Activists question Federation of Black Canadians' leadership, ties to Liberals

Some black activists in Canada are questioning the ability of the Federation of Black Canadians (FBC) to advocate on their behalf because the organization is being led by a sitting Ontario Supreme Court judge.

Some black Canadians wonder whether a sitting judge can really advocate on their behalf

Justice Donald McLeod says that, as chair of the Federation of Black Canadians, he does not advocate on the organization's behalf. (CBC)

Some black activists in Canada are questioning the ability of the Federation of Black Canadians (FBC) to advocate on their behalf because the organization is being led by a sitting Ontario court judge.

The organization is also facing questions over its ties to the federal Liberals and claims that meetings with the Trudeau government have left other grassroots organizations out in the cold.

The FBC is a national, non-profit organization chaired by Justice Donald McLeod in Toronto. The organization made its official debut at the National Black Canadians Summit in December 2017.

"I have a hard time understanding how someone whose job it is to remain neutral can be the head of an advocacy organization," said Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto.

"Especially a national black advocacy organization, when one of the number one things that is facing black people in this country today is our relationship with policing, incarceration and the justice system."

Activist and journalist Desmond Cole, who has written extensively about racial discrimination in Canada, also said he believes having a sitting judge advocate publicly is ethically problematic.

"I think this kind of behaviour from a sitting Ontario judge is just scandalous," he said. "I don't know what other word to use."

The Ontario Judicial Council states judges must be impartial and objective and must avoid both conflicts of interest and any appearance of such conflicts.

"Judges have to be very careful to ensure that there isn't even the hint of a perception that they lack independence, integrity or impartiality," said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and adjunct professor of law and political studies at the University of Ottawa.

Journalist and activist Desmond Cole questions the membership and function of the Federation of Black Canadians. (CBC)

In an interview with CBC News, McLeod said that while he attended Lobby Day events on Parliament Hill in 2017 and 2018, he did not advocate on the federation's behalf but instead simply shared information about its work.

"I happened to go so I could talk about the federation, but I didn't go to any of the lobby meetings," he said.

Conacher said McLeod will have to tread carefully when it comes to advocacy on behalf of the federation, particularly concerning matters that come before judges.

"It would be reasonable for people to have the perception that the judge has a bias that aligns with the organization," he said.

McLeod said he made sure to follow proper protocols when setting up the organization and chairing it. "There were clearances that I had to get in order for me to make sure that I was not doing something outside of my station as judge," he said.

The Ontario Judicial Council, which investigates complaints made by the members of the public about the conduct of provincially-appointed judges, said it cannot disclose whether a complaint has been lodged against McLeod over his involvement with the federation.

A federation is born

Justice McLeod, who grew up in Toronto's Regent Park and Scarborough, said he was moved to act after he heard about the shooting death of a pregnant woman he knew of.

He said he wasn't thinking at first about creating an organization, but rather about finding ways to address some of the systemic barriers faced by black Canadians.

The Federation of Black Canadians is a national, non-profit organization chaired by Justice Donald McLeod in Toronto.

McLeod said he reached out to experts in the black community that he knew to draft a working paper outlining the disparities facing black people in the justice system, the mental heath sector and education.

"If anything, we were advocating for the fact that black people were harmed ... we were being left in a situation where resources were not put toward us in order for us to help ourselves," he said.

More than a year later, the Federation of Black Canadians was born. However, its formation caught many black Canadians and grassroots organizations off-guard.

"Before December, no one I know knew of this organization," said Cole.

Cole said McLeod's lived experience does not make up for the fact that very few community activists were consulted about the creation, purpose and direction of the federation.

"[He] explains it away as the fact that he's black and that he has a commitment to the community," he said. "He seems to have been operating this entire time with a certain sense of impunity that I find shocking."

Links to Liberals

The federation has been criticized over its ties to the federal Liberal party. McLeod acknowledges that, early on, he approached Liberal MP Marco Mendicino to talk about his paper and its findings.

"He's a politician but he and I [knew] each other when we were both lawyers." 

McLeod also talked about the federation with Liberal MP Ahmed Hussen before he became immigration minister. Hussen 's wife, Ebyan Farah, sat on the federation's steering committee, according to its website last week.

"I think it is deeply problematic and unethical that a federation, a non-profit organization, that is lobbying the federal government has a steering committee stakeholder relations member who is the spouse of a cabinet minister," said Cole.

Sandy Hudson, co-founder of the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter, says the Federation of Black Canadians needs to connect with grassroots organizations if it wants to effect real change. (CBC)

McLeod said he also met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's principal secretary in May 2017, but denies any political connections or leanings toward the Liberal party.

"To tell you how non-political I am, I didn't even know who [Principal Secretary] Gerald Butts was," he said.

Afterwards, McLeod said, Butts suggested federation members meet with Trudeau. That meeting took place in June 2017 and was attended by Liberal MPs Ahmed Hussen, Frank Baylis and Celina Caesar-Chavannes.

"It had nothing to do with lobbying," said McLeod. "We're telling [them] things that they didn't know."

Hudson said she has her own theory on why politicians met with federation members, and on the timing of these meetings.

"I have a suspicion that this organization is unofficially linked to the Liberal party ... for the purpose of gathering the new energy around black activism and delivering that energy to the Liberal party during the 2019 election," she said.

"I don't know what they did when they went and met with the immigration minister. What were they saying? Was it in line with what black activists, who are on the ground working on immigration issues and refugee issues ... were saying? 

McLeod said people from across the country flew in for the meeting with Trudeau and various ministers and it wasn't an exclusive gathering. "This is not secret information," he said.

According to McLeod, the federation also has reached out to the Ontario PC and NDP parties and the federal Conservative party has contacted it as well.

McLeod said he began the federation with the hope of triggering concrete changes to improve the lives of blacks in Canada, but looking back he can see how his ties to the organization bring into question his impartiality.

"I can see how the perception could be there," he said. "If I had to do it all over again, I would probably do it differently. I wish I had consulted more."