IRCC 2022-23 Anti-Racism Employee Qualitative Research

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Executive Summary

Background and objectives

IRCC’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2.0 (2021-2024) lays out several concrete commitments aimed at continuing to identify the unjust and harmful impacts of systemic racism in the Department and at removing barriers to equity and inclusion for racialized people in Canada. Continued engagement with employees to gather feedback and insights is a cornerstone of these efforts.

As such, IRCC completed a second Anti-Racism employee survey in the fall of 2022 and mandated Pollara Strategic Insights to conduct follow-up qualitative research, the results of which are the subject of this report.

The IRCC 2022-23 Anti-Racism Employee Qualitative Research was designed to allow the Department to dig deeper into employees’ lived experiences with racism than is possible through departmental anti-racism surveys. It also provides an independent and confidential channel through which IRCC employees can safely provide comments to, and about, the Department.

The objectives of this study included, but were not limited to, exploring:

The results of this research are intended to help IRCC identify areas for improvement within the Department and provide employee input into how these improvements should be made.


We recommended a hybrid method for this study in order to maximize our ability to achieve three key goals simultaneously, namely:

This year, participants were chosen from among those who responded to a department-wide callout inviting participation in the study. Those who expressed interest were sent a questionnaire to complete which, among other things, asked respondents to categorize themselves based on age, gender identity, race, religious affiliation, branch and level of employment and knowledge and experience with the subject areas mentioned above. The number of focus groups and in-depth interviews as well as their composition, which is summarized below, was determined based on the size and characteristics of this pool of volunteers.

Table 1: Number and Composition of Research Consultations

Participant Common Characteristics Number of Focus Groups Number of In-depth Interviews
Employees in Middle Management/ with Decision-Making Experience in Hiring and Promotions 1 2
Employees with Insight into Impacts of Racism on Program and Service Delivery - Operations (OPS) 1  
Employees with Insight into Impacts of Racism on Program and Service Delivery – Strategic and Program Policy (SPP) and Digital Strategy, Services and Innovation (DSSI) 1  
Racialized Employees with Current or Past Experience in Foreign Postings 1 2
Executives (including some with Current or Past Experience in Foreign Postings) 1 2
Black Employees 3
(of which 1 in French)
Non-Black Racialized Employees 3
(of which 1 in French)
Indigenous Employees 1  
White Employees 2  
Employees from Religious Minorities 1  
Total Number of Sessions 15 6

In total, 15 two-hour online focus groups and an additional six, 20-40 minute, online individual in-depth interviews were conducted among a cross-section of IRCC employees from various levels of the organization and across multiple branches including employees in operations, client services, policy, and program development as well as internal services such as human resources and finance. In all, 62 employees participated in this study. The sessions were held from February 6th to 21st, 2023.

The tables below provide further insight into participant demographics.

Table 2: Number of Participants by Race

Indigenous or Aboriginal: 2
Black: 21
Non-Black Racialized: 26
White: 11
Not Specified: 2

Table 3: Number of Participants by Gender

Woman: 45
Man: 15
Other Gender: 2

Table 4: Number of Participants by Religion

Christianity: 25
Buddhism: 2
Hinduism: 3
Islam: 3
Judaism: 1
Sikhism: 4
Traditional (North American Indigenous) spirituality: 1
Another religion and/or spiritual tradition: 6
No Religion and Secular Perspectives: 15
Prefer not to Say: 2

Given the confidential nature of the discussion, as is often the case in employee focus groups, these sessions were not recorded. What is reported here is the product of detailed notes taken by the Pollara team. Also note that, in keeping with research conventions, certain details provided to us may need to be withheld or dissimulated in order to protect respondent confidentiality and anonymity.

Due to the qualitative nature of this study, results cannot be extrapolated to a broader audience and therefore must be considered indicative, rather than definitive. Further, while participants were randomly selected from a list of potential participants, that list was generated through an opt-in process rather than random selection. Consequently, the sample of employees who participated cannot be said to be representative of all IRCC employees.

Supplier Name: Pollara Strategic Insights
Contract Number: CW2250771
Contract Value: $99,779 (including HST)
Award Date: 2022-12-02
Delivery Date: 2023-03-31

Political neutrality certification

I hereby certify as Senior Officer of Pollara Strategic Insights that the deliverables fully comply with the Government of Canada political neutrality requirements outlined in the Policy on Communication and Federal Identity and the Directive on the Management of Communications.

Specifically, the deliverables do not include information on electoral voting intentions, political party preferences, standings within the electorate, or ratings of the performance of a political party or its leaders.

Craig Worden
Pollara Strategic Insights

Summary of findings

Participants in this research believe IRCC should be the Department to set the bar, and many feel proud to work for a department that is doing so.

Participants report numerous signs of progress since 2021, the most important of which is the perceived acknowledgement, through the actions and communications of the Anti-Racism Task Force (ARTF) and of some of the Department’s senior executives, that racism is a real problem at IRCC, and one that needs to be dealt with. This has allowed for a transition from waving the red flag to thinking about solutions.

Participants report that while there has been visible progress in a few areas, such as increased opportunities to talk about racism and nascent increases of racial representation in higher positions, they still feel there is a lot to be done, particularly in areas considered critical to transforming the organization.

In short, two years in, participants feel that faith in the Anti-Racism Task Force remains strong and the Department’s communications have created a positive shift in the internal climate. However, participants are now looking to see increased action on some of the tougher challenges organisational transformation requires.

Results in detail

Perceived strengths of IRCC as a department to work in

As was done in the previous iteration of this work, given that the remainder of the discussion would necessarily focus on areas in need of improvement, we began each session by asking participants to share briefly what they appreciate most about working at IRCC. The responses we heard make clear there is strong consensus among the participants about IRCC’s strengths as a department to work in and that the Department attracts employees who are deeply committed to the work of continuing to build on Canada’s legacy as a nation forged from diversity and immigration.

Progress since 2021

It is clear from the tone of the discussions this year that, except for the environment in foreign postings (which we will discuss in more detail later in this report) when it comes to internal racism in IRCC, participants feel the Department is in a different place from where it was two years ago.

In 2021, participants expressed an urgent desire to be heard and to have someone sit up and take notice of how real and widespread lived experiences of racism were within IRCC. The need for participants to vent as they described the racially discriminatory experiences they had lived, situations they had observed and conversations they had heard was strong then, making it difficult to steer the conversation towards solutions. While that tension was still present for a few people this year, the need to recount, divulge and rehash was palpably less intense.

In fact, what we observed, and what some participants explicitly stated is that the widespread acknowledgement that racism is a problem within the Department, coupled with IRCC’s formal commitments to do something about it, were critically important first steps. Except for those in foreign postings, participants feel that it is now generally recognized that racism is a real and significant issue for the Department and are therefore ready to turn their attention towards solutions.

There has been a shift in acknowledgement that there is a problem. And now we have data showing there is a problem.

In addition, many participants say they are confident that the Anti-Racism Task Force (ARTF) and its leadership are serious about their commitment to push through change. This, combined with the external political pressure and public scrutiny on the Department, gives them hope that progress will continue, at least for now.
Finally, participants agree that there is currently a lot of communication around IRCC’s commitment to anti-racism and employees have already begun noticing the impacts of some of the initiatives designed to address the problem.

It should be noted that a few participants underscore the importance of recognizing that, while racism at IRCC is real and present and has received much public attention, that does not mean the Department is in a worse position than others when it comes to this issue.

I saw a lot more instances [of racism] in my previous department.

Given what we represent as an organization, we should be a department that leads in this area.

A few other dimensions along which participants say they have noticed progress include:

These initiatives have us talking more about it. It’s been helpful because I know it’s not just me. Our previous DM said if you see something wrong, say something, because that’s the only way things will change. I feel safer now because there is more recognition that you should speak up.

I feel like I’m in limbo. The microaggressions have dissipated but that might be because we are not in the office anymore.

Current assessment of racism at IRCC

When asked to rate how much of a problem racism is at IRCC today using a scale where 1 = “not at all a problem” and 10 = “very much a problem”, the average score given is 7/10.

(It is important to note that the study methodology does NOT allow us to establish whether or not these differences have any statistical significance.)

Most participants who provide low scores explain they are basing them on their personal experiences and immediate work environment or team while recognizing that other employees may have vastly different experiences.

Those who provide high scores do so for multiple reasons which we will explore further in the remainder of this report.

Reasons for rating racism a significant problem at IRCC

  1. Some participants are disappointed at how the Department’s early anti-racism initiatives have been received in certain quarters.
    • For one, despite the early signs of progress mentioned in the previous pages, some say they have observed a bit of backlash with certain specific individuals or groups of individuals. Participants report seeing or experiencing: Increased defensiveness from some white colleagues and hierarchical superiors when racist comments or behaviours are called out.
    • Message fatigue among some colleagues and hierarchical superiors who feel there is too much focus on anti-racism communication and activities.

      Of the people I speak to, some say we have a continuing problem to address. And others say it’s coming fast and furious from too many angles.

      There is a bit of fatigue that is happening within the organization...a bit of ‘we have to be careful not to come across as just complaining.

    • Reluctance (in some quarters) to allow employees to take more time away from core tasks participation in anti-racism initiatives (as well as hesitancy to ask for it).

      I had to send three to four emails to get the ok just to participate in this two-hour focus group.

      A few say this backlash makes them think twice about being seen as too involved in anti-racism initiatives so as not to be singled out or negatively labelled.

      In addition, resistance to the Department’s anti-racism efforts is seen by many participants as further proof of how deeply racism is rooted within the organisation. Many believe that, though there are some in senior leadership who are sincere and serious in their commitment to eliminating racism in the Department, others are not. They argue that so long as there continue to be people, particularly people with decision-making power, who resist or react to combatting racism, there will be a limit to how much things can change.

      I am still not convinced. There are some people who are true hardliner racists. It’s the way they react, subtly protesting things.

      When it comes to directors saying things about employment equity even...the comments that come out of their mouths.... there is no training focused on convincing them of the why behind it.

  2. Several participants are skeptical of IRCC’s ability to sustain the current momentum.

    Several believe the current will to combat racism in the Department is fueled primarily by external forces (political pressure and public scrutiny) and that once this impetus dies down, the internal commitment will too. Furthermore, there is concern that the pressure on the Department to increase productivity in order to meet rising immigration targets will eventually take precedence over anti-racism.

  3. Participants also express frustration at what they perceive to be a lack of concrete actions and at the timidity of some of the actions taken thus far.

    Part of this may stem from a lack of information about what actions have been taken. Some say there is so much communication it is hard to keep up with all of it. In fact, several learned about initiatives because they were mentioned by others during the focus groups. It also may stem from the fact that some employees’ work exposes them to initiatives others simply may not get to see in action.

    I haven’t seen a lot of concrete actions that are confidence inspiring.

    Whatever the reason behind any lack of knowledge of the concrete actions that have been undertaken to combat racism in the Department, there is a general perception among participants that there has been more talk than action. This, in term, feeds into the lingering distrust, that persists among many, who believe not all the Department’s leaders genuinely support the commitment to eliminate racism.

    Beyond what is communicated, participants also point to specific actions they consider poorly designed or inadequately implemented, leaving them with the impression that there is either a lack of commitment or of funding sufficient to achieve change. A few such examples are listed below.

Examples of actions considered poorly designed or inadequately implemented

  1. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, participants say there has been little to no concrete action in areas considered critical to eliminating systemic racism.

While there are several areas in which participants point to a lack of action, participants believe the following seem key to reinforcing employee belief that lasting change is possible:

The lack of progress perceived by participants in these areas contributes to concerns that anti-racism actions will be limited to those that are performative and palatable to people in power. It also reinforces the belief among many participants that there is an old boys’ club at IRCC that protects the status quo, and it erodes employee confidence the Department’s capacity to succeed.

Trust is where it all begins.

In what follows, we provide more details on participant feedback and suggestions for improvement in each of the specific topic areas addressed.

Increasing bias awareness and creating a culture of zero tolerance for racism in the workplace

Participants say that, for IRCC, the goal should not stop at eliminating impacts of racism but extend to creating an organization where all employees demonstrate a level of bias self-awareness and intercultural competency fitting for an organization whose mandate centers around diversity.

In this context, intercultural competency means having an expanded capacity to apply an anti-racism, equity, diversity, and inclusion lens to all situations when dealing with people with different backgrounds and experiences.

As a newcomer-focused department, you need to have a baseline of cultural competency. It’s inconceivable that even the most simple request is met with resistance or my having to justify what exactly it means. The people who set the tone in this department are just wildly out of touch with these competency pieces. We don’t build in time for cultural competency, but we must.

According to participants, such a profound shift in the organization’s culture will require a mix of transformational experiences and compulsion.

Conditions and actions required for such a profound cultural shift

Reactions to the Return-to-Work Order

Given the timing of these consultations, we included a few questions to assess how participants viewed the recent Return to Work Order and its impacts from an anti-racism perspective.

Creating a safe channel for reporting incidences of racism

Participants believe that nothing has yet been done to provide a safe and effective mechanism for employees to report and escalate incidents of racism. The lack of movement in this area feeds into perceptions that there may be institutional protectionism at play. It also reinforces the belief that reporting incidents of racism will result in retribution.

Fear of facing reprisal for reporting incidents of racism was mentioned often, as was the case in 2021. However, as a few participants point out, the increased public discussion of the past two years around experiences of racism has exposed “retribution horror stories” and may increase reluctance to report.

It’s hard to muster the courage to say something. At the time I was acting. So do you want to risk that acting position and perhaps after your acting they will say go back to your substantive position which can be two levels down on the payroll?

Participants also feel that the current forms of recourse provided by IRCC are not safe or effective.

Consequently, today, almost all participants feel the only viable solution is for reporting to be managed externally, through an entity that some refer to as an Ombudsman’s office, though they expect it to have powers and responsibilities that may go beyond what is conventionally ascribed to an Ombudsman.

To be trusted and effective, participants say the mechanism for reporting incidents of racism at IRCC would need to include what follows.

Expectations of a trusted and effective reporting mechanism

Participants also say IRCC should take measures to proactively facilitate obtaining information about racism that is likely to remain concealed. This is partly to prevent minor situations from getting worse, but could also help identify areas (for example, specific teams) where racism is an under-reported issue because of the lack of an effective reporting mechanism or fear of retribution. They suggest a number of ways of doing so.

Other suggested actions to facilitate identifying racism

Removing bias and increasing transparency in hiring and access to promotions

Participants suggest improvements to the anti-racism initiatives already undertaken in this area as well as numerous additional initiatives.

Suggested improvements to existing initiatives

  1. Adjust how diversity hiring goals are communicated

Participants acknowledge that there has been a strong push to increase representation of racialized individuals at higher levels of the organization in the last two years. However, participants feel that despite some early successes, the way the current objectives are communicated has significant deleterious effects and needs to be adjusted.

  1.  Increase resources allocated to the racialized employee mentorship and sponsorship programs.

Another welcome initiative is the mentorship and sponsorship program aimed at identifying and preparing racialized employees to be promoted into leadership roles. Participants believe that both employees and managers feel this, and, in particular, sponsorship, can go a long way towards growing the pool of racialized employees who are ready to be hired into higher level positions. Participants feel that the problem is a lack of resources with far too few mentees and sponsors mobilized so far.

While these are positive starts, participants mention a number of other ways in which hiring and access to promotions should be addressed.

Suggestions for additional initiatives

Experiences of racism in foreign postings

As indicated at the start of this report, discussions with employees with recent experience in foreign postings (which included people in entry level and executive roles and both expatriates and Locally Engaged Staff (LES)) make it clear that they believe that the progress seen at IRCC within Canada over the past two years has not been replicated in its offices abroad.

These employees still seem to be crying out to have their experiences of racism heard, taken seriously, and ended. Plus, as was indicated in our 2021 report, the expressions of racism experienced by participants in IRCC’s foreign postings are particularly egregious and weighty in impact.

Several participants say they have frequently and repeatedly witnessed or been subjected to racially motivated microaggressions, harassment and professional marginalization. Attempts to report or escalate these situations were often brushed aside or met with retaliation and, in some cases, even threats from management. Furthermore, participants say that known offenders often continue on to other postings (including postings in racialized majority countries) without facing any consequences and they also believe that many are even promoted.

Being a black person here is an extreme sport. I kid you not. We are not protected.

As the participants point out, they feel it is important that this situation be attended to because:

Types of experiences mentioned

Participants with experience in foreign postings shared details of numerous recent incidences of overtly racist comments and workplace harassment experienced abroad, as well as how their complaints were dealt with. Examples experienced by participants included:

Environmental factors that contribute to the problem

Participants point to a number of factors that create an environment where such behaviors can persist without consequence.

Suggested solutions

When it comes to solutions, participants say that:

On the impacts of racism on program and service delivery

Impacts of racism on program and service delivery

Participants mention several observed or suspected examples of impacts of racism on delivery of IRCC’s programs and services. These include:

Hypotheses about the impacts of racial bias on case processing

Participants feel that case processing outcomes clearly suggest that racially motivated biases impact program and service delivery. What is less clear is where these biases stem from and what should be done about them. While participants shared thoughts about how internal policies and processes may enable these impacts, they have more questions than answers at this stage.

Hypotheses about the impacts of racial bias on program and policy design

While it may not be feasible to eliminate all impacts of racism on program and policy design, many participants feel that, as part of its anti-racism commitment, IRCC should fully explore the impacts of the assumptions that underlie its policies and programs and at least examine whether they are warranted and aligned with departmental objectives today.

Participant suggestions


Recognizing that eliminating racism in an organization as large and as complex as IRCC is a big undertaking, with the exception of the situation in foreign postings, based on the progress achieved thus far, participants are generally hopeful and proud to be part of an organisation that is setting the bar for anti-racism in the federal government.

However, participants feel that the gains so far are considered to be in areas that were relatively easy to take on. They believe the challenge and expectation now is for the Department to demonstrate the strength of its commitment to anti-racism by going beyond compensating for systemic racism and beginning to dismantle it. Participants believe that this will require:

Participants also suggest a large number of improvements to initiatives already begun as well as additional actions to prioritize. The most salient of these include:

Appendix A: Qualitative instruments

The appendix includes the moderator's guide and recruitment screener for this research.

Review the appendix on a separate page.

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