the issues of race more – due to immigration, mixing of different peoples forming relationships, resulting in children that are considered black. So, I think it's very important for us to get a handle on these issues, especially the Public Service. Because if we are not representative, and if we don’t understand the issues that Black and racialized citizens are facing, then we cannot provide the best services to Canadians.
How long have you been a member of CAPE?
R. Sharpe: Since 2008.
Okay. And you've been more active just recently, or in the last few years, you've become more of an active CAPE member, becoming President and...
R. Sharpe: I’m Vice-President of Local 521. I was very active in the union before but took time out to be present for my family and young children. I had a sick child. But what I found is that employees would come with concerns and I didn't have a union position, but I was helping them anyway. And then the union said, "Why don't you join?"
Yes, “why don’t you formalize that support”…
R. Sharpe: Yes, "formalize that and you'll have a more recognized role with the employer." And I knew that because I did union work before. That’s how I kind of got roped back in.
What would be your ‘ask’ towards CAPE at this point in time?
R. Sharpe: So, the ‘ask’ is not too complicated at this particular point in time: it is to support the group that we have formed. We’re not representing employees; the union should represent employees. What we’re going to push for is to have intervener status in some cases because that’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years on issues related to race, gender, human rights... Sometimes you need someone who has some of that lived experience. So, we’d ask CAPE to support that as we make that petition with the central agencies. I’m also asking CAPE to support our call for the better collection of disaggregated employment equity data so that we can get a sense of what's really happening to Black employees, because currently the data's not there. And I don't think it's that hard to collect it. There’s concern, I think, on the part of the federal government, the bureaucracy, of what the numbers will say. But I think that’s what you do, you know, work through that pain to make things better.
How many members do you have?
R. Sharpe: I have no idea.
R. Sharpe: I think maybe about 500.
Just federal employees?
R. Sharpe: Just federal employees. But then there are Black employees that are afraid to sign up, so they get information from other employees. I was at a talk over at one department where an employee said, “Well I’m not going to sign up, but my friend signed up.” And there were three of them who said, “We’re not signing up.” I said “It’s okay to sign up. The Clerk is supporting us, you guys. It should be okay.”
Which Clerk are you referring to?
R. Sharpe: The Clerk of the Privy Council, Mr. Wernick. We met with him last month on this issue and he expressed his support for our work, which was good. We are pleased with that... It’s been a really interesting, fast ride over the last 6 weeks.
Would you say that the situation has improved in the last few years, or is it the same or deteriorating when it comes to racism or just lack of diversity in different levels of government?
R. Sharpe: I would say that things have not improved. In some ways things may have gotten worse because there are more of us in the system. There are more people, it seems, that are catching hell in their shops, or who have been stagnating in their careers. It has a toll on people’s mental health, and I think that’s the reason why participation in FBEC has been growing. Normally, Black people are afraid to stand up and to address these issues publicly. We’ve been very careful about ensuring the confidentiality of our members. We allow people to use their personal email addresses so they’re not getting emails at work.
It’s not like youth employee networks where people are all happy, and they have events and they meet with senior management and are assured that they will have great careers.
This is very different kind of work.
So, what I would like to do is create a group where people feel safe to at least tell some of their stories and to know that they’re not alone. And to share some of those stories with the unions and central agencies... And also the community outside of our workplaces, because we’re part of that community and many people find out about us through the work that I do in the Black community here in the National Capital Region.
It’s been amazing to see so many people shaking off a little bit of their fear and sign up and have come to meetings. We had a huge number of people that came to the Symposium on the 23rd of January that we had at the Institute of Governance.
R. Sharpe: The Federal Black Employee Caucus held a symposium in Ottawa.
Ah yes, with Greg Fergus.
R. Sharpe: Greg Fergus, Member of Parliament for Hull-Aylmer and Jane Philpott, Treasury Board Minister came. Also, Larry Rousseau, National Vice President from the Canadian Labour Congress and Norma Domey, Executive Vice-President of PIPSC. So, employees could get some exposure to unions as well because when we’re doing equity work, we typically do things with senior management but less often with the union.
Another point I’d like to make to the unions is that we would like a higher density of racialized, and Black employees to be shop stewards and to be part of CAPE and other unions. In this way, so that it's not just the Caucus intervening, but Black union reps can be there on the ground and enjoy some of the protections of being unionized officials in the workplace. Not look at it as a career limiting move. It may be for some people.
It’s a historic time… This is the first time that Black employees have organized themselves in government. So, it’s breaking new ground.
You’ve sort of reached critical mass to make that happen as well.
R. Sharpe: I think so. And it’s critical mass at the lowest levels.
I find it to be a very historic and exciting time. There’s a lot going on. I don’t think it’s going to stop after Black History Month.
Thank you, Richard. This was a phenomenal interview. It was eye opening and we hope all our members will look at this issue differently and be encouraged to support their black colleagues in the workplace.