Months before the eruption of the Israel-Hamas war ramped up ethic and religious tensions in many Canadian communities, a government task force rejected requests to recognize Muslim and Jewish public servants as separate groups facing systemic workplace barriers, CBC News has learned.
Muslim and Jewish public servants asked to be designated as employment equity groups under the Employment Equity Act nearly two years ago in submissions to the task force, set up by Employment and Social Development Canada.
CBC News obtained the Muslim Federal Employees Network (MFEN) submission through an access to information request, and the one from the Jewish Public Service Network (JPSN) by asking for a copy.
"The inclusion of religious minorities would provide obligations on behalf of the employer toward removing barriers to religious minorities in the public service, so that they may bring their whole selves to work, including Jews," says the JPSN's submission, which also asked that Jews be identified both as an ethno-cultural group and as a religious group under the law.
"Discrimination and socio-economic barriers continue to exist for Canadian Muslims. These barriers will not disappear without intervention," said the MFEN's submission. "We recommend that Muslims are added to the Employment Equity Act as a designated employment equity group."
The Employment Equity Act (EEA) was introduced in 1986 to knock down employment barriers facing four marginalized groups: women, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and members of visible minorities.
The legislation requires that federally regulated employers with more than 100 employees use data collection and proactive hiring to ensure that these groups are not under-represented in their workforces. No designated employment equity groups have been added to the EEA since its creation.
The MFEN and JPSN submissions were prepared in spring 2022, long before the latest deadly conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas in October of last year.
Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan shared the task force's findings with the media last December, after his office initially received them in April 2023.
The task force said it decided "not to recommend the creation of a separate category for some or all religious minorities at this time," but encouraged further study.
Jewish, Muslim employees report discrimination
In its submission, the JPSN cited Statistics Canada figures showing Jews were the group most often targeted by hate crimes between 2017 and 2019.
It quoted a B'nai Brith Canada audit in 2021 that reported a "733 per cent increase of violent anti-Semitic incidents."
A worker cleans away a swastika spray-painted on the door of the Glebe Minyan in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
In its submission, the JPSN presented anonymous testimony from Jewish public servants. One Jewish employee said they were told they "really bring new meaning to Jews having a lot of money," after mentioning their background. Several Jewish employees also said they have been called "cheap."
The submission cited workplace barriers too, such as important meetings being scheduled on religious holidays, excluding observant Jews, or "managers scrutinizing and questioning the validity of leave requests for Jewish holidays."
The Muslim Federal Employees Network, meanwhile, pointed out that the EEA's protection for visible minorities won't protect Muslims.
"There are non-racialized Muslims such as Eastern European Bosniaks, Indigenous Muslims and white converts," it said in its submission. "In some cases, it may not be possible to determine if someone is Muslim without them disclosing it first. For example, not all Muslim women wear a hijab."
The MFEN said Muslim federal employees face various forms of Islamophobia. In its submission, it cited reports of Muslim women being subjected to comments "about their ability to do their federal public jobs because they wear a hijab," and of Muslim men "who are seen to be terrorists and perpetrators of violence."
It said Muslim federal employees have sometimes struggled to obtain security clearances "because of biases around their countries of origin or their names."
Pallbearers load a casket into a hearse after a funeral service for the four Muslim family members killed in a deadly vehicle attack at the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario in London, Ont., on Saturday, June 12, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
In its report, the task force did not mention the JPSN's request, although it cited the MFEN report and two other submissions from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and the Sikh Public Service Network.
The task force recommended designating 2SLGBTQI+ and Black workers as employment equity groups. It said it had been told by the minister's office to consider adding those two groups, which allowed it to obtain targeted funding for community consultations.
"In contrast, despite our extensive consultations, we did not receive representations from many of the concerned groups in the broad population beyond the federal public service who wanted us to consider adding religious minorities," the task force said.
Final decisions on adding more groups to the legislation will be made by O'Regan.
In a statement, O'Regan's office said it might consider further changes to the EEA.
"These initial commitments are only our first steps in our work to transform Canada's approach to employment equity," it said.
The statement said O'Regan "will continue to engage affected communities, including religious minority communities."
The office said it looks forward to tabling new government legislation but did not offer a timeline.
It said it's also working to arrange meetings between O'Regan and Amira Elghawaby, the federal government's special representative on combating Islamophobia, and Deborah Lyons, special envoy on Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism.