July 2018 - The Friday before the long weekend and our national recognition and celebration by some and resistance by others of the formation of our country Canada, we were greeted with unexpected and disappointing news. The newly elected government of Ontario had decided to disregard tradition and do away with the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. The Ministry has played an important role in Ontario’s economic development plans.
For the first time since 1982 Ontario has no Minister dedicated to issues of citizenship and its later addition of immigration, and refugee and immigrant (re)settlement. This decision was a shock to the sector, especially the Council and its two hundred and thirty-two members across the province. There are more questions than answers as I write this.
What we do know is that the functions of the former Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration has been shared among various Ministries with responsibility for the various programs included in the portfolios of a number of Deputy Ministers. Some of the DPs we know and have worked with in various capacities over the years. Others are new to us. And while we look forward to developing and enhancing these relationships to ensure that the sector and its agencies, and immigrants and refugee communities’ priorities continue to be addressed, we know from past experience that what gets named gets done. We know that decisions are made at the Cabinet table, from policies to funding. Without a Minister to champion the cause of migrants, immigrants and refugees we risk being further marginalized in the province, and particularly in government, as well as in Canada as a whole.
Immigrants make up almost one-third of Ontario’s working age population. They are contributors to our economy and to our social and cultural fabric. Increasingly they are a force to be reckoned with politically. They positively are located across the political spectrum, which demonstrates their active engagement in the democratic process. Employers continue to lobby Ottawa and the province to increase the number of immigrant applications accepted each year, knowing that immigration is the answer to our immediate skills shortages, long-term economic development and demographic challenges.
Ontario has been a leader in immigration including in meeting Canada’s humanitarian obligations. Over the last couple of years the province stepped into the leadership with the Syrian resettlement initiative, creating a welcoming and ‘can do’ environment that galvanized the Ontarian and Canadian populace. We witnessed an outpouring of support and engagement by civil society that we have not seen since the early 1980s with the resettlement of Vietnamese individuals and families fleeing violence and persecution.
More recently, the province stepped up again as the number of irregular arrivals to Canada through the Quebec border remained steady (about one hundred or so people on average have crossed the border with New York since the beginning of this year) but the linguistic make up of those crossing the border to seek asylum changed from primarily French to English and Ontario became the place of destination for many. The province has been at the coordinating table with the federal government and has listened to municipalities who have borne the costs of sheltering and providing basic services to the arrivals, particularly municipalities like Toronto (as well as Ottawa and Peel Region).
The province has long believed that settlement and integration services should be based on needs and not immigration status or length of stay in the country. A core principle has been that all residents in Ontario have a right to public education, to shelter and housing, to nutritious food, to healthcare including mental health, to mobility, to employment and/or training, to a decent income and to live in a place that is inclusive of all regardless of race, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, age, gender, gender identity or expression and/or immigration status. We believe that still holds true for the majority of Ontarians, including elected representatives.
This inclusive approach and the resources to ensure that all newcomers to Ontario have access to the services they need, results in their successful socio-economic integration.
We were therefore disheartened to learn that the provincial government made the decision to withdraw its cooperation with the federal government on the refugee claimant/asylum-seekers file. Ontario is and will continue to be the province of preferred destination for many English-speaking asylum-seekers/refugee claimants. They will settle in our communities and neighbourhoods, and municipalities will have to respond to their needs. Municipalities rightly look to the province and the federal governments to support and resource the needs of these new arrivals. Ontario withdrawing its cooperation is short-sighted and may have unintended consequences including financial. We strongly urge the Premier to rethink this position and continue to play the leadership role that Ontario has historically held on the immigration and refugee protection files.
There is still much work to be done. Ontario must continue to play a leadership role in Canada’s managed immigration system. This province, like other provinces and territories, is engaged in the selection of immigrants through the provincial nominee program. Here in Ontario we have over 6000 spots to fill annually. Many who access the pathways within OINP (Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program) are international students and high skilled migrants. Ontario has an opportunity to open up other pathways for trades-people, those with lower skills, agricultural and service workers – all migrants who are already here contributing and learning about our values and ways of being.
Very little of this agenda will move forward without a designated Minister. Immigration is a key public policy issue for Canada and Ontario. And while the province has a mature immigration and settlement program, we risk losing the leadership role we’ve carved out for ourselves nationally without a strong voice within government speaking out on behalf of immigrants and refugees and the service sector that works with and for them.
We strongly encourage Premier Ford to rethink his decision to downgrade the immigration and settlement portfolio and to appoint a senior minister to this file. We reiterate our call for the province to reengage the federal government in discussions and coordinated actions on the humanitarian files as well.
We will continue to advocate on these critical issues until we see a positive response.