Black Tea—the truth about the Federation of Black Canadians

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From the Federation of Black Canadians Facebook page, where Trudeau selfies are endlessly novel

Earlier this week I offered some criticisms of the newly formed Federation of Black Canadians, a national advocacy group. on my Newstalk 1010 radio program (you can listen here). My two major beefs: the Federation seems to be a thinly-veiled front for partisan Liberals, and it is currently led by Justice Donald McLeod, whose position as an active Ontario Court judge raises serious questions about ethics and conflict of interest.

So far no FBC leaders have responded publicly to my criticisms, but I know I’m getting dragged in the private group chats (I feel that shit in my bones like a weather change). Of those who do publicly object, almost all are Liberal party loyalists. One federal Liberal staffer engaged my critiques on Twitter and, after doing some superficial Googling of his own asked, “what am I missing? Where is the tea?” For his benefit, and for the benefit of all Black people interested in the origins and activities of this shady organization, it’s tea time.

Conflicts of interest

When the FBC officially introduced itself in December 2017, it seemed to already have a formal structure, including a board of directors, a steering committee, and several subcommittees. The presence of one steering committee member really sticks out, as long as you recognize her.

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This screenshot from the FBC’s website indicates that Ebyan Farah is the organization’s steering committee “Stakeholder Relations” representative. She is also the spouse of Ahmed Hussen, the federal government’s minister of citizenship, refugees and immigration. Lawyer James C. Morton documented the couple’s 2008 wedding on his blog:

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It is, well, pretty interesting that the spouse of Canada’s only Black cabinet minister is the “Stakeholder Relations” rep for a registered non-profit group that lobbies the federal government on behalf of Black people. Farah’s position raises obvious questions of conflict of interest.

In its two months of public existence, the FBC has repeatedly gone out of its way to feature and praise Hussen. During the first two days of a summit co-hosted by the FBC in December, the minister gave two major speeches. As far as I know, he never mentioned that his wife was on the steering committee, and neither did the FBC.

A February 12 FBC e-mail describing a recent lobby day on Parliament Hill in Ottawa thanks Hussen, along with MP Greg Fergus, for their “leadership in helping to make the Day possible.” Again, given that Hussen (who was present at the lobby day) is married to Farah, an FBC steering committee member, their respective roles in these lobbying scenarios raise serious questions about conflict of interest.

To be fair, the FBC lists Farah as its stakeholder relations member on its website—at least it did until yesterday morning, when the entire website simply disappeared from the internet. I anticipated this would happen, and the above solo image of Farah is from a screenshot I took on February 18. Hours after I tweeted about the disappeared data, it reappeared, seemingly unchanged. A strange coincidence, perhaps, but I’m keeping my screenshots in case it happens again.

The most troubling questions regarding the FBC and conflict of interest involve the board’s chairperson and most prominent public spokesperson, Ontario Supreme Court Justice Donald McLeod. That’s right—a sitting provincial judge is also the official leader of a federally-registered Black advocacy group. What a time to be alive and Black.

The “principles of judicial office” for Ontario judges clearly state that “Judges should not be influenced by partisan interests, public pressure or fear of criticism. Judges should maintain their objectivity and shall not, by words or conduct, manifest favour, bias or prejudice towards any party or interest.”

As for the role of judges in the community, the principles clearly say that “Judges must avoid any conflict of interest, or the appearance of any conflict of interest, in the performance of their judicial duties (emphasis added).” Given the group’s objective to “advocate on [Black Canadians’] behalf with governments, parliaments, international organizations, businesses, and faith-driven organizations,” McLeod’s respective roles seem extremely likely to raise potential conflicts of interest.

Additionally, the provincial principles warn that “Judges should not lend the prestige of their office to fund-raising activities.” I honestly don’t know how the province enforces this rule, but McLeod is unquestionably the FBC’s greatest fundraising asset, and he has personally been encouraging Black Canadians to donate money to the Federation.

“We will actually put our money where our mouth is,” McLeod said in a January 30 CBC television interview. “Private enterprise, businesspersons, people who are going into their homes, moms, dads, you name it, children— all of that money, all of that philanthropy, all of our dedication, to toonies and loonies and fives and tens, will all go into this federation.”

I’m not sure if Black people are going to donate to the FBC—given what I know today I would strongly advise against it—but depending on how Ontario interprets McLeod’s ethical responsibilities, those loonies and toonies could spell mo’ money, mo’ problems for an active provincial judge.

Lack of transparency

McLeod says FBC came together after he “called friends of mine in various provinces” to begin planning better advocacy for Black people. He now finds himself serving as the Federation’s chairperson. Due to an absence of public documentation regarding FBC’s full membership, and the seemingly exclusive presence of McLeod as the group’s spokesperson, one could be forgiven for assuming he simply appointed himself.

Remember, FBC is a federally-registered non-profit group: where are its bylaws? Does it have a formal membership? Has it held an annual general meeting?  Did it hold elections for any of the positions currently held by its leadership? If such information exists, FBC has not made it accessible.

Rather than holding its own events, the Federation seems to prefer piggybacking off the work of other established groups and individuals. For example, McLeod put his face and new FBC brand all over the inaugural National Black Summit at the Toronto Reference Library in December 2017. Yet the Michaëlle Jean Foundation actually did much of the organization background work and sent out the event invitations.

If the FBC didn’t really exist before that event, it’s understandable that it wouldn’t have a mailing list or even a membership to invite. I personally attended the summit (MJF invited me) and although I never signed up for the federation, I now receive its communications. Did FBC receive my info from MJF? If so, why didn’t I have an opportunity to approve the transfer of my personal info?

FBC promoted the aforementioned “Day on the Hill” lobbying effort as its own event, despite the fact that government relations consultant Tiffany Gooch organized it, and has organized a similar event in recent years. A misleading February 1 tweet from the FBC Twitter account said, “A national Lobby Day will occur on the Hill Feb 12,” without noting that FBC was actually not actually planning it.

This lack of transparency is important when we consider that FBC did not publicly say how the event had been organized, or why, or what it hoped to address with government officials, or how it had made priorities on issues. We don’t really know who the FBC is—we also don’t know what it believes and what it is advocating with politicians in the private, invite-only meetings it has participated in thus far.

Liberal partisanship

While the Federation claims to be non-partisan, the existing public documentation of its founding reveals deep connections to the federal Liberals, as well as the Ontario Liberal Party, while contact with other political parties is either non-existent or unmentioned.

In fact, freelance writer Ron Fanfair wrote in December that during mid-2017 alone,  McLeod and the leaders of the nascent federation met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his chief political staffer Gerald Butts, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, and Liberal Members of Parliament Marco Mendicino, Adam Vaughan and Ahmed Hussen (who was not yet a cabinet minister).

Tiffany Gooch told me during a phone interview yesterday that she facilitated some of these meetings, including the Wynne encounter in July 2017. “I don’t really consider myself a part of the organization,” said Gooch, but she acknowledged that “I am a Liberal” and has her deepest political ties within Liberal circles.

Cabinet minister Hussen’s marriage with FBC steering committee member Farah is, sadly, symbolic of  the closeness between the FBC and partisan Liberals. These relationships matter when we consider, from Fanfair’s reporting, that after the Trudeau meeting, McLeod and FBC “received a call from Ottawa indicating they would prefer the initiative to be national.”

Who made that call from Ottawa to the FBC? Why would government express its preference for FBC’s structure? What was the nature of the conversations between McLeod, his private circle which would evolve into the Federation, and many of the most powerful Liberals in the country? What incentives or tacit agreements might have been at play during these totally private conversations?

The apparent direction from government about the FBC’s future highlights how a heavily partisan organization, with virtually no public input and an extremely cavalier chairperson, has gone from zero to 100 in mere months. The particularly close relationship with Ottawa also explains why Liberal cabinet ministers and MPs seem to be everywhere the Federation is.

Meanwhile, the federation’s public outreach, like the town hall it hosted this week in—you guessed it—Ottawa, is only occurring now that the group is established and rolling. We know governments love to consult after they’ve already made up their minds. It’s equally shameful conduct for an organization that claims to represent Canada’s diverse black population.

There’s much more to critique about this young federation. For example, the total lack of representation from Canada’s Black Lives Matter chapters, who are doing some of the most important and celebrated advocacy in the country, seems too much of an oversight to be an accident. In fact, FBC boasts zero representation from radical Black activists across Canada, so many of whom identify as trans, as queer, as disabled, as women.

Respectability has a way of backfiring on the Black people who are most eager to practice it. When we behave unethically in civil society, we’re far less likely than anyone else to get a pass, to enjoy the ongoing support of the white people this country is designed to privilege and protect. For now, I hope the FBC leaders are enjoying all those Liberal photo-ops.

 

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CORRECTION: the original version of this post incorrectly said that Tiffany Gooch helped organize a meeting between Donald Mcleod, future FBC members and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when in fact Gooch organized a meeting with McLeod, future FBC members and premier Kathleen Wynne. I’m sorry for that mistake.

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