A group of white, Ontario correctional officers was barred from attending a government conference on anti-racism and diversity in the workplace, documents obtained by the Toronto Sun show.

The “Race Matters” conference to address “human rights and group development” was held three years ago at Toronto’s Don Jail for non-Caucasian officers only, according to a grievance filed by their union.

The conference sparked a backlash from white officers, according to the documents, who alleged the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services discriminated against them because they weren’t part of an identifiable ethnic group.

The officers, some of whom have non-white spouses, were represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), whose lawyers unsuccessfully argued their collective agreement was violated before a grievance settlement board in January 2012.

“It was the position of the grievors that the employer’s refusal to allow Caucasian employees to participate in this conference was demeaning, discriminatory and created a poisoned work environment,” the documents revealed.

In May of this year, the board ruled there was no breach of agreement or other government policy and dismissed the grievance against the ministry.

Ministry spokesman Brent Ross said the 2009 Race Matters Conference was arranged to allow staff “who identified themselves as racialized to discuss issues pertinent to their experiences in an environment conducive to the free exchange of ideas.”

OPSEU officials were contacted regarding the conference but didn’t return calls by press time.

According to the grievance documents, conference organizers said the event was “designed to explore the workplace issues of employees who self-identify by race or colour.”

That included “persons who are Chinese, South Asian, Caribbean, African-Canadian or Black, Filipino, Latin American, Southeast Asian, Arab, West Asian, Korean, Japanese.”

“The grievors were not members of the above named groups,” the board said in rendering its decision last May. “Some of the grievors were initially accepted but ultimately refused when it was discovered that they were not members of any named groups set out in the criteria.”

The officers claim to have suffered “extreme emotional and professional hardship” after learning they couldn’t attend the conference at the Toronto Jail.

Ministry officials argued that they are entitled to hold conferences for specific groups.

“The intended purpose was to have “racialized” groups discuss their experiences and share ideas,” they told the board.

It was “unfortunate and somewhat ironic” that a conference to deal with “anti-racism, human rights and group development” caused these grievors to feel discriminated against,” the board said.

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