President’s Message: Black History Month – Advancing Justice and Equity

CAPE celebrates Black history in Canada by honouring and embracing the important role that Black people and their communities have played in shaping the federal public service, the labour movement, and Canadian society. Yet there will be greater cause for celebration when Black people enjoy all the rights and opportunities that our country promises and can fully and equally participate in shaping our collective future.  

Black workers have been at the forefront of the labour movement since its early days – despite the many obstacles and discrimination they faced. Labour unions originally barred Black workers from taking membership, therefore they created their own. In 1917, John A. Robinson, J.W. Barber, B.F. Jones and P. White, Black porters based in Winnipeg, formed the Order of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black labour union in North America. In 1919, they joined the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees, forcing them to remove the “whites-only” clause from their constitution, and laying the groundwork for a better and more diverse labour movement.

Building on the voices of the many prominent Black Canadians who fought for justice and equity, Black activists today are leading and championing the fight against racial discrimination and anti-Black racism which remain deeply entrenched in our country, including in our federal workplaces and institutions. 

In 2021, a group of Black federal public sector employees launched a Black Class Action lawsuit against the federal government to address systemic racism and discrimination within their workplace. Since then, the government has spent nearly $8 million to fight the lawsuit, instead of implementing the lawsuit’s far less expensive demands. 

Further, less than a year ago, the Treasury Board Secretariat found systemic racism and discrimination within the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Even a commission established to defend the human rights of all Canadians could not protect the rights of its own workers.  

Our members have seen how racism and discrimination in society carry into the workplace. That is why social movement unionism must guide our advocacy – the scope of our organizing cannot just be limited to the workday or the office. Our union’s ability to fight and win on the issues that matter to us – from eliminating racism, discrimination and harassment from the workplace to better wages, pensions and job security – depend on our ability to build power, not just at the bargaining table, but across the federal public sector and within our communities. 

As a union, we have a duty to fight for our Black members. There are bridges to be built, bonds to be strengthened, and questions to be asked and answered. How can we best support and advance justice and equity for Black employees in the federal workplace? How can we work against the systemic forces in society that reproduce anti-Black racism in our jobs, including in who and who does not get hired (and represented by CAPE) in the first place? What barriers exist within our union for Black members and how can we eliminate those barriers? How can we boost union engagement and advance the organizing capacity of Black members? And how can we apply pressure to achieve wins on issues that matter to Black federal employees? 

We have started the work of asking these questions. 

Read our interview with Bernadeth Betchi, a CAPE member, 2023 CAPE presidential candidate, and representative plaintiff in the Black Class Action lawsuit, as she shares her experiences, what drives her and her ideas on how to move forward.

Stay tuned for more details on how CAPE will continue this conversation and chart a path forward for progress. 

In solidarity, we stand with the Black community as we collectively seek equity, justice and redress.

Nate Prier

CAPE president


Upcoming events

February 28, 5:00 p.m. EST – “Unions and the federal workplace: challenging the status quo for justice and equity”: Fireside chat with Bernadeth Betchi and Black federal public service union advocates 


Speakers’ Series: Discussion on Anti-Black Racism and Discrimination in the workplace (March 2023)

Speakers’ Series: Anti-Black Racism in the Workplace (December 2020)

Diversity with Equity and Inclusion