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Immigration Board faces internal racism claims
Canadian Press

TORONTO — The federal agency that deals with refugee claimants from around the world is facing fresh allegations of racism from several current and former employees.

In human-rights complaints and labour grievances, at least four black and other non-white employees in the refugee protection division of the Immigration and Refugee Board say they have been subject to harassment, ghettoized in lower-level positions or denied permanent status.

In the latest complaint filed recently with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, a 15-year board employee said colleagues used racist terms such as "spook" to refer to a fellow black employee.

Initial complaints to a supervisor resulted only in a warning that he "be careful" because he could be targeted with a counter-harassment complaint by the co-workers, said Norm Murray, a black refugee protection officer based in Toronto.

"Management at the IRB ... has created and supported a poisoned work environment," Murray said in his unproven complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press.

In another case, a Hispanic employee was issued a redundancy notice in April that was to have taken effect in late May. However, she was told to leave her Toronto office almost immediately.

"I find this procedure irregular and strange," she wrote in a farewell e-mail to colleagues.

"Perhaps, it is a coincidence that these drastic measures have been taken within days of my having filed a formal complaint decrying racism and harassment in the workplace."

Raoul Boulakia of the Refugee Lawyers Association said it's imperative the board deal openly and honestly with the allegations, a position he said he made clear to its chairman, Jean-Guy Fleury.

"Obviously you can't have any racism in an institution that's dealing with people from around the world," Boulakia said.

Several board employees, supervisors and even one senior union official refused to discuss the allegations publicly, saying managers had warned them against talking to the media on the threat of discipline or dismissal.

Jeannette Meunier-McKay, president of the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union, said while discrimination and harassment complaints come from across the public service, "it seems to be more predominant within the IRB for some reason."

She refused to say how many such grievances the union was dealing with.

Fleury and executive-director Marilyn Stuart-Major refused to comment but a spokeswoman said the board was "looking into the matter" and takes allegations of racism seriously.

The board is already under scrutiny for other reasons. Results of an external investigation leaked last week found evidence of "improper conduct" on behalf of two politically appointed decision-makers who allegedly didn't write rulings themselves.

Immigration Minister Judy Sgro, who earlier this year announced changes to the way board members are appointed, would not comment on the racism allegations.

The Immigration and Refugee Board is Canada's largest quasi-judicial tribunal. In its refugee protection division, about 200 political appointees currently make decisions on more than 40,000 asylum applications each year.

Another 1,390 civil servants provide bureaucratic support.

An extensive public-service survey in 2002 found a slightly higher ratio of respondents at the board believed they had been discriminated against. However, in Toronto, 27 per cent said they had - a rate far higher than the 17 per cent civil service average.

While most of the problems appear to have been in Toronto, the board's only black employee in Vancouver has also complained to the human rights commission about what he called "corruption and systemic discrimination."

In a letter to Prime Minister Paul Martin earlier this year, Francois Moussa said three managers had asked him for bottles of liquor to secure a permanent job, and one "racially profiled" him by asking him for narcotics.

When he complained, he was given a job stamping thousands of envelopes.

Moussa, who has been on stress leave, accused senior board members of a cover-up.

Toronto lawyer Pamela Bhardwaj, who is familiar with the racism allegations, said she believes there's a real problem.

"There may be a few bad apples that you want to weed out but when management is attacking the victims and promoting the bad apples, that is unacceptable," said Bhardwaj. "It's really disturbing."

Selwyn Pieters, a black lawyer and refugee protection officer in Toronto, said he was harassed after he complained.

An anonymous note at work warned him his manager would give him a "hard time because American blacks are big time trouble-makers."

Pieters also has a human-rights complaint alleging he was subjected "to adverse differential treatment, individual, institutional/systemic, and cultural/ideological, racism."

Don Oliver, a black senator from Nova Scotia, said he didn't know whether the refugee board was any worse than other federal agency.

But in a hard-hitting speech recently, Oliver portrayed the entire civil service as rife with racism and urged the government to appoint an anti-racism commissioner.

In an interview, Oliver said his speech had prompted dozens of e-mails from civil servants across the country saying they were "so happy that someone finally has the courage to stand up and say it."


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