The year has begun with a sense of optimism on the policy front. In the dying days of 2016, there was a flurry of activities coming out of Ottawa as the Federal government announced one policy directive after the other.
The Council and its advocacy allies across the country are pleased to see that Immigration and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) will finally move to eliminate the regulation that made permanent residency conditional for sponsored spouses for two years. This had a particularly detrimental impact on women who found themselves in abusive marriages. Organizations like South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO) who led the fight to have this egregious immigration legislation rescinded and worked with the women and families impacted by it should be congratulated for their excellent research and policy work that informed our advocacy over the past five years or so.
The elimination of the ‘four year in/four year out’ regulation for low-skilled Temporary Foreign Workers was also announced. We have anecdotal information that many of the first group affected by this rule in 2015, opted to remain in Canada, thus becoming out of status and joining an increasing number of residents without legal immigration status in Canada. It was the work of migrant workers, activists that support them, advocates like OCASI and the employer lobby, all saying similar things that led to this much anticipated change.
Companion to this change, and hopefully the opening of a window for a much larger change, is the announcement that the government intends to work on creating new pathways to permanent residency. This is a tentative response to a national call by a coalition of organizations and activists for the Canadian government to develop a regularization program for those who have precarious immigration status. OCASI supports both a broad amnesty program and a staged approach for particular identified groups.
One such group would be refugee claimant legacy cases. These are claims for asylum that were in the system prior to the 2012 changes made by the previous government to refugee determination. A significant number of these claims were on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity and these gay men, lesbians and Trans folks have been in limbo for over four years now. It is critical that the government must move on these cases. OCASI raised this issue with Minister McCallum at the National Settlement Council last December and his response showed some sympathy to the situation. We hope that the new pathways announced (and mentioned above) will include an immediate acceptance of these claims as a group.
OCASI was recently informed of another group that has gone largely under the radar. These are women, primarily from the Caribbean who came to Canada as domestic workers during the 1970s and 80s. For a myriad of reasons their status never became permanent and now they are seniors unable to access any seniors benefits, too elderly or ill to work and unable to access government services. Many are showing up in our homeless shelters but without access to an income they are unable to secure housing. We are unclear what the numbers are but we know that many are using the shelter system in Toronto. We have heard that some are experiencing health challenges including dementia.
The Council is putting out a challenge to community and academic researchers and funders to do a study of this population. Let us get a handle on the numbers and the specificities of their experiences.
The findings of such a study will support the Council and other concerned community organizations to advocate for a policy and program response. Cities like Toronto and Hamilton have embraced and are implementing ‘Access without Fear’ policies that allow all those who are resident in those cities, regardless of immigration status to access city funded services. Unfortunately these services are not inclusive of affordable housing, social assistance, old age pension or health care (other than public health). Evidence of the situation will allow us to effectively lobby the province for similar policies on access. There is precedent. Services for immigrants and refugees funded by the province through the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration can be accessed by all who need them. We need similar policies for social assistance, housing and primary healthcare, etc.
But I digress. Other positive changes on the policy front include immigrant and refugee arrival numbers of 300,000 for 2017 with changes to the mix of the different immigration categories. There is a planned increase of sponsored spouses and children, and about $25million in new funding to ensure timely processing.
The government made an interesting decision to introduce a lottery in the family reunification program for parents and grandparents. While only 10,000 applications (no change from last year) will be processed annually, there is no cap on the amount of applications the government will accept each year. Instead they’ll do random picks from submitted applications until the target number is reached. The response to this change has been mixed. While it addresses the issue of families paying couriers and others to stand in line to ensure their applications made it in within the quota, this new lottery system does not address the substantive concerns many have with the programs. The minimum income (over 3 years) required, the twenty year sponsorship undertaking all remain unchanged and are the policies that have a negative differential impact on racialized Canadians who are overrepresented in precarious low wage jobs and poverty numbers. In addition, the government angered many families who had already paid and prepared their applications for the 2017 intake period. We’ll be watching this file closely over the next year and will continue to advocate for the elimination of the minimum income requirement.
Other mixed news includes an increase in refugee numbers (pre Syrian initiative levels) but the heavy carrying is to be done by private sponsors. Clearly the government is hoping to harness the outpouring of Canadians generosity in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. We hope that additional funds would be made available to the sector to support these private sponsors (many who are new to the process) and that the government will make a concerted effort to educate the Canadian public about other refugee situations beyond Syria.
All in all, things are looking up for 2017. Our public education campaigns on racism, islamophobia and xenophobia have sparked important discussions in communities, families, education institutions and media. More Ontarians and Canadians are aware of our sector and the important work that we do to ensure the successful inclusion of immigrants and refugees into our communities – and as important, the critical work that still needs to be done to ensure an Ontario and Canada that is inclusive of all who arrive to start new lives here.
Happy New Year, Friends and Colleagues. Our work continues.