October 2021 / Toronto
We can exhale as a sector now that the federal election is behind us and we have at least a month or two before we turn our attention to the scheduled Ontario provincial election in June 2022 and the Ontario Municipal elections in October 2022.
To be personally politically partisan for a minute, I am blessed to live in a riding in mid-west Toronto that have progressive candidates competing against each other- this is about people, not parties. We knew that whoever won, we would be well served as a community that is heavily newcomer and first and second generation Canadians, and that is yearly increasing its racial diversity. We still have no idea which candidate will represent us in Ottawa as a recount has been called for. Whatever the outcome of this recount we know that our issues will be represented.
I have been asked over the past couple of weeks since the election what I’m hoping to see out of this new Parliament. There is much but the priorities are as follows:
First, OCASI is closely watching the court challenge to the exclusion of children including those born here in Canada from the Canada Child Benefit Program, arguably the best anti-poverty policy tool introduced in decades. These children are excluded solely based on the immigration status of their parents. The federal government in the last parliament acknowledged the important role many of these parents, who are undocumented or have precarious immigration status, played in the pandemic. It is morally and ethically (even if legal) wrong to exclude these families from a benefit that allows poorer families to pay for shelter and feed their children.
In a similar vein - Canada’s two step immigration system continues to breed these situations of exclusion - this is an opportunity for this new Parliament to implement a broad regularization program for those residents who are undocumented. Many of the people who will benefit from an open, fair and expedited process have been hailed as heroes during the pandemic. We welcomed some initial steps taken by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada when they created pathways for international students and migrant workers in agriculture and service jobs (including those who are undocumented) to regularize their status. We know that the target for the latter groups were not met because the conditions were so stringent. This defeats the purpose. We call on the federal government to work with civil society to develop a process that welcomes all who wish to stay in our country.
Let me acknowledge here the massive backlog in immigration files - from spousal sponsorship to work permits. Hundreds of thousands of individuals especially from the global south have been waiting years to be reunited with their families or to be allow to come to Canada for study or work. The system is fraught with problems - some would say it is broken - and fixing it must be the priority for the federal government. It doesn’t help that there are few consulate services in the global south countries especially in Africa and Asia. The pandemic has certainly worsened the situation, but it is not ok for some posts to be working at thirty percent capacity in some parts of the world almost two years into the pandemic. It is time for Canada to embrace technology to speed up processing, without compromising access or creating new systemic barriers. This is 2021!
Equity for women, including funding, was a priority in the last Parliament. Funding to women’s organizations over the last two years, especially to support anti-violence programming has made a measureable difference. I would be remiss however, not to flag that many immigrant and refugee serving and agencies mandated to work with racialized communities felt short-changed as their programming was de-prioritized. I recall a roundtable with a diverse group of racialized non-profit leaders that OCASI facilitated with the then Minister of Women and Gender Equality. At the end of a robust ninety-minute session, the Minister in her wrap up remarks thanked the participants and asked, “Where have you all been?” Our response: “right here Minister. Doing the hard slogging to ensure that the needs of Black and racialized women and gender diverse people are prioritized”.
A national action plan to end gender-based violence was being developed when the writ was dropped. We need to know that the government’s commitment to women, gender diverse people, and LGBTQ2+ communities will continue.
Housing is another issue that has been brought into sharp relief for the refugee serving sector as we welcome Afghan refugees fleeing the turmoil in their country of origin. The Liberal government had housing as a prominent part of their election platform. We had concerns that the emphasis was on home ownership (which is important) and less on the other end of the market - nonprofit, social housing that is adequate in size to accommodate diverse families, and is affordable and safe. We need a commitment that the national housing strategy will work with nonprofit organizations to build cooperative and other non-profit housing; will work with cities to use zoning bylaws to create a diversity of housing including safe and affordable multi-family units like rooming houses (it was unfortunate that Toronto City Council deferred until next year a vote on a new regulatory framework for rooming houses – choosing instead to prioritize single family dwellings); and will find ways to create housing for communities and families who are not part of the housing conversation because of systemic racism and the exclusion of people with precarious immigration status – including the migrant workers. We need the federal government to fund and work with provincial governments to encourage their own investments in housing. Housing is a human right. It is fundamental to the wellbeing of individuals and families.
Ending systemic racism against Indigenous peoples must be a priority. Fully implementing the 231 Calls to Justice from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry must be a priority. Canada just marked the first ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded its work in 2015. While some of the 94 Calls to Action are implemented (such as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and a promise to honour Treaties added to the oath of Canadian citizenship) others are only partially acted on and many remain unfulfilled.
I cannot end without addressing the issue of racism within the federal department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). A recent leaked report on IRCC employee focus groups confirms what many of us in the sector have known from experience for years. In 2011 the then Conservative government made significant cuts to our sector nationally. In Ontario millions of dollars were cut impacting agencies serving primarily African, Asian, Arab and Queer organizations. Women’s organizations serving these communities were also impacted.
Fast forward a decade and we have a class action suit against the federal government from Black employees some who work with IRCC. The leaked report documents the daily racism and micro-aggressions faced by Black, Indigenous and racialized employees within the Department. These documented experiences call into question the decisions made by those charged with granting visas for spousal sponsorship, student visas and work permits. How many of the refusals for applicants from the Global South was due to the racism of the decision-makers? How many qualified employees were passed over for promotion because of the colour of their skin? We need answers.
OCASI calls on the Prime Minister and the Minister of IRCC to respond to the report. The sector and Canadians as a whole need to know what the government and the Department are specifically doing to address these truths of anti-Black and other racisms. It is time that the ‘plus’ in the government’s gender plus analytical framework is applied to the policy and practices of IRCC and other federal Departments.