Borders and Budgets


April 2023 / Toronto

The last week of March was a perfect storm. A gathering or cascade of negative news for our most marginalized communities and individuals made vulnerable by systems and political priorities that broaden and deepen the chasm between those who own and control points of access and those who are seen as expendable.

As the campaign for a broad and fair immigration regularization program promised by the federal government through a directive in the current Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship mandate letter, built momentum across the country, the news was leaked by US and Canadian media that our governments had signed an agreement extending the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) across the whole USA-Canada border. For all intents and purposes, those in need of protection were effectively locked out of the country where they believe they will get a fair hearing. There are only a few exceptions in the STCA for those wanting to come to Canada to seek protection and refuge. Two of the four exceptions are having a family member in Canada, and being an unaccompanied minor.

Reportedly this agreement was signed some time ago and kept under wraps. This is a betrayal of the relationship and social contract between the federal government and civil society organizations in the immigration ecosystem.

Our government rationalized this draconian move by echoing their mantra of wanting a “safe and orderly border”. To that I say: So do those in pursuit of safety and asylum. So do activists and advocates who support refugees and claimants. Shutting down the border is not the way to go about this.

The way to achieve a’ safe and orderly’ border is to rescind the STCA. To allow those seeking to make a new home in Canada, to show up at our official land border posts and put in a claim there. We know that in spite of the need for increased capacity, Canada has a robust and publicly trusted refugee determination system.  We also know that almost two-thirds of refugee claims are accepted regardless of method of arrival in the country.

People act out of desperation. Shutting down the border, will not stop the movement of people. It drives the movement underground. It creates a market for unscrupulous players. It makes those who are seeking protection more vulnerable. We drive them to take dangerous risks. As professor and refugee advocate Audrey Macklin, recently wrote, this extended STCA is a job creation program for people smugglers.

Unfortunately, these dire warnings have come to be truth. Less than two weeks after the announcement, police on Akwesasne First Nations Reserve reported the bodies of several people including children were found. As of this writing authorities are reporting that there may have been eight people from two different families. They believe they were crossing from Canada into the USA. It has been reported, that one of the families were scheduled for deportation from Canada, hence their attempt to cross into the US. The direction in which they were travelling does not matter. The policy of closed borders, kills. For my religious colleagues, this for me is what ‘sin’ is- the forsaking of those who are most in need of our collective good. The public good.

And we know that the USA is not a ‘safe’ country for many in need of protection, including women fleeing intimate partner or state violence, Trans people, Muslims and other religious minorities who have been deemed unwanted by the former US administration through law. Little has changed in US immigration law or procedures with the change in government more than two years ago.

While we’re coming to terms with this new border reality and its potential deadly impact, we are still awaiting news on the government’s plan for a regularization program. This is urgent.

The urgency around regularizing the status of migrant workers, undocumented residents, international students and others with precarious status, has heightened with the release of the Ontario government’s budget for 2023-2024. In a mean spirited move, a long overdue health policy instituted during the height of COVID pandemic, which allowed all Ontario residents to access healthcare including hospital care, regardless of immigration status or whether or not one has a health card was rescinded.

In addition to the undocumented who do not have access to OHIP in usual circumstances, access to identity and other government documents is severely curtailed for residents living in deep poverty especially those who are houseless or are precariously housed. The elimination of the three month wait for OHIP for new immigrants were also lifted during this period. Now its back to status quo and new immigrants must wait three months before accessing public healthcare.

The immigrant and refugee services sector including healthcare practitioners in the community-based health centres and some health institutions, have long advocated and lobbied for ‘healthcare for all’. We were cautiously optimistic that the government would see the longer term benefit of having all residents in the province have access to healthcare. Instead they ended a policy that cost less than a round up in the budget of a small ministry. This is wrong on all levels- morally, socially, economically and politically.

Doubling down on this dismissal of the needs of our communities, outside of the news that the minimum wage is set to increase in the Fall of this year there has been no increase to the monthly payments for those who rely on social assistance. The inflationary increases to our provincial minimum wage is embedded in legislation thanks to the excellent policy advocacy of our activist comrades including with leadership from organizations like Toronto’s Workers’ Action Centre.

While our sector, the immigrant and refugee serving sector, welcomed the news that employers who exploit migrant workers will receive a larger fine, we know that the regime of inspections falls short. A complaints driven system is a non-starter. What is required are proactive and robust inspections and follow through to ensure employers are respecting the rights –human and labour- of workers.

In addition to extended funding for employment bridge training programs for internationally educated professionals, there was nothing in the provincial budget for the im/migrant and refugee serving sector. As part of the non-profit sector, our subsector is dominated by immigrant women, a significant number who are racialized. In spite of the efforts of agencies’ leadership and umbrella organizations like OCASI, ONN and Imagine Canada (broader non-profit reps) policy and funding advocacy, investment in our agencies by all levels of government remains woefully inadequate.

Compensation across the board, from frontline to executive leadership is non-competitive and we continue to bear witness to the brain drain from our agencies and organizations to government, the broader public sector and the private sector. This is not sustainable.  Something has to give!

The federal budget as well was silent on funding for immigrant services. We know however, that for Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) funding for services is tied to the number of permanent residents brought in each year.

Once contract negotiations resume that is. We have heard from a large number of OCASI members in many regions across the province that they are still in mid negotiations, the new fiscal year has started and there is no contract. While we understand the capacity challenges facing the Department, government must understand that agencies are employers with legal responsibilities for employees. Many workers are on contract based on funding, so this type of uncertainty causes great stress for workers and organizational leaders. Not knowing whether you’ll have a paycheque next month is a crisis point for our workforce, which is made up of primarily racialized immigrant women.

We were also pleased to see the step forward on dental healthcare, the HST (though a one-off) rebate and the extension of funding for the women’s and GBV sectors.

But here too, compensation budget lines are inadequate. Agencies have requested five percent or more for staffing salaries in a collective approach to their 2023-2024 contract negotiations. The results have been mixed across the board, once again showing an unexplained inconsistency in the responses from the funders. If the Immigrant and Refugee Serving Sector in Ontario and Canada are to provide quality services to the significant number of new immigrants the country and province hope to attract and retain, we must be able to hire and retain the most qualified people to provide the services. This means competitive compensation.

In our heavily women dominated sector, compensation is a feminist issue. It is a pay equity issue. We’re calling on the federal feminist government to listen and ensure that women in our sector aren’t put in a position where they have to decide between paying their bills or feeding their families and themselves.

Internationally, the news is disheartening, as we watch countries in Africa compete with each other for the most regressive and dangerous legislation against the human rights of LGBTI individuals and their organizations. From Uganda to Ghana, the evangelical conservative movement, primarily from the USA but also some Canadian groups are complicit in this hate-fest.

In spite of these dire news, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because I’m witnessing a broad cross-sectoral response to these political decisions. I’ve watched and walked with activists from all sectors.  I’ve read and amplified the messages of individuals and their supporters impacted by these policies. And I’ve signed on to petitions and demands for governments to live up to their promises and to the democratic principle of system transformation to the benefit of all.

This political moment is reminding me that it takes all voices singing from the same songbook to bring about transformation. This is a time for all of us to push back against the status quo. To look around and see what needs doing and do what we can from wherever we are socially and politically located.

There is much work to be done. Be ready for the pushback. Join a protest near you!

In Solidarity!