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Ottawa’s version of equity and inclusion studiously ignores the industry composed of 90% immigrants

Image: City of Ottawa

“This exchange – the clever words, the hidden agenda, the implied privilege attributed to Ottawa regulators, the arrogant attitude – was a painful echo of how members of the Taxi industry were treated with Uber’s arrival. They were treated with contempt.”

Rita Smith

For those wondering whether Ottawa’s taxi drivers have benefited in any way from that City’s grandiose Equity and Inclusion Lens, the answer is a resounding “no.” The January 19th court proceedings in the Ottawa Taxi trial may now serve as “Exhibit A” in how Ottawa treats immigrants in the taxi industry. It was painful to watch the City’s lawyers badger and heap disdain on a driver whose first language is not English.

Testimony at the Ottawa Taxi trial changed drastically in tone and tenor when driver Ishkak Mail took the stand on January 18th. For the first time since the trial began, viewers could see for themselves why the court case was certified to move forward in 2018. It was certified at least in part on grounds that in failing to enforce its own by-laws, the City may have discriminated on the basis of race, colour, ethnic origin, or language, contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Human Rights Code.

Previous to Ishkak Mail’s testimony, the court heard mainly from Metro Taxi president Marc Andre Way, who was on the stand for seven long days. Way is a Canadian-born Francophone fluent in both French and English. Over his long days on the stand, he provided the court with the history, geography and philosophy of the City of Ottawa’s regulation of the Taxi industry over the last half century. During that time, regions such as Gloucester and Vanier were amalgamated, and technology advanced from push radios and mechanical meters to smart phones and computer dispatch.

In every way, Way seemed much more like a subject matter expert than a plaintiff in the trial. He was treated respectfully and seldom were his recollections challenged.

When Way wrapped up his encyclopedic testimony on January 18th, co-complainant Ishak Mail took the stand. Mail is an immigrant to Canada from Afghanistan and English is not his first language. An engineer by training, he worked in several other fields in Canada (including running a gas station and opening a Dollar Store) before he settled on the Taxi industry as the best investment of his time and effort.

Mail’s treatment by lawyers for the City has been appalling. At some points it borders on harassment, as when City lawyer Todd Burke displayed as evidence Mail’s 2013 income tax return, unredacted, including Mail’s social insurance number.

At this point, the plaintiff’s legal counsel objected and pointed out that this was an egregious violation of Mail’s privacy rights and Canada’s privacy laws. Justice Marc Smith agreed, and the document was removed from the screen as a clerk ran off to make a paper copy for Mail’s reference.

Where Way was patient and unflappable in answering questions, Mail tends to become frustrated with questions that seem more like riddles than requests for information. For example, on the topic of his 2013 income tax return, City counsel demanded to know why he included a certain piece of information.

“My accountant prepared it. He is a professional accountant. I am not an accountant; I don’t know why he did that,” Mail answered. “I hired a professional.”

Similarly, Burke demanded repeatedly to know whether an agreement Mail signed was a legally binding document.

“This is what we agreed on,” Mail shrugged. “He is a member of my community; neither of us is going to steal from the other. It would not be done. This is what we agreed on.”

Burke invested several more minutes pressuring Mail to opine on whether the document was a “legal document.”

“I am an engineer, not a lawyer,” Mail reminded Burke wearily. “Lawyers know about these things. I know we trust each other.”

January 19th testimony culminated when Burke appeared to be trying to get Mail to say that Ottawa had the right to regulate the Taxi industry which, I guess if you carried that idea just one step further, would be to say that Ottawa had the right to permit Uber to operate under a different set of rules.

This exchange – the clever words, the hidden agenda, the implied privilege attributed to Ottawa regulators, the arrogant attitude – was a painful echo of how members of the Taxi industry were treated with Uber’s arrival. They were treated with contempt.

“Now, Mr. Mail,” Burke began. “When Uber came to Ottawa, you were upset. It’s your belief that the city had a duty to protect plate licensees from competition by Uber.

“I believe that we should be all treated the same way,” Mail replied.

“So, it was your view that the city cannot regulate Uber differently than it regulates taxis?”

“I believe…” Mail began before Burke interrupted him.

“But you also agree that as the regulator, the City of Ottawa has to regulate the industry in the public interest…you’ll agree, sir, that as the regulator, the City of Ottawa, has to regulate the industry in the public interest?”

Mail, whom I imagine thinks he is a part of the public with at least as much interest in taxi regulation as anyone who lives in Ottawa, seemed stumped by this question.

“I’m a citizen of the city? What kind of question is this? I don’t understand. I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not sure I understand the question for me. I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”

Burke then changed the subject, demanding to know whether Mail had read the City’s 2015 report on the taxi industry.

Mail, apparently failing to realize that Burke had moved on to a new line of questioning, stated simply, “They illegally allowed the Uber to work for two years in this city with no permit with no insurance and nothing, if they were cared about the public health, why they allowed somebody to work illegally for two years?”

“Sir, that’s not my question. I’d like you to be responsive to my questions.”

“I try my best, sir,” Mail sighed.

Theoretically, Ottawa’s Equity and Inclusion Lens exists to assist public servants “become more aware of diversity…incorporate a diversity of perspectives to strengthen the capacity of work teams; create a positive and respectful work environment; and…address systemic barriers and inequities people face.”

Perhaps the City of Ottawa could provide its legal team with a copy of the handbook.