The gorgeous weather we've been experiencing here in Southern Ontario makes one hopeful that we've turned the corner on winter's cold and damp and that we're settling into Spring. There's a sense of hope in the air as I meet and converse with my colleagues from across the province and country; a particular optimism, a sense of ‘can do' that we haven't seen in many years.
This sign of change is welcomed given the many challenges we continue to face as a sector, a province and a country. The concerns around the various Temporary Foreign Workers' Programs continue in spite of positive changes including the rescinding of legislation that allowed employers to pay foreign workers 5-15% less, the elimination of the Accelerated LMO which was used by many employers to bring in thousands of workers for the service industries (dishwashing, cleaning, etc) and indications that the process will be more rigorous including the expectation that employers will have to better demonstrate their attempts to hire Canadian workers (including immigrants). The sector in collaboration with our allies in the medical sector who have been leading the charge against the cuts to the Interim Federal Health benefits for refugees hasn't seen much change. But the public education is continuing and it is hopeful that provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba and cities like Toronto are adding their voices to the call for change on this file.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high for immigrant workers (14% nationally). Immigrant, refugee and racialized Youth are overrepresented in unemployment stats and every indicator points to increasing alienation and social exclusion of significant numbers of young people. A recent report from the Toronto Social Planning Council states that funds earmarked by Ontario's Ministry of Education for “Learning Opportunity Grants” that are to support programming for students from low-income; single parent; and housing insecure households, are often diverted to general revenues by School Boards. For example only about 31% of the funds ($128-$143 million) given to the Toronto Board of Education (TDSB) has been spent in targeted areas in 2012-13. The report also found that funds earmarked for English as a Second Language (ESL) has been diverted to other budget areas (25% or $20 million). The Planning Council is raising the alarm and recommending that these funds be ‘sweatered' (make exclusive to the program areas targeted so that Boards of Education are unable to use for general expenses).
The Immigrant and Refugee Serving sector and the non-profit sector as a whole in Ontario continue to see reduction in funding or at best a flat-lining of their budgets. Umbrella organizations like OCASI in particular are experiencing significant cuts as government and other funders move away from supporting sectoral capacity building, service coordination and policy and advocacy work, at the same time that these activities are needed more than ever.
In spite of all this, hope for positive change remains in 2013. This is a year of important anniversaries as we were reminded by the Colour of Poverty Coalition (COPC). It is the 20th anniversary of the provincial Employment Equity Legislation in Ontario (rescinded in the late nineties by the provincial Conservative government but the federal Employment Equity Act continues to be in force); and the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. These various legislations were attempts to address issues of systemic discrimination which result in racial, gender and economic inequities. While we can't declare discrimination, prejudice and racism a thing of the past (according to the COPC fact sheet, ‘ A Four Point Plan for Racial Justice', racial inequities are in fact on the rise), two events I attended in the last week gave me cause of great hope.
On April 30th, COPC held its second provincial Forum, From Poverty to Power 2013: Racial Justice, Making Change. The event brought together over 300 individuals from diverse communities across Ontario all concerned about racial, social and economic justice and wanting to strategize for sustainable political change. The debates were heated, the speakers provocative but the sense of renewed energy and collective optimism was palpable. A few days later, at a meeting of the National Settlement Council (a policy and program focus group of the sector and CIC), the federal Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney addressed the gathering. While the Minister spoke of the many changes he has made to the immigration and refugee determination systems, (acknowledging that many folks disagree with some of his direction and changes) the most salient point for me was his discussion on the need to rethink the work of the Multiculturalism program to make it more relevant to integration and the “real issues of diversity”. He talked about the need to develop policy tools to address these issues. He said, “It is irresponsible for political and social leaders to remain silent on issues of social exclusion”.
I agree. So do the 300 plus folks who attended the COPC Forum. We've outlined the political and policy agenda. Now we have to do the work. And I'm hopeful we will see the changes we're all working towards. Happy Spring.