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Immigration Canada acts to end racism, cultural bias among employees

The appointment of anti-racism representatives and a range of new policies are meant to combat workplace harassment and address concerns of cultural bias by visa processing officers.
IRCC plans to release its Anti-Racism Strategy and action plan later this year.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is conducting a study to explore potential cultural bias shown by its employees when it comes to processing visa applications at the country’s points of entry, according to a department spokesperson. 

The study comes in response to a survey examining workplace racism at IRCC released last year that revealed multiple reports of racist “microagressions” by employees and supervisors.

Participants interviewed said that some of the overt and subtle racism they have witnessed by both employees and decision makers at IRCC “can and probably must impact case processing.”

The department has also made it mandatory for employees and executives to take unconscious bias training, and instituted a requirement for senior staff to take a specific course on inclusive hiring practices as a prerequisite for obtaining their delegated authority to sign financial and staffing decisions.

In addition, said spokesperson Jeffrey MacDonald, IRCC is appointing anti-racism representatives in each sector of the department to support the work of a newly-established Anti-Racism Task Force and has created a Black Employee Network to ensure Black voices are heard in driving change. 

“We must actively fight racism and continue to work tirelessly to foster a culture of inclusion, diversity, and respect…but actions speak louder than words,” MacDonald told New Canadian Media through email.

MacDonald said IRCC will be hiring an independent firm to do an Employment System Review (ESR). The ESR will identify new solutions in core areas such as people management practices and accountability.

IRCC also plans to release its Anti-Racism Strategy and action plan later this year.

“This work is complex.” MacDonald says. “It will take years, but we are committed to eliminating all forms of racism and discrimination at IRCC.”

‘Impact of racism’ leading to backlogs

IRCC’s steps to combat racism and cultural bias come in the wake of critics arguing that that’s precisely what is contributing to a growing backlog of visa applications while exacerbating issues of racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Jasraj Singh Hallan, a Calgary-area MP who serves as the Conservative Party’s shadow minister on immigration, told NCM the IRCC isn’t only plagued with racism and cultural bias when dealing with visa applications, but it is also struggling to stamp out racist workplace behaviour.

“I have been asking IRCC for several months now to reveal the number of disciplinary actions and investigations it has taken against employees, but have been unable to get answers,” he told NCM.

“The impact of racism and cultural bias in IRCC is contributing to massive backlogs in visa applications, refugee processing times and increased cost to the taxpayer.” The latest IRCC numbers show there are 1.84 million people waiting on decisions in its inventory as of mid-March. 

Even as Canada struggles to address the processing delays, the country’s 2022–2024 Immigration Levels Plan aims to continue welcoming immigrants at a rate of about one per cent of Canada’s population. This includes 431,645 permanent residents in 2022 (an increase of about 21,000 people from its original plan), 447,055 in 2023, and 451,000 in 2024. 

Respondents to the survey released last year pointed to the differences in visa refusal rates by country as an indicator that some form of bias must be at play.

“These include discriminatory rules for processing immigration applications from some countries or regions that are different than for others (e.g., additional financial document requirements for applications from Nigeria),” said the report.

The study also showed there’s growing concern that increased automation of visa processing will embed racially discriminatory practices in a way that will be harder to see over time.

Grievance against the IRCC

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) has filed a policy grievance against IRCC on behalf of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU) based on the disproportionate and adverse treatment of racialized members. 

The grievance was filed on March 15, ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. 

“In this case, IRCC has shown they are incapable or unwilling to proactively address issues of racial discrimination and harassment when they arise, such as excluding racialized employees from hiring and promotional opportunities,” said the PSAC.

PSAC and CEIU are seeking several corrective and concrete measures to eliminate discrimination in the workplace and prevent discriminatory practices in the future. The unions are also calling for all affected members to receive compensation for damages. 

PSAC is also supporting a Black Class Action Lawsuit brought by 12 federal public service workers, who identify as Black, Caribbean or of African descent. 

The lawsuit reaches back 50 years, arguing the federal government perpetuated Black employee exclusion: the systemic practice of limiting skilled Black workers from career advancement opportunities.

The lawsuit has now grown to represent 1,300 plaintiffs, including past and present IRCC employees, who are seeking over $2.5 billion in damages.

Taxpayers on the hook

Meanwhile, an internal IRCC memo, obtained by Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, shows that taxpayers are doling out between $9,915 and $33,738 depending on the determination of the eligibility of an asylum claim.

“The lower cost is incurred in cases where the asylum claim is accepted at the first hearing, while the higher cost relates to claims which are initially denied, and the claimant exhausts all appeal options and is ultimately removed from Canada,” the memo stated.

“You can expect the processing costs to go up given the increasing backlog,” Kurland told NCM.

“When IRCC gets it wrong — and it appears that they get it wrong a lot — it costs both asylum seekers and taxpayers thousands of dollars, in addition to the added grief and hardship,” said NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan. 

“When the government doesn’t put in the necessary resources to process applications properly and in a timely fashion, Canadians end up paying for it anyway,” Kwan told NCM.

Kwan noted that in 2021, 23 per cent of appeals of Refugee Protection Division (RPD) decisions were overturned by the Refugee Appeals Division (RAD), with an additional 8.5 per cent sent back to the RPD to reassess their decision. 

​​​​​​The Refugee Appeal Division decides appeals of decisions of the Refugee Protection Division to allow or reject claims for refugee protection. A person whose claim is rejected by the RPD can ask the RAD to review this decision to assess whether the RPD was wrong.

“That’s a very high error rate and this doesn’t include federal reviews which will uncover even more judgement errors,” said Kwan.