When the director of the african Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC), Margaret Parsons, surfaced last week to offer her version of the allegations levelled by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) against her organization, leaders of the black community were shocked. Parsons, who's at the centre of a messy investigation, used a press interview to brand Legal Aid's scrutiny "racism in its purest form. Sometimes I feel like we're in 1950s Alabama,' she complained. The clinic, which receives $628,000 from Legal Aid each year, faces allegations of mismanagement, misuse of funds, inflation of case loads, improper board elections and other misdeeds.
Making the racism charges more startling to black leaders is the fact that the probe was triggered not by Legal Aid itself but by a clinic staffer who complained to Legal Aid about the clinic's accounting practices.
In fact, insiders say, Legal Aid moved cautiously and deliberately when concerns about the clinic's bookkeeping were first brought to its attention, in order to avoid any perception that the clinic was being singled out.
Pressing the "r" button, of course, has a long tradition of legitimate use in this city. But things have changed. After three decades of equity campaigning, activists aren't so quick to fall in line unless they know the situation. And in this case, to Parsons's chagrin, they know it well.
The city's most dedicated equity militants aren't buying in. Instead, they're expressing concern that the public will grow fatigued with bogus charges of discrimination when so many real ones need to be dealt with.
"I believe it's very unfair for Margaret Parsons to cry racism," says Dudley Laws, leader of the Black Action Defence Committee. "To compare the audit of the clinic to racism in Alabama is to undermine the real issues of racism that we suffer in this community."
When the controversy erupted, Laws says, a group of community leaders, including him, met with Parsons and urged her to cooperate fully with the investigation. "But she brushed us aside instead," says Laws, adding that "Parsons and her staff should step aside and absent themselves from the clinic until the mess is cleaned up."
Laws is a member of the Community Support Group (CSG), whose nine members include well-known faces like Urban Alliance president Zanana Akande, Jamaican Canadian Association past president Herman Stewart and human rights lawyer Charles Roach.
The contention that auditors of the clinic are racist deeply offends CSG chair Stewart. "If that were the case, people like me would be first to condemn LAO. I've been around for over 30 years fighting for immigrants' rights, and I would never condone racist behaviour. It is disgusting what Parsons has done, because when there's real racism we have to speak out, but if we cry racism for everything, then people won't believe us."
Lawyer and community activist Charles Roach thinks Parsons doesn't realize the seriousness of her charges. "I hope Parsons is not saying these things without evidence," he says. "An allegation of that kind against people like Judge Sidney Linden (the chair of LAO) is an exceedingly serious matter. If Parsons has any evidence, she should bring it out."
LAO has had considerable difficulty getting answers from the clinic to explain the mess, trying unsuccessfully for weeks to get information. Part of the problem is that such clinics enjoy a measure of independence from their funders. According to Julian Falconer, a well-known lawyer who is also a member of CSG, LAO can suspend or withdraw funding from the clinic but cannot fire or suspend its staff or directors.
"It's not racism for Legal Aid to ask the subjects of a formal investigation to step aside until the allegations are properly investigated and the subject of the investigations are either cleared or disciplined," says Falconer. "What's shameful about this process is the utter inability of LAO to suspend the administrative staff who are under investigation."