This short month with the longest day in the year is unfolding with a packed legislative and policy agenda at all levels of government. From the City of Toronto (where OCASI’s offices are located) to Queen’s Park to Parliament Hill, announcements from our elected leaders have been raining down from on high: Most of it good.
First the City of Toronto: As part of its Toronto for All initiative which started with a partnership with OCASI that created the anti-Black racism and anti-Islamophobia poster Ad campaigns, the City went on to tackle discrimination against the homeless and those living in deep core poverty; and recently rolled out its anti-transphobia campaign. All of the campaigns are geared to raising awareness and educating the public about the various forms of discrimination that continue to marginalize many Torontonians and the communities to which they belong. The campaigns have sparked much discussion about the role of governments in building social cohesion, and the public policies that must be put in place to ensure equity of opportunity for all. This by necessity includes making some politically difficult choices especially with most governments here in Canada and abroad relentlessly pursuing an austerity agenda.
Which brings us to the province: Bill 114, which is the enabling legislation that spells out the scope and authority of the recently formed Anti-racism Directorate, quietly received royal assent earlier this month. This good news was overshadowed by the expansive announcements of the changes to be made to Ontario’s labour laws – everything from minimum wage to increased workplace monitoring and enforcement of the Employment Standards Act.
The announcement that has received the most public attention is the hard fought for increase in the minimum wage. Expected to increase to $15 per hour on January 1, 2019 (will move to $14 per hour on January 1, 2018), this change will lift thousands out of deep poverty. We have heard from the usual suspects like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce that small businesses in particular will have to lay workers off, will be forced to shut their doors, the usual sky is falling hyperbole. But the $15 campaign brilliantly anticipated this response and has counteracted (though not muted) the naysayers and has small business owners who pay a living wage (more than $15 per hour in most jurisdictions) speak out about how good it is for business. There’s a provincial election in June of 2018. If this government falls, will the incoming government honour what a majority of Ontarians have demanded and have finally been promised?
The federal government was not to be left out. Last month I wrote in this space about the movement of Bill C6 (the Citizenship Act) through the Senate and the changes that were being debated. The Bill is back in the legislature with many suggested amendments. It is good to report that the government has committed to rejecting the amendments (like increasing age for writing citizenship test to age 60 from 55) that weaken the intent of the Bill. We are keeping watch. Outside of the Bill, we still need a reduction in citizenship fees - which was increased sharply from $100 to $530 by the previous government.
What made the headlines and had feminists from coast to coast to coast celebrating the announcement by International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, that Canada will spend up to ninety-five percent on its foreign aid on gender (women) informed projects and initiatives. The Minister boldly dubbed the shift, a feminist one, saying that the country was moving to a “feminist” international policy). While investment in the priority areas of reproductive health (including maternal health); economic development; education; etc., will continue, the good news was that safe and accessible abortions will once again be supported. The previous Conservative government while focusing on maternal health had rescinded funding from initiatives that promoted and supported reproductive choice. This hypocrisy, whereby Canadian women (for the most part) had access to safe, affordable and accessible abortions, while women in the global south were being denied this same choice – a choice that is often about life and death - was not lost on the international aid community or on those of us who hail from these developing regions.
This feminist on this page applauds the move and the important symbol of centring women and girls in our international Aid spending.
Changing gears, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the heightening hoopla around Canada 150 celebrations as we near the anniversary (July 1) of the coming together of various provinces to form the federation we know as Canada. What we can’t afford to forget is that these were Settlers who had colonized the land and the various nations of Turtle Island without so much as a by your leave.
In the past decades we have heard varying governments at the federal level (and to a lesser degree the various provinces and territories) pay lip service to observing Indigenous treaty rights, to providing equitable funding for indigenous primary and secondary education; for investigating the growing numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls; of doing right by peoples who have faced genocide (cultural and otherwise) by a colonizing force.
While many First Nations (and Metis and Inuit) individuals and communities thrive, they do so in spite of the ongoing marginalization and racism they experience. While governments speak out of one side of their mouths about reconciliation, they spend millions on the other hand fighting against the recognition of treaty rights and land ownership of various First Nations. We cannot turn an unseeing eye to the weekly reporting of suicides, of drownings of teens sent to Thunder Bay in Ontario for an education only to turn up dead.
It takes a community champion like Cindy Blackstock suing the federal government for comparable funding of child welfare services for Indigenous children on reserves to put and keep the sorry truth of indigenous human rights on the national agenda.
The federal spending and promotion of the celebration of Canada’s 150 is a celebration of colonization, a celebration of the erasure of the cultures of Canada’s first peoples, a celebration of the ongoing marginalization and oppression of these nations.
Over the past weeks, I’ve wondered and worried about how I was going to speak about this as we neared July 1, knowing that many of our member agencies have been planning commemorations in their communities as an opportunity to celebrate newcomers and to push back against the growing and pervasive anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment. Some have seen it as a moment to celebrate a country that has opened its doors to millions, many fleeing persecution and finding safe refuge here. Among these are agencies that are working in solidarity with Indigenous organizations in their local community to build understanding and bridges between Indigenous and refugee youth, and other efforts. There’s no judgement here. Instead what I’m asking for is the understanding of what Canada’s efforts to mark this anniversary must mean for First Nations, Metis and Inuit neighbours, friends and families. What it must mean for them to watch as billions are spent in celebration while there is a generation that has grown up with boil water advisories in their communities and has known no other reality.
While speaking on a panel on racism in the health sector in Mi’kmaw territory (Halifax) last week I read out loud the following piece that eloquently speaks to the current moment. It is an excerpt from the Anishinabek Nation statement to government* on Canada’s 150 celebrations:
The Anishinabek Nation expects that meaningful co-existence between the government of Canada and the Anishinabek Nation must be based on mutual recognition, mutual respect, sharing and mutual responsibility.
Without the contributions of First Nations during the war of 1812, there would be no celebration of 150 years. Assimilation policies and a blatant disregard for the human rights and the inherent rights of the Anishinabe Peoples have caused unmentionable suffering, humiliation and the deaths of countless people.
Now is not the time for celebration, but a time for reflection, acknowledgment and a meaningful commitment to change these discriminatory policies and legislation.
We are all Treaty Peoples.
(*Anishinabek Nation includes Odawa, Ojibway, Pottawatomi, Delaware, Chippewa, Algonquin and Mississauga peoples).
Full disclosure: OCASI also applied for funding from Canadian Heritage for the Canada 150 funds. We wanted to create a moment where we would bring the sector together with leaders from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission like Justice (now Senator) Sinclair. We were turned down. My colleague who is the senior lead on policy at OCASI heaved a sigh of relief, because while we wanted to advance a conversation about building bridges between immigrant and refugee communities and First Peoples communities, there was that whiff of hypocrisy in the air.
These are not easy politics. They are filled with nuances. We must all choose and I am pleased that OCASI has chosen to forego the celebration of the colonization of a land.
As we prepare to take to the streets in celebration and struggle for LGBTI human rights, I want to acknowledge the difficult but effective work that Pride Toronto’s new Executive Director Olivia Nuamah has done in a very short period of time to get us to this place. She stared down the right wing on Toronto City Council who tried to use the call for the exclusion of armed and uniformed police from the parade/ marches to defund the organization. And who continues to facilitate the difficult conversations of competing interests - often in the midst of virulent anti-Black racism - within Ontario's Queer communities.