Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council,  at the Black History Month Senior Leaders’ Learning Day


February 4, 2019
Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

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Thank you Greg [Fergus, Chair, Government of Canada Black Parliamentary Caucus]. Let me start with some acknowledgements. First, of course, we acknowledge that we are on Algonquin territory. I would also like to welcome Parliamentarians that are here today. They will play an important role in the change that is to come. I also welcome colleagues from the public service and others that are here today.

I want to thank the leaders of the Black Employee Caucus that came to see me a few weeks ago. We had a good conversation, the first of many, I hope, in terms of how we move forward. I just want to add a couple of notes.

Greg, it is a strange 14-year-old that wants to be Clerk of the Privy Council. I will confess to you, I wanted to be a politician.

Today, I want to convey a sense of dialogue and openness that we need to face problems with the same vigour and energy that we have tackled all issues of inclusion over the last little while.

One of the cases of how rapidly things can change is the journey of our LGBTQ2 communities in the public service. In fact, much has changed in the last ten years. This gives you a sense that the arc of history, while bending towards justice, can be bent further, and it can be bent to accelerate very quickly.

In going through these changes, we have to apply the lessons that we learned from the past ten years and face the challenges ahead in pieces, whether it is about recruitment, staffing, learning and development, meeting culture or changing the way we think, and who is brought into conversations. A lot of it is about mindsets, cultures and expectations and those require engagement and dialogue.

It is equally important to talk about tone. Tone and signals from the top matter but so does listening and the kinds of ideas and suggestions that will come from real dialogue and engagement. It is an interesting year to be having this conversation and the sense of urgency around it. It is an election year, and this creates real opportunity. Canadians will listen to the conversations and will decide who they want to govern for the next mandate.

Senators will be back in the next Parliament. However, we will have a new House of Commons, a new Cabinet and a new Treasury Board. This provides an opportunity to reset a lot of the software. The next six to eight months could be very useful in developing the advice and the engagement to that next Parliament.

If the employment equity language in the 1980’s legislation needs to be re-written, then rewrite it. It is just a matter of a bill. A private Senators’ bill or a government bill would do it actually. We may also have to consider updating Treasury Board policies that need to reflect these challenges.

You just have to convince five Treasury Board Ministers. There are things that we can do as deputy heads within our own organizations. The way we conduct ourselves, the way we think, the expectations we put on our middle managers and how we do talent management, and manage performance. All are within our authority.

There are many things that can also be done immediately to start the change process. I think we can connect it to transition advice and welcoming the next government. We can also connect it to the Beyond 2020 agenda we have set for ourselves. Seven years ago, my predecessors twice removed set an ambitious agenda for public service renewal and where we wanted to be in 2020.

It is now 2019 and we are going through a stocktaking process and re-launching our ambitions for beyond 2020. All of that forum of engagement and dialogue within the public service can and must include the issues of diversity and inclusion. Of course, you know the saying – diversity is a simple fact; inclusion is an act of will. We have to make that very much part of the conversation around the public service that we aspire to, and that we Baby Boomers aspire to pass on to the next generation of leaders.

We will have more data to help supplement the storytelling and truth telling. We are now able to do annual surveys within the public service at a real depth that allows us to zero in on very specific issues on a yearly basis. This is a big improvement on taking the pulse every three years by which time management may have moved on and cannot be held accountable.

We will start holding people to account for their survey results this year because we will be able to say you were there last year. You were there this year.  What did you do to make your workplace a better environment? I think there is real opportunity to have a more data-driven and evidence-based conversation about what is working and what is not.

The work we do will also need to be connected to harassment, mental health, workplace wellbeing issues and to many other conversations that we are having.

I am always optimistic or I would not be doing this job. There are many challenges that we face every day.

Some days, they feel like they are coming in from every possible direction but when you look back at the arc of where this country has come from and where it is headed, it gives us a sense that we do a lot of things right in this country. We do the hard slogging through workshops, meetings, conversations and by being open to each other and finding common paths together and sometimes compromises.

Sometimes things speed up, sometimes things seem to be bogged down but it is a country that is so different and it is a public service that is so different and so much better than the one I joined some 38 Ottawa winters ago.

It is halfway to spring, people, did you realize that?

Saturday was halfway between the December solstice and the summer equinox. It does not feel like that every day. I will close on the springtime metaphor, the hope and the new shoots of growth. We need to tend them and make sure they grow. I want to thank the employee caucus for taking the leadership on this important issue.

Frankly, Greg, all I had to do is say yes and show up at a meeting. It is not a big burden. The real work is putting together the program, speakers, logistics and planning events that is the key to all this. I want to thank the people that drove this event. I wish you very well in the discussions and look forward to picking up the conversation.

I think we have to be honest and candid about where we have challenges and issues, and that there is racism. It must be confronted. It must be called out and it must be challenged. If I can quote a great author that I am sure many in the room would recognize, “not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” [James Baldwin]

Thank you.

Pictures of the event are available on-line.

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