Black History Month - Spotlight on Jean-Sibert Lapolice

Jean-Sibert Lapolice

CAPE sat down with member Jean-Sibert Lapolice, who is also the strategic engagement and partnership lead at the Federal Black Employees Caucus (FBEC), in honour of Black History Month and the work FBEC is doing. 

CAPE: The Federal Black Employee Caucus (FBEC) exists to support efforts at the national, regional, and local levels to address issues faced by Black federal public service employees. 

Can you tell us about your role in FBEC and why you got involved?

Lapolice: Actually, I see my role as that of a facilitator, channeler, and liaison. We have tens, even hundreds, of agents of change and allies who do the everyday work in their work unit, branches and organizations. That is the case, for example, of the networks of Black employees in the departments, colleagues in the regions, deputy ministers, and other allies who support the cause of Black employees. As for my direct involvement in the conversation about racism in the workplace, I would say that the unprovoked, brutal death of George Floyd was the spark. Like many human beings around the world, I was deeply troubled by what happened to George Floyd. That tragedy occurred as many Black employees were suffering in the public service. We all understood the meaning of “I can’t breathe” at that time. I could not remain indifferent, and FBEC provided me with the opportunity to get through that emotionally difficult period. 

CAPE: It’s been exactly one year since you started in your current role at FBEC.

What have been the main challenges brought to your attention by Black public service employees and how is FBEC trying to address them?

Lapolice: I came in at the time of the launching of the Call to Action by the Clerk of the Privy Council. There was a very high demand for conversations about discrimination, racism, diversity, and equity. But there was one observation: the system did not know how to respond to the pressure of the environment following George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. Black employees who were victims of all sorts of injustices began to express themselves and share their experiences publicly. We received many calls about the Performance and Talent Management system. It is still a great concern for many Black employees, particularly harassment and the lack of union support. Very often, it was those who felt abandoned by their unions and did not know where to turn. I was surprised by the magnitude of the situation. 

CAPE: This year’s Black History Month theme is February and Forever: Celebrating Black history today and every day.

What do you think about the theme and how does it resonate with you?

Lapolice: I find the theme interesting! The history of Black communities is not something that can or should be celebrated just during one month. It should be celebrated every day. The great challenge is how to celebrate so many different and such diverse histories in Black communities. There is the history of those who arrived here a very long time ago in circumstances that were totally different from those who arrived recently and who will arrive as students, refugees, entrepreneurs, skilled workers, etc. The history of the Haitian community, which may differ from that of the Congolese, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Somalian communities, and so on. The history of Black communities is also the history of women, the disabled, the successful, and others who do not manage to find a place in the Canadian sun. It is much more complex and sophisticated than one thinks!

CAPE: What role do you see federal public service unions such as CAPE play in addressing racial discrimination in the workplace?

Lapolice: I believe there is an expectation on the part of the members. They expect the unions to play a leadership role in the struggle against any form of discrimination in the public service. I believe that the unions must set an example by creating healthy and safe work environments for their own employees. I was troubled and disappointed to learn that anti-Black discrimination was also a problem in certain unions. I hope that is not so for CAPE.

CAPE: The Prime Minister has acknowledged that “systemic racism is an issue right across the country, in all our institutions…”, including the federal public service. 

What do you think needs to be done to address systemic racism in the federal public service?

Lapolice: First of all, it must be recognized that the problem exists. That is a major step in the right direction. If the existence of a problem is acknowledged and accepted, the next step is to try to find solutions to tackle it. The good news is that it there seems to be, both politically and bureaucratically, a consensus and acknowledgment of the existence of systemic racism and anti-Black racism. Now the next step is to work together to find solutions to the phenomenon. Tackling systemic racism and eradicating it is everyone’s duty. I am encouraged by the many commitments expressed in the mandate letters of certain ministers concerning the fight against racism and the various initiatives underway in a number of federal institutions. 

CAPE: The President of the Treasury Board’s Mandate Letter released on December 16, 2021 tasks her, amongst other things, with “establishing a mental health fund for Black public servants and supporting career advancement, training, sponsorship, and educational opportunities.” 

What are your thoughts about the focus on these important issues and what role, if any, do you see FBEC play in advancing these measures?

Lapolice: FBEC is encouraged by these tangible government commitments and initiatives. It was high time for them. Unfortunately, the communities including Black employees must always apply pressure to get the ball rolling. As usual, FBEC is willing and available to assist the institutions (in a consultative role) in developing and implementing these initiatives.

CAPE: A little over a year ago (on Jan. 22, 2021), the Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet released the Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion in the Federal Public Service. “It calls on leaders across the Public Service to take practical actions that will be the basis for systemic change. The message is clear – the time to act to advance anti-racism, equity, and inclusion in the Federal Public Service is now.”

Are you aware of any changes that have been implemented or that are underway because of the call to action?

Lapolice: In my opinion, the Call to Action by the Clerk of the Privy Council is a historic turning point in the federal public service. It is a clear, accessible, and direct document. I doubt that someone of goodwill could say: “I don’t understand what the Clerk wants me to do”. From an activist’s standpoint, it could be said that there has been no progress and that, in the case of Black or Native employees, the system does not move quickly. People look for excuses not to act. However, from a pragmatic standpoint, I can say that some positive changes have been seen. In the last year, we have seen a desire to listen to, and learn about, the difficult experiences of Black employees and, in general, systemic discrimination. Black employees get together to form a network in order to better defend themselves and have their voices heard. Some departments have set up an anti-racism secretariat. We have seen a greater presence by Black employees in senior management. I would say that the Call to Action by the Clerk has provided some momentum, which, I hope, will continue for a long time.

CAPE:  What changes do you hope to see with this call to action vis-à-vis Black federal employees and how is FBEC engaged to ensure that they get addressed?

Lapolice: We are aware that change takes time, especially in the case of change in an organizational culture. However, we hope that there will be systemic and transformational changes as regards the well-being of employees, particularly Black employees, who have had to face troubling experiences for so many years. We hope there will be progress in career advancement for Black employees throughout the country, particularly in the regions. We hope that, in a few years, we will no longer need such networks as FBEC to raise concerns about discrimination, because the work environment will be modern and free of any form of barrier. With reference to FBEC’s involvement in the implementation of the Call to Action by the Clerk of the Privy Council, we will continue to work with key players, including the central agencies, to ensure there is tangible and quantifiable progress. That is what we are already doing on an ongoing basis with the Privy Council Office. We appreciate that unique cooperation, which enables us to influence the decision-making process.     

I recognize that it is a privilege to be part of the public service and to be able to serve Canadians. Thousands of Canadians dream of being in our position. That is why I encourage each and every one of us to value this privilege and remain proud to be a public servant, regardless of classification or level.

Thank you, Jean-Sibert for taking the time with us this month. We hope all our members have learned more about you and FBEC, and the work you do to support and address issues faced by Black federal public service employees and are encouraged to be allies in the fight against racism.