A Waterloo, Ontario, man has filed a human rights complaint against a company he says refused him a job because he was told his Somali background embodies “a culture of resistance to authority.”
Jama Hagi-Yusuf had recently completed his studies at the University of Waterloo when he started looking for a part-time job. He hadn’t even attended his convocation yet when he faced his first overt experience with what he calls workplace discrimination. One of his applications went out to a Kitchener financial services company for a post as an assistant to a financial planner. When a man emailed him to say he hadn’t gotten the job, the response wasn’t a staid human resources missive, but instead referred to Hagi-Yusuf’s Somali background. A year after the incident, he has filed an official human rights complaint with a provincial tribunal.
When he first got the rejection email citing Somali culture, he could only laugh.
“I laughed I guess because of how ridiculous it was,” Hagi-Yusuf told the National Post. “I knew job discrimination was a thing… I knew that it would be a thing, but I just didn’t expect to happen automatically. Then I just laughed and told myself I probably should have.”
“For a lot of black people, we know that job discrimination happens, but no one is foolish enough to write it in an email,” he said. “It made me angry.. I was dehumanized.”
In part, the email read, “Somalia has a culture of resistance to authority. Such a culture would be quite different than the Canadian culture.”
“He essentially called me part of an unemployable demographic,” said Hagi-Yusuf, who was born in Canada to refugees from the Somali civil war.
Hagi-Yusuf studied science at Waterloo and he has recently been volunteering in a lab at its school of pharmacy. This fall, he will begin a master’s degree in molecular biology at Concordia University in Montreal. He took almost a full year to file the complaint because he and his parents worried it might further affect his future job prospects, but in the end he decided it was too important to let go.
First and foremost he wants an apology and for the company at the heart of the matter — Integral Wealth Securities Limited, which has multiple locations — to adjust its hiring practices. He’s also seeking monetary compensation, he says, not because he needs it but because he wants to send a message to the company.
He shared the note from J Sandy Matheson, an investment advisor with Integral Wealth Securities Limited, with the Post. It reads in full:
“I have read stories about how Somalia has a culture of resistance to authority. Such a culture would be quite different than the Canadian culture sees makes cutting ahead in a lineup as a great social error.
“The investment industry is a subculture with its own rules and traditions. It is normal for people to train for entry into this field. While your academic career suggests the training would be well within your competence, there is no demonstrated enthusiasm in past experience for entering this subculture.
“Due to lack of background, I must decline your application.
“Good luck with finding a suitable position.”
Matheson — who could not be reached for direct comment — told the CBC he wasn’t intending to reference Hagi-Yusuf’s background but simply that Somali culture was on his mind because of a recent article he’d read. The CBC also notes the two disagree over how much contact they had. Matheson describes a phone call and other interaction prior to the letter turning Hagi-Yusuf down, while the latter says it never occurred.
“It was just something in the top of my mind, had nothing, I did not think him to be Somali,” Matheson told CBC. “He told me he was educated here and I knew that.”
“There were norms within the industry that he was not meeting,” he said.
“I didn’t think the person was Somalian. The email was about how the person misunderstood the culture of the financial services world,” Matheson said. “The culture of lawlessness would make such people difficult to, find difficulty integrating into a country that’s founded for peace, order and good government was a subject of an editorial I read.”
Hagi-Yusuf said that doesn’t make much sense. He said his resumé included the fact he spoke Somali and his long list of volunteer activities on and off-campus, including an organization he started to tutor Somali youth.
The reality is anti-black racism is very common in Canada and it still exists
The matter is now before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, the body that will consider Hagi-Yusuf’s complaint, which has confirmed its receipt of his allegations and has sent them to Matheson for a response. The provincial human rights code explicitly protects both “ethnic origin” and “place or origin” against discrimination.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s guide to understanding the code, “The right to ‘equal treatment with respect to employment’ covers applying for a job, being recruited, training, transfers, promotions, terms of apprenticeship, dismissal and layoffs.”
The same guide also outlines a three-point process to determine if a situation actually violates the code — an example of what the tribunal will eventually consider. First the person must have a “characteristic” such a race or sexuality that’s protected by the code. Second, they must have experienced “adverse treatment/impact within a social area (for example, in accessing a service, housing or employment).” And third the protected “characteristic” must have played a part in the adverse treatment.
For his part, Hagi-Yusuf said the situation is emblematic of systemic issues across the country.
“It highlights the fact that it still happens in Canada,” he said, adding people always talk about how bad racism is in the United States as if it absolves this country of any responsibility. “The reality is anti-black racism is very common in Canada and it still exists. I think some people are just very good at hiding it.”
With so many refugees flooding in from the Middle East and Africa, he wonders what the next generation of black children will face. “My people survived a civil war and we came here and we made Canada home and we’re still seen as foreigners 20 years later”