OTTAWA — Details about the government's new anti-racism strategy continue to be shrouded in secrecy after at least $845,000 was spent on 22 closed-door consultations across Canada.
Documents tabled in the House of Commons show all the invitation-only meetings were held between October 2018 and early March in cities including Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Calgary, and Vancouver. The last one was held in Iqaluit, Nunavut on March 4.
Attendees were encouraged to share a link to an online questionnaire to those who were interested in participating, but unable to attend the meetings.
Watch: Residential schools' ugly legacy on Indigenous youths' mental health
The Department of Canadian Heritage is responsible for the development of a national anti-racism strategy "to combat discrimination and racism," according to the Minister Pablo Rodriguez's mandate letter.
The government set aside $23 million in the 2018 budget to increase funding for its multiculturalism program, including $2 million to fund cross-country consultations toward the development of the plan. New $45-million funding was promised in this year's budget for the implementation of the strategy over three years.
NDP MP Jenny Kwan is frustrated by the secrecy surrounding the consultations and wants more transparency on how the government plans to spend money. "There's no accountability whatsoever within that envelope," she said.
The consultations were not advertised, Kwan said, prompting questions about who the government decided to include and exclude.
Kwan said the Trump administration in the United States has stoked anti-immigrant sentiments that have jumped across the border. It's important for the government to develop a thorough, multi-year strategy to curb the "rise of racism," she said.
"We don't even know what was discussed behind closed doors on this consultation process," the Vancouver East MP said. "How is that a robust process to ensure that they have the best suggestions and recommendations to tackle this issue?"
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The population size of minority communities and Indigenous people factored into where the department organized its meetings, Canadian Heritage spokesman Daniel Savoie told HuffPost Canada. The number of reported hate crimes in an area was also a consideration.
Savoie said the invite-only meetings gave participants safe spaces to share how racism and discrimination has affected their lives. Invites were prioritized to people "with lived experiences of racism and other forms of expertise related to anti-racism," he said.
"Participants also mentioned that since the government of Canada decided to not renew Canada's Action Plan Against Racism in 2010, there is currently no strategy to fight racism."
It's important for the federal government to show leadership on the issue, Savoie said, adding a final report will be released "in the near future."
National strategy shelved in 2010
Paul Martin's Liberal government introduced Canada's Action Plan Against Racism in 2005. It sought to introduce the "first-ever horizontal, coordinated approach across the federal government to combat racism."
An evaluation of the plan in 2010 by Stephen Harper's Conservative government found trouble in the way it dealt with "multiple departments with very different mandates." There were also issues at the senior management level among those responsible for implementing planned initiatives that included a loss of momentum and commitment that "waned over time."
Noticeably absent from the action plan against racism was a strategy to address Islamophobia — which has continued to rise in recent years. Hate crimes against Muslims rose 253 per cent between 2012 and 2015, according to Statistics Canada.
The Liberal government's new anti-racism strategy is focused on addressing barriers in how people access employment, community, and justice systems. Its objective is to support community education and skills development projects that "to counter racism in its various forms."
Online participants were asked to complete a questionnaire to collect written answers and a survey that asked participants to agree, disagree, or pass on statements such as, "Systemic racism exists in Canada."
It's a statement the minister responsible for the strategy struggled with last year. Rodriguez walked back remarks to a national newspaper that systemic racism is an "expression" that "is not part of my vocabulary."
Watch: Heritage minister walks back remarks questioning systemic racism
Evidence of systemic racism can be found in policies based on ethnicity or race. The history of residential schools and the systemic forced separation of Indigenous children from their families is one example of Canadian systemic racism.
Manitoba Sen. Murray Sinclair offered MPs his own definition of systemic racism in a House of Commons committee last year, calling it "the racism that's left over after you get rid of the racists."
Discussion and debate about racism has sometimes fallen victim to partisan political interests.
On Wednesday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was forced to clarify comments made by a Tory senator who appeared to show a tepid response to concerns about racism and Islamophobia raised by Foreign Affairs Minister Chyrstia Freeland.
Despite the clarification, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Scheer still got into a heated question period exchange over white supremacy.