Two caregivers who allege they were mistreated while in the employ of the family of Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla will be called to testify before a Commons committee next week as other federal parties seize the chance to prolong Liberal woes.
“The immigration committee is going to be studying the topic of migrant workers,” Conservative MP David Tilson, the committee's chairman, told reporters yesterday afternoon. “We'll certainly be inviting those particular nannies to come and talk about their experiences.”
Ms. Dhalla, who has been in seclusion since the allegations of her family's former caregivers were made public, will also be asked to testify, Mr. Tilson said. And Ontario provincial Labour Minister Peter Fonseca and Education Minister Kathleen Wynne, who Mr. Tilson said failed to act on the allegations they first heard at a meeting in Toronto on April 25, may be called.
“It's very suspicious that [Mr. Fonseca] has known about it for some time and did nothing,” Mr. Tilson said. Of the two Ontario cabinet ministers, Mr. Fonseca is more vulnerable on the issue since his portfolio includes overseeing workers' rights.
The two women, both Filipino immigrants who have found other employment since leaving the Dhalla home, will not be compelled to appear before the committee.
They say that Ms. Dhalla and her family had hired them under the federal Live-in Caregiver program for foreign workers to care for the MP's mother. They say they were paid $250 a week for 16-hour days of household chores – from shining shoes to shovelling snow – and cleaning the family's chiropractic clinics.
One, Magdalene Gordo, 31, compared the job with slavery; the other, Richelyn Tongson, 37, said Ms. Dhalla withheld her passport for weeks.
A third unnamed woman came forward with similar allegations in a Toronto newspaper yesterday.
Few of Ms. Dhalla's Liberal colleagues have jumped to her defence as the allegations dominated chatter in the corridors of Parliament.
The scandal, which came quickly on the heels of the coronation of Michael Ignatieff as Liberal Leader last weekend, threatens to knock some of the wind out of the sails of a party that has been leading the Conservatives in recent public-opinion polls.
But the decision to call the caregivers before a Commons committee prompted an animated response from Liberal MP Bob Rae.
“Of course, it's a partisan tactic,” said Mr. Rae, adding that, to his knowledge, it was Ms. Dhalla's brother, and not Ms. Dhalla, who was the employer of the two caregivers. “In my, dare I say it, 30-year career, I've seen a lot of feeding frenzies,” Mr. Rae said. “I've seen a lot of lynch-mob activity. And this is just another example of it.”
Ms. Dhalla did not talk to reporters yesterday. But she released a statement saying she would ask the Commons Ethics Commissioner to investigate the allegations against her.
“I take these allegations very seriously, and believe that a transparent, third-party evaluation of the facts is required to clear my name,” she said in a release. “I have requested the Ethics Commissioner to commence a review to ensure that this matter is resolved in a fair and objective manner.”
The office of Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson acknowledged that Ms. Dhalla's request had been received but it was unclear what, if any, jurisdiction she had to look into the matter.
Meanwhile, at the Ontario Legislature, Premier Dalton McGuinty said he learned only on Wednesday – about the same time as the public – that one of his cabinet ministers was swept up in the controversy.
Staff in the Premier's office contacted officials in Mr. Fonseca's office on Tuesday, the day the allegations were published in the Toronto Star. But it was not until the next day, after the topic dominated Question Period during the Premier's absence, that he was told about the “provincial angle” to the story, a spokeswoman in his office confirmed.
“I was briefed by my communications folks,” Mr. McGuinty told reporters yesterday.
Both the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats called yesterday for Mr. Fonseca's resignation for failing to act on the allegations of mistreatment.
Mr. McGuinty stood by Mr. Fonseca and told reporters he has no intention of asking him to resign. In fact, he said, Mr. Fonseca and Ms. Wynne went beyond the call of duty by playing host to the public meeting where about 30 live-in nannies, including Ms. Gordo first told her story.