It was a side gathering of the rebels in the crowd during the Canadian federal government’s first gathering of service agencies, academics and government workers on immigration and settlement services. The year was 1977 or thereabouts. This small group of rabble rousers, many working in the fields of community development and organizing, cross-cultural education and communication, women’s rights and the Canadian version of the civil rights movement found each other. They hatched the plan to form a coalition to lobby the government for a formal, sustainable and adequately resourced program for immigrants and refugees. In 1974 the federal government had introduced the Immigrant Settlement Adaptation Program (ISAP) on a pilot basis and it was not certain if it would continue.
It was a few years before Trudeau (the pere) stared down his opponents and introduced into law the Multiculturalism Act, stealing the thunder from the then Progressive Conservatives whose one time leader Diefenbaker had played with the idea of formal multiculturalism for Canada. Francophones were seeing their language and historical place in Canada enshrined in the Official languages Act. The absence of any formal recognition of Indigenous Nations was glaringly apparent (if absence can be so noted) in spite of the chattering classes focus on pluralism and its meaning for us as a country.
It was a time of economic uncertainty. It was the beginning of the ‘colouring’ of immigrants as the point system introduced a decade or so earlier started to reap what was sowed, the results of a ‘merit’ based immigration system. It was in this move away from past racist laws and practices against the Chinese, the Africans (including those next door in the US), the Indians, the Jews and others deemed not white or culturally European enough that what would eventually become O.C.A.S.I. was born.
Almost twenty years ago or so, in wanting to get the stories of OCASI’s early days, I sat down with an elder leader- the founder of one of our earliest members in southern Ontario. She recalled that there was this “red-headed, thick English accented man” as she described him, running around the province drumming up support for this new entity. That would be Howard Sinclair-Jones – known to many as ‘Howy’ - OCASI’s first employee who would eventually become its first Executive Director. And she proceeded to tell me stories- lots of stories. But I’ll save them for late conference nights over good tea or single malt scotch or fine wine. Some of the tall tales are not meant for reading in this space. But I digress.
Following this first ISAP conference conversation, the small group next convened through the efforts of the now demised Cross-Cultural Communications Centre, an organization that espoused an inclusive politics and promoted an intersectional analysis of social issues in the tradition of the Boston Combahee Collective and long before Professor Kimberle Crenshaw coined the phrases ‘intersectionality and intersectional analysis’. It was at this meeting that the decision was made to formalize the coalition and the Council was named and registered in the Fall of 1978. And a few months later O.C.A.S.I. took its first collective action in a successful fax-a-thon campaign that flooded the offices of federal MPs calling for the ISAP program to be maintained!
I came to OCASI as its executive director exactly twenty years later. In fact I was introduced to the membership at its twentieth anniversary AGM (I missed the gala by a few months). The Council then was a feisty organization punching above its weight in the national immigrant and refugee and migrant workers space with eight committed staff and an active Board and membership. The foundation that was laid during those first twenty years situated the Council well for weathering political storms and come these storms did. We were defunded on our 25th anniversary by the then provincial Progressive Conservative government because the then Minister of Citizenship was offended by a speech delivered by an invited speaker at our Gala celebrations. I spent the first five years or so rebuilding relationships with our federal funding partners as well as funding partners at the City and the United Way. Yes, we were often critical of the hands that fed us in order to authentically represent member agency concerns and glad to say we sometimes still do!
Fast forward to today and I am filled with pride as I write this. The Council is an institution in the non-profit sector here in Ontario and across the country. We are top of mind when it comes to immigration policy, settlement and integration programming, antiracism and anti-oppression work and have strengthened our relationship with our membership, the communities with which we work and with government policy makers and funders. We are top of mind for most media. We strongly believe in coalition work and have co-founded or participated in many including the premier Colour of Poverty/Colour Change (COPC), a coalition concerned with racial and economic justice.
Our sector in Ontario is stronger than ever, always at the ready to calmly respond when the need arises; like the recent resettlement of over forty thousand Syrian refugees within a year or so and more recently a sharp increase in irregular arrivals (refugee claimants crossing outside of official ports of entry) from the United States. Our members step up with little fuss and great ingenuity and innovation.
We have made many strides as a sector over the last four decades but we have much more to accomplish. We are still calling on the federal government to create pathways for regularization of status for those with precarious or no legal status in Canada. We are advocating for the federal government to step up (and this is urgent now with a provincial government which has signalled it will not support refugee claimant services from provincial coffers) and open up eligibility for services for refugee claimants. We need increased pathways to permanent residency for migrant workers. We need to ensure that all children resident in Canada have access to the Canada Child Benefit program, a key poverty reduction policy tool. And we want to see the right to vote in municipal and other local elections (school boards) extended to permanent residents. We want all municipalities in Ontario to declare themselves sanctuary places, and lobby the provincial government to make provincially funded services- from housing to social assistance to OSAP to policing - accessible to all who reside in our province.
As we gather next month at the OCASI Executive Directors Forum (November 6-8) to debate and discuss, to learn and share and teach, we must remember that it is our collective strength and working in solidarity with allied sectors that will create the changes we want to see. We will challenge each other and our government partners to engage on issues of gender and race and (dis)ability in our work. We will look at the role of women and women’s organizations. We will interrogate our feminisms and how this ideology shapes our work – or not.
We will call on the sector to think outside your programs and services to larger issues of poverty and our role in advocating and working to see its end. We will question the idea of work and hear bold ideas about creating decent work in our sector and beyond.
And we will celebrate. We will celebrate forty years of resilience. Forty years of growth and contractions. Forty years of being thorns and paragons. Forty years of opposing and more important of proposing. Forty years of advocacy for progressive change. And we will commit to continue our work with renewed energies because we believe as South African Archbishop and anti-apartheid agitator Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.