Farhia Ahmed

Source: LinkedIn

Thursday 18 January 2024

From Playground Politics to Policy Reform: My journey with systemic racism and the Canadian Human Rights Commission

By Farhia Ahmed

I was in the fifth grade when I was first called the “N” word. I knew telling lunch monitors or teachers would yield little support. My parents were busy immigrants, and I didn’t want to bother them with my playground politics. So, I dealt with it the best way I knew at the time, I used my fist. This was racism in an organization going unchecked. I didn’t have the vocabulary then but it was institutional racism.

Fast forward nearly four decades and institutional racism remains a pervasive issue in Canada. I now work in the very institution tasked with combating discrimination, the Canadian Human Rights Commission.  A sad irony to this predicament is that the Commission has faced allegations of discriminatory practices both in handling race-based complaints and towards its Black and Racialized employees. To the brave employees who courageously decided to speak up and to those that shared their stories, I tip my hat to you.

Over the last year, there have been significant criticisms of the Commission. Many, including the giants on whose shoulders I stand, have called for the dismantling of the Commission. I disagree with them and here’s why.

As a public policy nerd, with over two decades experience in the federal government and a passion for human rights, the Commission had always been my north star. Last year, when I received an offer to join its executive ranks, it felt like a homecoming.

Having just started working here, learning about the allegations against the Commission felt like a betrayal. Conflicted and deeply troubled, I wondered whether I could ethically remain with an organization charged with upholding human rights yet simultaneously accused of discrimination. After much soul-searching and discussions with mentors and friends, I realized that changing jobs would solve nothing. Systemic racism was not limited to this institution; it permeated the entire government.

This was the same conclusion the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights echoed in its study and subsequent report on this matter: “While the committee’s study was primarily focused on the issue of anti-Black racism within the CHRC, in examining this issue, it was impossible to ignore the broader problem of systemic racism across the federal public service”.

Tearing down the only existing federal structure that combats systemic racism is not the solution. That would only serve those who believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist. While I agree that there is significant room for improvement, the value in the current system has been drowned out amid criticisms.

My fear is that vulnerable people may feel they have nowhere to turn based on what they have heard. The reality is that the Commission is helping people fight systemic discrimination everyday, and resolutions from complaints create meaningful change for thousands across the country.

I learned that the Commission is a critical service for Canadians that brings about systemic anti-racist change. Recent landmark victories of systemic change include anti-racism complaints settled against, CSIS, RCMP and the NFB. Hundreds of similar files have been settled through the Commission’s free mediation service, a service that has a nearly 70% success rate and moves hundreds of files a year. I learned that the Commission champions human rights on behalf of all Canadians at international fora, and it represents the public interest in cases before the Tribunal. All of this despite the fact that the Canadian Human Rights Act is severely outdated and the Commission is severely underfunded.

I also witnessed, and have been a part of internal changes that give me hope. Such changes include the introduction of an Accountability Framework that places checks and balances throughout the processing of complaints, and ensuring the prioritization of systemic files. Since my own arrival, I have prioritized the hiring of professionals with lived experience and the inclusion and centering of the trauma informed approach to handling of complaints. These, among many more changes documented in this Report on Anti-racist transformation from the inside out, have helped rank the Commission first as “best place to work” according to the 2022-23 federal public service survey. This demonstrates positive transformations despite the challenges.

The battle against systemic discrimination persists, both within the Commission and throughout the government. The passion and desire for justice that once folded my fifth-grade fingers into a fist now wrap them around a pen. True institutional change will only occur when we dismantle policies and practices that enable unchecked systemic discrimination. This requires legislative reform.

To fellow advocates, change-makers, policy wonks, and politicians, the road ahead requires collective effort, and the Commission has an important role to play. Let’s craft a future together where we look back decades from now and know that we used our pens to write out racism and discrimination from our institutions.

Farhia Ahmed is the newly appointed Director General of the Human Rights Complaints Branch at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. In 2021 she received the Hon. Jean Augustine Lifetime Achievement award and named the Dr. Martin Luther King Dream Keeper National Laureate. In 2018, she was named 1 of Canada’s 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women.