A complaint before the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission – filed in March 2011 by a Social Work Masters student at McGill – has reached the last stages of an investigative process. Pending a decision, the case raises questions regarding policy voids on the free expression of sexual orientation in social work practice and education. On April 8, the Commission produced a draft of the factual report of the investigation.
Kofi Norsah, the complainant, alleges to have been the victim of discrimination based on his race and sexual orientation during his internship at the Saint Columba House (SCH), a community ministry of the United Church of Canada located in the Pointe St. Charles neighbourhood of Montreal. He also alleged that the termination of his internship in February 2011, two months short of completion, was discriminatory.
According to the report drafted by the Commission, Norsah is requesting that SCH issue an apology, and is seeking a compensation of $15,000 for moral damages. Norsah did not settle in mediation, and is instead pursuing the Commission’s formal position on his case, wishing to thereby allow for the setting of a precedent regarding the free disclosure and affirmation of sexual orientation in social work practice and education.
Norsah told The Daily in an interview that he wants to “push McGill to draft a policy specific to the School of Social Work in order to prevent discrimination and harassment during field placement and internships of its students.”
During his eight-month internship period with SCH, which he was required to complete before enrolling in the Master of Social Work program at McGill, Norsah had discussions with the SCH executive director Patricia Lisson regarding an intervention with a black woman who was using the services of the community ministry. According to Norsah, it was during these discussions that he was discriminated against based on his sexual orientation.
According to information obtained by The Daily, Lisson told Norsah not to disclose his sexual orientation to his female client, who was in an abusive relationship, saying, “Women in her position are afraid of gay guys.”
In his original deposition to the Commission, submitted on March 2, 2011, Norsah claimed that the request not to express his sexual orientation to the client forced him to present a false image to a user of SCH services, and infringed on his right to express his sexual orientation, protected under section 10 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. “Minister Patricia Lisson inhibited my rights to self-respect and dignity at SCH by denying me the right to openly affirm my identity,” reads Norsah’s deposition.
In his response to the draft of the report, emailed to the Commission on April 22, Norsah added, “[Lisson] ordered me to go into the closet because of her real or apprehended concern about the client’s (presumed) homophobia.”
The complaint was originally rejected on the grounds that “sexual orientation is part of your private life, and [SCH] as well as any regular employer is entitled to ask their staff not to share their private life with the clients,” according to a letter to Norsah from the Commission.
Following an appeal, the Commission accepted the case on June 30, 2011, and referred it to the mediation service in the fall. During mediation, the parties were unable to reach a common ground, and referred the case to an investigator from the Commission. The investigation has been ongoing since March 5, 2012.
In the investigation’s report, Lisson is quoted as saying that her position was based on SCH policy, under which “volunteers, staff and interns do not give out personal information of that nature.” She attributed the termination of Norsah’s internship to “the confrontational nature of the relationship between Kofi [Norsah], the work and me. The relationship failed because of the lack of trust that developed.”
Despite the termination, Lisson did not withdraw her letter of recommendation for Kofi toward his acceptance to the Masters program. McGill Social Work found another organization for Norsah to finish his internship.
Lucia Kowaluk, a social worker hired by McGill to supervise Norsah during his internship and cited as the primary witness in the report, agreed with Lisson’s recommendation that Norsah not disclose his sexual orientation. According to the report, Kowaluk “believes that Norsah did not have to reveal his sexual orientation to the mother in question.”
Kowaluk told The Daily that she does not believe that Norsah’s case constitutes discrimination.
“I think the issue is about someone who is in a position of help […] and the question whether or not to talk about yourself is a question of judgment. […] That person [the supervisor or the head of the organization] is in the position to make that decision […] a student is there to learn,” Kowaluk said in an interview.
Wendy Thomson, Director of the McGill School of Social Work, refused to discuss Norsah’s particular case. “Disclosure of one’s sexual orientation to clients is a very distinct question from disclosure to colleagues and co-workers. Sometimes it is appropriate, and sometimes not. A great deal depends on what is in the best interest of the client in the circumstances,” Thomson wrote in an email to The Daily.
Norsah disagreed with Thomson’s view, which he perceived as a subjugation of his sexual orientation to the best interest of the client. “My civil right should not be suspended because I am a student or to please the client,” he told The Daily in an interview.
Discrimination by proxy
Speaking with The Daily, activist Fo Niemi drew parallels between Norsah’s case and the Commission’s public inquiry of the taxi industry in Montreal in the 1980s, when taxi companies and dispatchers had instituted a practice whereby they would comply with clients’ expressed wishes not to be served by a black driver. Niemi is the co-founder and executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), a non-profit civil rights organization.
The inquiry concluded that different forms of discrimination were prevalent in the taxi industry, including “discrimination-by-proxy”, that is based on the expressed or assumed desires of a third party. The Quebec Superior Court upheld the illegality of this type of discrimination when it convicted the taxi companies Taxi Moderne and Co-op de l’Est of racism against its drivers.
According to Niemi, Norsah’s case raises a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed by the profession and all schools of social work in the province, that is, “Whether a gay or lesbian social worker enjoys the full freedom to disclose and affirm his or her sexual orientation in training or at work, without being subjected to professional, ethical or legal obligations, and without suffering from negative consequences of such a full and free affirmation.”
A study published in 2010 in the Journal of Social Work Education highlights the particular importance for queer students to be able “to process issues around sexual orientation and self-disclosure with their field instructor without additional barriers and stigmatization.” The study suggests that schools assess policies regarding discrimination, and, where these policies are non-existent, “engage with prospective field instructors and their colleagues in raising awareness and taking action to change the agency environment.
When asked about the policies of the McGill School of Social Work regarding sexual orientation, Thomson maintained that the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) and McGill’s policy on harassment and discrimination are sufficient to ensure that fieldwork placements agencies and supervisors “adhere to social work professional requirements and McGill’s policies.”
In an email to The Daily, CASW Executive Director Fred Phelps explained that the Association “does not have a formal position defined on this subject,” but that the Code of Ethics is meant to support social workers and their workplaces in developing policies and practices.
Thomson also noted that the School’s fieldwork manual establishes the procedure for dealing with problems arising in field placements. “If we were to come to the conclusion that an agency (or a member of its staff) has illegally discriminated against a student, we would stop placing students there, unless and until the situation has been corrected to our satisfaction.”
When contacted by The Daily, SCH staff refused to comment. Lisson had not responded to requests for comment by press time.