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Highlight Video: 2022 Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture (INC1-V48)


This video highlights key moments from the 2022 Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture featuring Rachel Zellars, Ph.D., including a discussion on the evolution of the application of merit criteria and its impact on the equitable treatment of different groups of employees, with a focus on Black public servants.

Duration: 00:09:49
Published: September 8, 2022
Type: Video

Event: Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture: The Time is Now for Black Canadians in the Public Service

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Highlight Video: 2022 Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture



Transcript: Highlight Video: 2022 Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture

[The CSPS logo appears on screen. A title screen appears, reading "Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture 2022." "On May 31st, 2022, Dr. Rachel Zellars, the Canada School of Public Services' first visiting scholar, delivered a lecture entitled "The Time is Now for Black Canadians". The lecture was the culmination of her research and interviews over the course of her tenure. It was followed by a panel discussion on the intersection of career advancement and Black representation and finding ways to support the Clerk's Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion in the Federal Public Service." Dr. Zellars begins speaking from behind a podium]

Many have asked: Why the focus on Blackness in this moment? I believe the answer to that question lies in history, our nation's history, of course. But also, the history of public service.


Merit is not a fixed-in-stone or step-by-step procedure, but rather an idea, a guiding principle. And merit, I insist, is best understood—most clearly and concretely understood—by its greatly uneven and discriminatory application, as a study of the history of merit in public service illustrates.

But merit is, in reality, both an institutional safeguard and algorithm, administered by those in power, reflective of the social norms and dominant modalities of discrimination in our society. Merit is, historically, malleable and unsettled.

As such, the merit bar will be lifted high for those who face the greatest discrimination in a society, and merit is shaped by all of the biases, unintentional and intentional, that live inside all of us.

Over the last century, the merit principle in public service has served as a deeply imperfect ideal, at times used expansively and even discriminatorily. It is also, always, a reflection of our times.

And with the Call to Action’s forward-facing approach to confronting anti-Blackness in the public service, what might a study of merit reveal about the particular intractability of anti-Blackness over the last 100 years? Specifically, the treatment of merit in relationship to Canadian veterans, women and French Quebecers is illustrative of the design to exclude Black Canadians from participation in public service.


Historian Kathy Grant estimates that between 3,000 and 4,000 Black Canadians served in the First and Second World Wars.

But these thousands of veterans returned to communities where they faced segregation and discrimination in every area of social life, especially employment. These proud men were not afforded preferential access for jobs in the federal civil service, as were white veterans.

The principle of merit expanded widely to create a preferential category for white Canadian veterans and their widows during the First World War.

But Black men served Canada and paid her with their bodies and lives, too. Yet, for these Black veterans, the bar of merit was raised impossibly high in order to prevent Black men and their families from receiving the material benefits the state designated for white veterans.


Out of the dozens of consultants who provided qualitative and quantitative information to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, and with nearly 500 consultations, the authors included no information by or about Black women, nor consulted with any of the hundreds of Black-led organizations, community centers and churches that existed throughout Canada in 1970. Although consultations were made in Quebec, no efforts were made to include the voices of Haitian women, many of whom were visible organizers and leaders in their communities.

As one scholar summarized, "Women and veterans represent two groups of potential employees that expose the contested nature of merit." For Black women, however, these histories foreshadow how high the bar of merit would be raised for them in the future.

French Quebecers

In 1969, the federal Official Languages Act made French and English the official languages of Canada.

Yet, it is clear that the French speakers these prime ministers and royal commission authors had in mind were white, despite a racially diverse French population in Canada in the 1960s.

When the Royal Commission of Bilingualism and Biculturalism submitted its final report and recommendations to the Canadian government, it did so with a shared understanding of whiteness, one that did not include Haitians within the categories of Francophone or French Canadian, and one, importantly, that had no consideration for the participation of French-speaking Haitians in federal public service.

So. That is the answer to why Blackness needs its own focus, its own attention, its own study, its own legs at this moment in the history of public service. Follow the bodies.

This is the best way, I believe, to do what the Call to Action urges public servant leaders to do. And that is to encourage and support the voices that have been long marginalized in our organization; to create opportunities where they have long been absent. We must take direct, practical actions to invoke change. This is a true test of leadership and one we must head on. Now.

[Moderator John Medcof and panelists Dr. Zellars, Paula Folkes-Dallaire, and Gaveen Cadotte appear in a video chat panel.]

Panel Discussion

Gaveen Cadotte: For decades upon decades, merit, how it was defined implicitly and explicitly and how it was assessed, had been decided by those who held power and privilege. And as Luc Juillet and Ken Rasmussen's book entitled Defending a Contested Ideal points out the merit system resulted in a public service that was dominated by English-speaking white males. And it was a system that was creating barriers for many Canadians.

And as Luc Juillet and Ken Rasmussen's book entitled Defending a Contested Ideal points out, the merit system resulted in a public service that was dominated by English-speaking white males. And it was a system that was creating barriers for many Canadians.

And so today, there's this explicit Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion in the Federal Public Service, calling upon leaders to take actions that will lead to systemic change by appointing Black people to and within the executive group, sponsoring and preparing Black public servants for leadership roles, supporting and recruiting Black people across all the regions of Canada. And this call really recognizes that the playing field is yet to be levelled and fair for Black people.

Paula Folkes-Dallaire: What struck me the most was seeing how merit has been used as a kind of sliding scale throughout history, like a limbo bar that is lowered to make it harder for some and raised to make it easier for others. It has never been used as a positive tool to promote equity for Black Canadians.

In 2021, 41.1% of Black Canadians aged 25 to 54 held a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 34.2% of the same age group who are not racialized. That's a 7% difference. So if merit criteria are really about things like qualifications and education, by this metric we should see an overrepresentation of Black Canadians in the federal public service, not an underrepresentation.

Gaveen Cadotte: We need to challenge ourselves as hiring managers and as participants on assessment boards. Are we undervaluing leadership experience that’s gained if it’s outside the public service for Black candidates, if it's in a community organization, if it's volunteer work, if it's experience outside of Canada? Do we have a predefined notion of what professional looks like? Is it narrow or is it inclusive? Are we open to work being accomplished differently? To people expressing their ideas differently? Are we misconstruing the concept of organizational culture fit and conflating it with having a homogeneous group?

Paula Folkes-Dallaire: We do need more disaggregated data to support performance measurement strategies and to ensure that the story of Black, Indigenous and other racialized and marginalized Canadians is told. Because of anti-Black racism and xenophobia specifically, we need a Black version of the Many Voices One Mind report that was done for reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples in Canada. We need a royal commission inquiry and report on Blackness in the federal public service and in Canada.

[The video chat fades to CSPS logo. The Government of Canada logo appears and fades to black.]

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