Black Metrolinx workers fired for failing background checks make their case before human rights tribunal

When Thairu Taban and Josslyn Mounsey landed dispatcher jobs at Metrolinx in May 2019, it felt like everything was falling into place. But then they were suddenly fired for failing Toronto police background checks despite having no criminal records.

Metrolinx, Toronto police say they were simply following necessary security protocols

Thairu Taban was abruptly fired from Metrolinx in 2019 after failing a Toronto police background check, even though he has no criminal record. (Submitted by Thairu Taban)

When Thairu Taban and Josslyn Mounsey landed dispatcher jobs at Metrolinx in May 2019, it felt like everything was falling into place. 

Growing up in low-income Toronto neighbourhoods, they say they both listened to their mothers' advice: stay away from crime, work hard in school, build a better life. 

Taban, 25, said that mantra is what motivated him as a boy to sit down and finish his homework every night on his own, while his mother was at work.

It's what pushed Mounsey, a single mother of three, to graduate from Humber College with a legal assistant diploma, complete the school's emergency telecommunications program and pursue a career as a dispatcher. Taban earned the same certificate, too. 

The Metrolinx jobs paid $26.76 an hour, came with benefits and a pension, and were life changing, they both told CBC News. They successfully completed a rigorous interviewing and screening process, passing reference, education and criminal record checks, and were selected from thousands of applicants. 

Clockwise from top right: Josslyn Mounsey and her children Kayto, Laniyah and Alton. She's filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario after she was fired from her well-paying dispatcher job at Metrolinx in 2019. (Submitted by Josslyn Mounsey)

"It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and I was proud," Mounsey, 31, said in an interview Monday. "I have dreams and aspirations and everything was going in the right direction."

Then, one day into her new job, Mounsey was abruptly fired. About a month and a half later, Taban was also fired for the same reason: they'd both failed Toronto police background checks.

"It was just crushing," Taban told CBC News. "I had to break the news to my mom and she was just crying, crying a lot."

Neither have criminal records and have yet to find out why they didn't pass, Mounsey and Taban said. They and their lawyer, Glen Chochla, have made repeated requests for more information from Metrolinx and Toronto police.

They're left to wonder if it's because estranged family members have convictions or if Toronto police have files on them because of what the Ontario Human Rights Commission maintains is overpolicing in their communities

Last year, they filed complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against Metrolinx and the Toronto Police Services Board, alleging discrimination on the basis of race and systemic anti-Black racism. 

"We hear the term 'systemic racism' being tossed around in the media but very rarely are we provided with concrete examples," said Mounsey. "This is a perfect example to show that a rule and regulation that may have been made in good faith does have underlying issues. 

"Depending on where you live in the city, depending on the police presence that may be in your neighbourhood, all of these come into play. And even if these issues are brought up, there is no due process to explain." 

They're both seeking $80,000 in damages, permanent jobs at Metrolinx, the wages, benefits and pensions they would have earned since they were fired, and all documentation about them removed from Toronto police's files. 

They're also both requesting an Ontario Human Rights Commission investigation into Metrolinx's hiring practices and Toronto police's background checks. All parties are heading into mediation on Thursday to try to reach a settlement.

Metrolinx, Toronto police deny allegations

Metrolinx and the Toronto Police Services Board filed responses with the human rights tribunal last year denying they discriminated against Taban and Mounsey, but rather were following necessary security protocols. 

Metrolinx dispatchers must clear a background check with police in order to access the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database, the provincial transit agency said in its response. The RCMP maintains CPIC, which contains information about people's interactions with law enforcement. 

The RCMP did not answer CBC's questions about the database and security clearance.

Metrolinx, a provincial transit agency, denies allegations it discriminated against Josslyn Mounsey and Thairu Taban when it fired them for failing background checks. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

"Only Toronto police would know why an individual 'passed' or 'failed' an enhanced background check performed by their services," Metrolinx spokesperson Matt Llewellyn said in an email.

Metrolinx cannot comment on specific individuals' employment but said even when it followed up with police on why someone had failed, they were not provided with any additional information. 

Shortly after Mounsey and Taban were fired, Metrolinx switched from Toronto police to Cobourg police for background checks, said Llewellyn. Cobourg police provide more information beyond a pass or fail so Metrolinx can decide for itself if the person should have access to CPIC, he said.

The Toronto Police Services Board said in its response to the tribunal that the extensive background check is necessary to check an applicant's "suitability" to access confidential information and looks at more factors than criminal records.

Toronto police do not provide details on why a person passes or fails as it could compromise investigative techniques, according to the response. 

Police spokesperson Connie Osborne said in an email that background checks are reviewed by multiple staff members to ensure there's no bias.

U of T professor watching case closely

The problem is the databases police use are built on institutional and systemic racism, said University of Toronto assistant professor of sociology Akwasi Owusu-Bempah. He's been watching Taban and Mounsey's case closely, hoping it will set a precedent on how background checks are conducted and used.

"We know that Black people in Toronto are disproportionately likely to come into contact with the police. And many of those individuals, of course, are innocent," said Owusu-Bempah, author of the book Race, Ethnicity, Crime and Justice

Those interactions make their way into police databases, he said. 

University of Toronto assistant professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is pictured here on Oct. 16, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We know that given the nature of police surveillance and criminalization practices, many Black people are connected to people that have criminal records."

Police have files on both applicants

Taban has never been in trouble with the law, but his brother has a criminal record, according to his complaint to the tribunal. 

In June 2019, after he had started working for Metrolinx but before his background check was complete, Taban and his mother were both called by a Toronto police employee who asked a number of questions about his brother, according to Taban's complaint. 

They answered the questions as best they could, and Taban explained he didn't have a relationship with his brother, his complaint said. 

Weeks later, Taban was informed he'd failed the background check and was fired. 

Mounsey's father was murdered when she was four years old and she grew up in a neighbourhood where "crime was not infrequent," her complaint says. 

In 2011, Mounsey signed a surety for an ex-boyfriend who was charged for a drug-related offence, according to her complaint. The father of two of her children has a criminal record, but has not been in trouble for more than a decade. They haven't been in a relationship since 2017. 

In January 2019, Mounsey failed a background check with Toronto police when she applied for their communications operator position. 

Six months later, on the second day of her dispatcher job, Mounsey was told by Metrolinx she wouldn't need to undergo the background check again, her complaint said. She was fired a few days later. 

Mounsey and Taban both filed freedom of information requests for all police reports and records containing their names held by Toronto police, their complaints said.

Mounsey's was 116 pages long covering 2007 to 2018 with no references to criminal convictions, according to her complaint. Several pages identified her as Black and most related to domestic violence incidents where she was the victim, one bylaw charge that was never proven, traffic incidents and a noise complaint made by Mounsey. 

Taban received 41 pages dating back to 2004, his complaint said. He's identified as Black and Caribbean and almost all documents are related to his brother. None indicate he was ever charged or under suspicion for any sort of criminal activity. 

"My parents told me that you're always going to have to work twice as hard at whatever you do because there's a stigma that's being placed on you and it's not a positive one … how they see a Black person," Taban told CBC News. "So I've had to fight through that." 

He's now working as a dispatch lead for a security company, a recent promotion that saw his pay increase from $16.50 to $20 an hour, less than he'd be making at Metrolinx and without a pension.

Mounsey earns $22 an hour at her hospital communications job, but with no retirement plan or benefits for her or her children.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.