Immigration board ‘revamping’ complaint process after Global News investigation

Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board letterhead. Global News

The head of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) has announced plans to revamp the organization’s complaint process following a Global News investigation that revealed allegations of “aggressive” and “incompetent” behaviour by two former refugee judges.

The remarks from IRB acting chairperson, Paul Aterman, were made Tuesday to a Parliamentary committee tasked with studying immigration, which launched a formal investigation into the IRB complaint process following the Global News report.

During the committee hearing, Aterman said that going forward, complaints against refugee and immigration judges will continue to be investigated even after judges leave the IRB.

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This is a stark departure from the IRB’s previous position – including Aterman’s own testimony from earlier committee meetings where he suggested the IRB could not continue these investigations after an employee leaves because the board has no power to compel them to share their side of the story – regardless of whether a judge was forced out due to a complaint or simply retired.

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“It’s in the Board’s interest in terms of transparency and accountability to pursue [these complaints],” Aterman said to the committee Tuesday, stepping away from his earlier comments.

“The problem that we have – and I think it was graphically illustrated by the cases that were in the media — is that one or two incidents have the potential to drag down the reputation of the institution and the good work of the many other people who do this day in and day out and have no problems.”

WATCH: Refugee judge accused of ‘incompetence’ in Global News investigation ‘no longer an employee of the IRB’

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Judge accused of incompetence, no longer with IRB – Mar 8, 2018

The issue of unresolved complaints became a thorn in the side of the IRB after Global News learned multiple complaints against former IRB decision-maker, Natalka Cassano, were suddenly closed when she left the IRB just weeks after lawyers alleged she displayed a “pattern of incompetence” and “aggressive” behaviour aimed at claimants while she was serving as a refugee judge.

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At the time of the report, the IRB would not confirm the circumstances under which Cassano left the organization – citing privacy rules. Instead, it simply said she was “no longer an employee of the IRB.”

On Tuesday, Aterman would not answer Global News’ questions on whether the complaints against Cassano have been reopened since the decision was made to change the complaint policy.

Lawyers want closure

Raoul Boulakia, president of the Refugee Lawyers Association of Ontario, had two outstanding complaints against Cassano at the time she departed the IRB. He received a letter from Aterman after Cassano left the organization saying the complaints against her were closed.

But since the IRB plans to change its policy, Boulakia expects any concerns about Cassano’s behaviour while she was still an IRB decision-maker will be investigated – not just so his clients can have closure, but out of fairness to Cassano so the truth about any allegations can be revealed.

“Yes, the complaints should be reopened,” Boulakia said. “Because it’s not healthy to have nothing resolved… It’s better for the institution to have a principled resolution to complaints.”

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Meanwhile, Nastaran Roushan, who’s complaint against Cassano was deemed a “serious concern” by former IRB chairperson, Mario Dion, says the IRB has yet to provide any answers with respect to questions about what – if any – sanctions were imposed upon Cassano because of her complaint or which of the allegations she brought forward were proven to be true.

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READ MORE: MP calls allegations of ‘sexist,’ ‘aggressive’ behaviour by refugee judges ‘disturbing’

“My client has not received closure because he still doesn’t know what the facts were,” Roushan said, noting that the IRB was adamant in its last correspondence that no further information about the complaints would be provided.

“If they are going to change their policy, then they need to reach out to me, they need to ensure that my client receives the closure [he] deserves,” she said.

IRB opens the door to ‘independent’ complaint process

One major concern expressed by lawyers and advocates who spoke with Global News about the IRB complaint process is that it lacks independence.

As currently written, the rules give all authority for handling complaints to the IRB chairperson. Decisions on whether a complaint is investigated, who investigates it and what – if any – sanctions are imposed on immigration and refugee judges when misconduct is found to have occurred all rest within the hands of the IRB.

Roushan, Boulakia and many others – including MPs who sit on the immigration committee – have said this process is either “deeply flawed” or at the very least presents the “perception” of bias.

WATCH: Complaint process against refugee judges deeply flawed, says immigration lawyer 
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Complaint process against refugee judges deeply flawed, says immigration lawyer – Jan 26, 2018

The IRB, meanwhile, has insisted their current policy is fair and independent. Aterman himself has testified before the committee to this effect, saying he believes the current process is sufficient for dealing with complaints. Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has also called the process “independent.”

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In fact, in December the IRB approved a new complaint process in response to concerns the old system was ineffective and biased. The “Office of Integrity,” which is housed within the IRB, was created and is now responsible for investigating complaints about the conduct of immigration and refugee judges.

But on Tuesday, Aterman’s testimony appeared to suggest the IRB may be willing to accept a more independent complaint process should the committee make such a recommendation.

“Could the chair benefit from the advice of external, disinterested parties – perhaps – who review the complaint with the chairperson?” Aterman asked the committee. “That could certainly be a possibility,” he said.

READ MORE: Conservative MP calls for ‘overhaul’ of IRB complaint process following Global News investigation

Aterman then urged the committee that if such a recommendation were to be made, anyone involved in the new process should have a “completely impartial view” when it comes to the outcome of refugee and immigration decisions.

“[Any] external advisers should be people who have no stake in the game,” Aterman said.

But NDP immigration critic, Jenny Kwan, says Aterman’s statement is proof the IRB cannot police itself when dealing with complaints against its own members.

“If [Aterman] accepts that as a premise, and if he’s advocating for that, then he ought to know he himself [as IRB chairperson] is in a compromised position, that he himself is not completely independent,” she said. “He just made an argument against himself for why this needs to be revamped.”
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Roushan and Boulakia agree with Kwan, saying it’s time the IRB accepts the recommendations of lawyers and advocates who’ve long said the complaint process needs to be made completely independent.

“I think [Aterman] has provided an answer that acknowledges his lack of independence,” Roushan said. “The person with the biggest vested interest has got to be the chairperson – the person who is responsible for the management of the IRB.”

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