Immigration Canada probing claims of systemic racism at two offices, union says

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is investigating claims of systemic racism at two of its offices, says the union representing its employees.

Department also has ordered audit of Montreal office handling calls from Afghan refugees

People take part in an anti-racism rally in Ottawa on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is investigating claims of systemic racism at two of its offices, says the union representing its employees.

Meanwhile, the department has hired an outside company, Charron Human Resources, to conduct a workplace audit at IRCC's call centre in Montreal — the department's only Canadian call centre — where employees have been working to fulfil the federal government's commitment to bring in 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan.

The Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU) — which represents employees at IRCC, Service Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), and the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) — says the IRCC's internal racism probes stem from complaints filed by employees.

The news comes after the IRCC released a damning report late last year. That report cited employees complaining of repeated instances of staff and supervisors using offensive terms with racialized colleagues, and of limited opportunities for advancement for racialized minorities.

"We are going to be proving that there is a national problem at the IRCC across the workplace," said Crystal Warner, the CEIU's national executive vice-president.

"IRCC is committed and believes in creating a workplace free from racism, harassment, discrimination and marginalization of any kind," the department said in a statement, adding it could not comment on the probes due to confidentiality issues.

Afghan refugees who supported Canada's mission in Afghanistan arrive at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Canada on Aug. 24, 2021. (MCpl. Genevieve Lapointe/Canadian Forces Combat Camera/Canadian Armed Forces Photo/Handout/Reuters)

The union said workplace issues at the Montreal call centre — the subject of Charron Human Resources' workplace audit — go back years but have been aggravated by Canada's daunting commitment to bring in 40,000 Afghans after the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

"[Staff] are telling us that all the new employees that are getting hired are leaving within a few months because of the pressure to produce, to stay on the call and take the next call," Warner said.

"You could be on the phone and you could hear someone telling you about a sibling being beheaded or a relative that had been raped and all these horrible situations," she said, adding employees aren't permitted to take a moment to decompress before taking the next call.

Afghan refugees arrive in St. John's on Oct. 26, 2021. (Ritche Perez/Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada)

The investigations came as little surprise to two federal civil servants who, fearing workplace reprisals, spoke to CBC News on the condition they not be named.

One staffer — who is Black — started her career at the IRCC call centre in Montreal in 2017 and now works in a different federal department.

Pressure to produce

She described an office of overworked staff constantly being monitored by management — where the pressure to field as many calls as possible affected everything, even bathroom breaks.

"If you took more than the allotted surplus time that you had in order to do your bodily functions, you would get an email saying, 'You're really off your stats today, what's going on?'" she said.

"Am I supposed to ask like in a kindergarten? Raise my hand and say, 'Ma'am, can I please go to the bathroom?'"

She reported racist attitudes toward immigration applicants from certain countries — particularly those from Cuba and Nigeria.

"That came from the top, how we were instructed to deal with people from certain countries," she said. "There was a lot of stereotyping going on ... 'People from this country, people from that country, they're all liars, you know?'"

The report the IRCC released last October spoke of employees referring to a group of 30 African countries as the "dirty 30."

'Plebeian tasks' left to people of colour, staffer says

The unnamed staffer also said there were few career advancement opportunities at the call centre for people of colour.

"The plebeian tasks were left to the people of obvious ethnic background and the higher-ups were homogeneous in their colour and culture," she said.

The second employee who spoke to CBC — who is also Black — started his career at the call centre in Montreal in 1998 and now works as an immigration officer.

He said he noticed a reluctance to promote employees of colour within the department over the years. He said he went through about a dozen applications before he got a promotion.

"They would find ways to tell me, 'You're not qualified, come and we'll discuss about the failure and we'll tell you exactly what to do next,'" he said.

Farahldine Boisclair, director of the IRCC's anti-racism task force, admitted the department has a lot of work to do.

"Racism is a factor in Canadian life," Boisclair said. 

The department created her position and the task force after George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020 triggered widespread protests against police violence targeting people of colour.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes a knee for an eight-minute, 46-second period of silence during an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

She said the department has been working hard to stamp out workplace racism through training for managers. She said IRCC has introduced programs to help emerging talent from racialized minority groups move up the ranks.

"The higher you move up, the less diverse it gets at the top," she said. "What we're trying to do is really empower employees to share their experiences with us, in whatever fashion." 

In a letter sent to CBC News after the initial story's publication, IRCC executives stressed the importance of some of the anti-racism initiatives it has undertaken, and added it is mindful of the stress on employees trying to address the two Afghanistan and Ukraine refugee crises. 

"This work can take an emotional toll. We feel strongly that supporting employee mental health and fostering a healthy workplace is paramount in what we do to help them do their jobs," reads the letter co-signed by deputy minister Catrina Tapley, and associate deputy ministers Caroline Xavier and Scott Jones. 

 "We have systems in place to ensure that staff feel safe and encouraged to reach out for help when they need it." 

External audit expands scope

According to emails seen by CBC News, the scope of Charron's audit expanded over the past two months. 

A message sent to staff by Charron on Jan. 6 explaining the nature of the audit was limited to employees who had lodged workplace complaints, as identified by an IRCC director-general.

A second email, dated Feb. 7, went to everyone at the call centre. Like the first, it promised to keep all information confidential and suggested interview dates for later in the month.

Charron did not return requests for comment.

The CEIU said it has little faith in the department's internal processes or its impartiality.

"It's like you're your own judge and jury," Warner said, adding that as a result, many staff choose not to report individual complaints. "If your complaint is founded, you basically get an email saying, 'We agree that you have been harassed.'" 

The union says it intends to file a collective grievance about workplace discrimination and harassment.

It said it has more faith in the external audit performed by Charron since it's a third party.


Raffy Boudjikanian

Senior reporter

Raffy Boudjikanian is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He has also worked in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.