After several delays, Immigration Canada still doesn’t have its promised ombudsperson’s office

The federal immigration department has indefinitely postponed plans to hire a workplace ombudsperson to deal with acts of racism and discrimination against its employees, after announcing and then delaying the appointment twice.

“The creation of the Ombuds Office is a significant undertaking and entails ongoing engagement with [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada] employees in Canada and throughout our global network. We want to make sure that we take the time required for the employee engagement to be meaningful,” the department said in a statement issued to CBC News.

“We also continue to engage the unions and keep them up to date on the progress. As a result, we have not set a date for the launch of the Ombuds Office.”

Last August, the IRCC told CBC News it was looking to have the ombudsperson’s office up and running by fall 2023. In a later public statement, it said “the establishment of an Ombudsperson Office to respond to employee concerns is planned by 2024.”

Two unions representing IRCC employees say they still haven’t been consulted directly on the creation of the ombudsperson’s office.

“Racism is happening all over. We need to tackle this. We need to address it. We’re not sure what the delay is,” said Sargy Chima, national executive vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union [CEIU].

“It’s really hard to be able to work and not feel safe in an environment because there’s so much racism that takes place and it comes in many different forms.”

In a statement, the CEIU added it is “concerned with IRCC’s lack of prioritization and urgency in addressing the situation.”

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It pointed out that the suggestion to create an ombudsperson’s office was made in 2021. “It’s disappointing that, despite over three years passing, there’s still no progress,” it said.

Workplace racism

The IRCC first publicized internal racism issues in the department in October 2021 through the results of a workplace report conducted by public opinion research company Pollara Strategic Insights. Pollara led two focus groups with 54 IRCC employees, whose names were left out of the report.

The report cited multiple references by IRCC employees in the workplace to certain African nations as “the dirty 30.”

Pollara reported staff members described one department section with a lot of racialized employees as “the ghetto” and cited examples of one manager calling Indigenous people lazy and another calling colonialism “good.” It also said racialized employees claimed they had been passed over for “professional development opportunities.” 

Last summer, another survey by Pollara of 62 IRCC employees reported staff claimed they had been marginalized professionally during postings in the department’s offices abroad. The survey said staffers also said group leaders expressed “overt disdain and even hatred for people from certain countries and for immigrants to Canada in general, using racial slurs and stating support for violence against people from other countries.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller’s department is facing pressure from employees’ unions to appoint a promised ombudsperson. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers [PAFSO], which represents federal civil servants posted abroad, including IRCC staff, said it looks forward to an update from the department on the status of the ombudsperson project.

“Although we agree that it is important to base the project on proper consultation with employees and stakeholders, we note that as late as October 2023, IRCC committed to completing the project by 2024, and that consultation and action can take place in parallel,” said PAFSO in a media statement.

PAFSO said it has not received requests for consultation related to the ombudsperson’s office.

Department says it’s been consulting

The IRCC told CBC News that it has been engaging with “other ombuds offices in the federal public service,” though it did not offer specifics.

CBC News sent queries to thirteen of them. Seven said they had not been contacted at all, while the office of the National Capital Commission Ombudsman said any discussions it has are private.

Two offices, the Taxpayer’s Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for the Victims of Crime, said the IRCC has been in touch with them.

The Taxpayer’s Ombudsman said in a statement that “the IRCC has contacted our Office regarding their feasibility study exploring the creation of a potential Ombudsperson Office.”

Ombudsman for the Victims of Crime Dr. Benjamin Roebuck answered a series of questions the IRCC had sent him, his office said in a statement.

Among other questions, IRCC asked the Office of the Ombudsman for the Victims of Crime (OFOVC) if its mandate includes addressing racial bias or discrimination against clients or employees, if its scope includes people who receive services from federal departments, and about its procedure for managing individual complaints.

The OFOVC said that exchange occurred in March 2023, nearly half a year before the IRCC made its first public commitment to establish an ombudsperson office.

Separately, the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada [PSIC], which investigates disclosures of wrongdoing in the federal public sector, said some of its staff were recently consulted on a “dissent channel” initiative at the IRCC.

“Our understanding is that the organization is looking to establish a process for getting dissenting views about policies, where employees can feel safe coming forward,” said the PSIC’s communications manager, Bronwyn Johns-O’Hara, in a media statement. She said that’s not the type of work the PSIC engages in and it made that clear in its discussions with IRCC officials.

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