Racism at IRCC could determine who gets in - New Canadian Media
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Toronto Pearson International Airport. (Isabel Inclan/NCM)

Racism at IRCC could determine who gets in

IRCC employees are reporting racist workplace behaviour such as racially-charged microaggressions at work, says survey. NCM reporter Isabel Inclan reports on the deeper fallout.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) employees remain skeptical of the measures in place to tackle racism at their workplace, according to a new report.

The “experiences of racism at IRCC include microaggressions, biases in hiring and promotion as well as biases in the delivery of IRCCs programs, policies and client service,” the report states.

Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a steering committee member for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), said the report’s findings do not surprise her, but expressed worry about the fact people with racist attitudes may be deciding immigrants’ fates.

“This is (a) power imbalance because people in power are making decision(s) about peoples’ lives,” she told New Canadian Media.

Some of the microaggressions reported at the IRCC include:  

  • a person in a supervisory capacity telling a black employee that their afro looks unprofessional
  • a manager saying Indigenous people are lazy
  • a manager who systematically greets all the employees in the unit by name except Black ones
  • stereotyping Nigerians as particularly corrupt or untrustworthy
  • a manager referring to Latin American applicants as people who just come here to collect social insurance.

In an email statement, IRCC’s spokesperson, Julie Lafortune, recognized that racism exists in the Public Service, but emphasized that within the department there is “zero tolerance for racism or discrimination of any kind.” 

According to the report, in 2020, an IRCC’s employee survey revealed that “significant proportions of racialized employees consider racism to be a problem within the department,” which led to extensive research of racism within it.

The research was conducted from Feb. to June 23 this year. The focus groups included both racialized (Black, South Asian, East Asian, BIPOC, mixed origin) and non-racialized employees across various sectors such as operational roles, client service, policy and program development and Human Resources.

The purpose of the $59,000 study was to understand current experiences of racism within the department as well as perceptions of management’s handling of racism within it, and to gather suggestions for changes in policies and practices moving forward.

The findings

Among the large number of specific examples of racism within the IRCC, the study found “microaggressions ranging from well-intentioned comments with hurtful impacts to blatantly racist tropes” as well as discrimination in hiring practices such as screening requirements that are biased against racialized candidates.

Due to “what are perceived to be blatant examples of subverting selection criteria to disadvantage racialized employees,” it also found that there was discrimination in access to professional growth opportunities.

In addition, the employees’ focus groups reflected racial biases in the application of IRCC’s programs, policies, and client service that “are believed to result from implicit biases among decision-makers, as well as administrative practices that introduce biases or the potential for bias over time.”

At the level of workplace culture, the report found a lack of “clear guidelines or training for management on how to handle reports of racism; a history of racism going unchecked, resulting in low willingness to speak out or seek retribution by witnesses and victims alike; and a deep imbalance in racial representation in management that inherently militates against progress on dealing with racism in the department.”

The 21-page study concludes that IRCC’s anti-racism initiatives “are initially met with skepticism” and that it will take “bold, decisive actions” to convince employees there is a real commitment from management to change.

Culture of microaggressions

Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui. (Photo provided)

Ghaffar-Siddiqui, also a professor of sociology & criminology at Sheridan College, said in order to tackle this racism, a fundamental change is needed in the way employees, staff, and management are trained in diversity and inclusion.

“We need (workplace training) to help employees understand what decolonization is, what anti-Black racism is, what anti-Indigenous discrimination is, and show how it looks like in the workplace,” she told NCM.

After conducting research on microaggression at workplaces, Ghaffar-Siddiqui concluded that microaggressions can have a much longer negative impact on people than overt racism itself. She recalls one of her respondents saying that they’d rather be the victims of outfight racism than continual insults and belittling.

” … Microaggression for many years could develop potential mental health (issues),” she says. 

From her point of view, if IRCC wants to tackle this issue, there needs to be further investigation. She added that focus groups are good, but it is better having one-on-one interviews to help workers be more comfortable in sharing their experiences openly.

In this regard, Lafortune clarified that the anonymity of the focus groups allowed IRCC’s racialized employees to “express their views in a safe and anonymous fashion.”

To tackle racism, the IRCC created in 2020 a task force to provide advice and services to employees, including anti-racism coaching program for executives, a mandatory “unconscious bias training,” and launched the Black Employee Network in addition to the Indigenous Peoples Circle, Pride@IRCC, Persons with Disabilities Employee Network and the Women’s Network.

“We have started to explore potential bias entry points in policy and program delivery, and new approaches to how risk is balanced in an operational context,” Lafortune said in the email statement. “This reflection is being done internally, but we are also engaging external stakeholders on how to identify and address systemic barriers.”

Racism deeply rooted

Even though participants believe IRCC has significant strengths compared to other federal government organizations, some think the department’s Office of Conflict Resolution “has no power to act,” according to the report.

Participants also reacted with skepticism towards potential solutions like establishing an Anti-Racism Secretariat or requiring intercultural competency to become an executive because it could have very little concrete impact against systemic racism.

The study states that most participants remain skeptical because “they believe the problem is so deeply rooted in the organizational culture and in the values of people in power who have held it for a long time and are not likely to change.”

Other workers said the resources deployed towards anti-racism so far this year are “temporary and insufficient” and that “initiatives are poorly funded.”

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About the author

Isabel Inclan has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, in both Mexico and Canada. She began working as a foreign correspondent in Canada in 1999, first for El Financiero, a Mexican newspaper, and more recently at Notimex, a Mexican news agency. She has been an NCM contributor since 2018, her main areas of interest being politics, community, immigrant women, and cultural issues. In 2015, Isabel was honoured as one of the “10 most influential Hispanic Canadians.” She is a master´s candidate at Ryerson-York universities.

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