Family controversy forces Liberal MP out of caucus role
Published Wednesday, May 6, 2009 11:30PM EDT
OTTAWA - Ruby Dhalla resigned as the Liberal party's multiculturalism critic Wednesday and worked to clear her name in a politically toxic labour dispute that has colleagues distancing themselves from the high-profile MP.
In a written statement late Wednesday, Dhalla said she's asked ethics commissioner Mary Dawson to review unproven allegations of abusive and possibly illegal behaviour involving two live-in caregivers hired to look after the 35-year-old MP's mother.
"I have been saddened and troubled by the allegations made against my family and I this week," she said.
"I take these allegations very seriously and believe a transparent, third-party evaluation of the facts is required."
She said she's asked Dawson to review the allegations so that "this matter is resolved in a fair and objective manner."
The affair coincidentally has erupted just as a parliamentary committee released a study report Wednesday that chronicles the ill treatment frequently afforded temporary foreign workers, including those in the federal Live-In Caregiver Program.
In an earlier statement, Dhalla said: "I will work with the appropriate officials to ensure the facts of the matter are clarified and corrected regarding my family's experience with live-in caregivers and will work vigorously to defend my reputation."
Dhalla, who remains the sitting MP for Brampton--Springdale, said Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had accepted her offer to quit her critic's role.
Ignatieff put out a terse, neutral release stating he looks "forward to a determination of the facts."
Sources said the caregiver allegations dominated Liberal conversations Wednesday. Dhalla was an ardent, early supporter of Ignatieff's leadership but several MPs privately acknowledged he is purposely keeping his distance from what could become a political quagmire that damages the party among its core voters -- women and immigrants.
Magdalene Gordo and Richelyn Tongson claim they earned $250 a week working 12- to 16-hour days at the Dhalla family home in Mississauga, Ont., and that Dhalla seized their passports.
The women also claim they were illegally hired without the necessary approval under the federal Live-In Caregiver Program, and that other family members forced them to wash cars, shine shoes and clean chiropractic clinics owned by the Dhalla family.
The allegations became grist for Conservative attacks that cross-pollinated from Ontario's provincial legislature to the Parliament Hill.
Tories at Queen's Park in Toronto and in the Commons demanded to know why the provincial labour minister hadn't responded to the allegations, made at a public forum two weeks ago.
In Ottawa, the jurisdictionally problematic question from a Conservative backbencher teed up a withering assurance from Helena Guergis, the federal secretary of state for the status of women.
"For far too long, women, in particular immigrant women, have been victims," said the Conservative MP.
"They have been afraid to fight back and our message to them is simple: They do have rights, it does not matter whom they are up against. Even if it is a member of Parliament, the government will protect them."
However, the new report from the Commons committee on citizenship and immigration appeared to suggest the government can and should do more.
The report said the Live-In Caregiver Program is vulnerable to abuse because it ties immigration applications to successful completion of a work period.
"Witnesses suggested the caregivers tolerate poor working conditions to meet the employment requirements," said the study.
The report made a series of recommendations calling for greater oversight and education of foreign workers.
The Conservatives on the panel, in a dissenting report, disagreed with 10 of the 36 recommendations, including one calling for a government response to all complaints.
"We oppose efforts to create an unnecessary advisory board, or to require the government to respond to the comments of every group or individual who chooses to express a view," said the Conservatives on the committee.
The report also said it takes too long to accredit workers under the caregiver program, and that workers who switch employers for any reason can be left in legal limbo.
Liberal MP Bob Rae was designated to speak publicly about the Dhalla affair outside the Commons and he warned against prejudging any investigation that may ensue.
"I've said many times that politics is more like hockey than it's like ballet," Rae said of the Conservative attacks.
"I think the point has to be made, though, that we don't do public show trials in Canada and we don't try and hang people on the floor of the House of Commons."