OTTAWA - A former prosecutor with the federal Justice Department has stirred up the simmering controversy over subtle racism in the legal community by airing allegations of discriminatory treatment while he was a government lawyer.
Mark Persaud, who quit the Justice Department in 2003 after tensions he blames on racism became unbearable, shook the department all the way to the top by airing his complaints at a recent meeting of the Senate human rights committee.
Persaud ended a four-year silence about his experience in the department’s Toronto office with the startling allegation his former workplace was rife with “overt racism and intimidation of employees.”
“It is that culture we have to deal with, sir, that poisonous, toxic culture that causes many people to leave,” Persaud told Liberal Senator Jim Munson in response to questions.
In an interview, he tells Law Times his battle against discriminatory attitudes on the part of at least one of his former colleagues eventually prevented him from obtaining a promotion, and that, finally, after winning an internal appeal, he was driven out of the department by retribution.
“I was treated like an articling student, given menial work to do like research assignments, instead of working with [another] lawyer,” he says. “You have to understand that sometimes the well is poisoned, so when you go up against these guys, you go up against your friends too and you get the retribution. And that’s what happened to me.”
The Justice Department was quick to react to Persaud, with deputy minister John Sims firing off a letter to the Ottawa Citizen to challenge his claims.
“The Department of Justice does not tolerate discrimination or racism in any form and our work to establish and promote an inclusive workplace is clearly evident across the organization,” Sims wrote, arguing representation of visible minorities within the department is now at 11 per cent, above the Canadian workforce availability of 10.4 per cent for visible minorities.
The department later provided Law Times with information on the racial breakdown of lawyers within the department as further evidence Persaud was off target.
Christian Girouard, manager of the department’s public and media relations branch, says 231 of the department’s lawyers, or 9.6 per cent, are visible minorities. Further, 12 per cent of the lawyers in the department’s executive group are members of visible minorities.
In fact, Girouard tells Law Times, the Justice Department has a better record for including visible minorities than legal firms in the private sector.
He quoted department statistics that designate only 6.2 per cent of private-sector lawyers in Canada as visible minority.
A leading Law Society of Upper Canada bencher, who specializes in human rights and co-chairs the society’s committee on equity and aboriginal issues, also suggests private firms have further to go than government legal teams to incorporate minorities.
“The public sector has always been different - and I say this quite genuinely - I think it has by and large been more progressive in terms of the advancement, for example, of women, than the private sector,” Raj Anand tells Law Times. “Complaints have been made that racialized minorities do not occupy some of the prized positions within firms and elsewhere.”
He says, though, his first-hand knowledge is primarily of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.
“My impression is it is a fairly progressive workforce, in terms of gender and racialized minority origins, in terms of advancement and in terms of responsibility being given to them.”
As an example, Anand cites the case of Arif Virani, a lawyer in the Ontario ministry who was this month recognized by the University of Toronto’s law alumni association and is now on an 18-month leave in India to work on a human rights project about police corruption.
Anand says the low representation of visible minorities in Canadian law firms is a “truism” but adds the pool of applicants for articling students is steadily becoming more diverse.
Tables provided to Law Times by the LSUC back him up.
In May 2006, racialized communities were represented by 19 per cent of licensing process students, the graph shows. That is significantly higher than the proportion of racialized communities represented in the legal profession at large.
Persaud dismisses the Justice Department figures, saying the real indicators are the longevity of careers for the department’s visible minority lawyers and access to promotions.
“What you have to look at is very often they will hire, but there is attrition - people leave. If you keep turning over every couple of years, even if you have 11 per cent, it doesn’t really mean anything.”
He says at least one colleague still in the department tells him discrimination remains. Despite that claim, Sims broadcast an internal e-mail after Persaud’s Senate testimony. It declared “there is no discrimination” in the department, Persaud adds.
He says his role as a volunteer architect of the Canadian International Peace Project may also have played a role in what he believes was ill treatment at the hands of the Justice Department. Persaud began the project to unite Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and other faiths after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. One of the first projects was reconstruction of a mosque in rural Afghanistan.
“One lawyer walked by my office and said, ‘I hear you’re building a mosque for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,’” he says. Persaud is now CEO of the Peace Project.
He had been active with the federal Liberal party as well, but following his fallout with the Justice Department he eventually also left the Liberal fold - to join the Conservatives.
He was a member of the national Liberal executive and chair of the party’s standing committee on multiculturalism, but says he quit after senior Liberals under Paul Martin blocked his efforts to open more government appointments and election nominations to representation from visible minorities.
Last year, he appeared with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Toronto to endorse the Conservative party’s approach to multiculturalism and visible minorities.