It seems that every week there’s a good news policy story as we witness the federal government respond to years of advocacy from a broad network of groups, organizations and individuals concerned with creating an equitable society and committed to public policy that advances the wellbeing of those who are most vulnerable among us.
At the provincial level we saw the early (for Ontario) budget release that while disappointing on some fronts (increase in drug costs for most seniors, no real change for social assistance recipients, silence on the social housing file, etc.) introduced the unexpected but much welcome grants program which will significantly decrease tuition fees for most lower income students. While there was no increase to the core immigrant settlement program, we saw a small addition to the refugee resettlement pot, bringing the total to $12.5M over two years, ($2M earmarked for overseas support for Syrian refugees) putting Ontario in the lead of all provincial responses to this national initiative.
Federally, it seems as if OCASI’s policy priorities as it has to do with immigration and refugee determination is the blueprint from which this new government is working. We welcomed the announced changes to family reunification that saw the annual cap for grandparents increased from five thousand to ten thousand per year. Still not enough as the quota is filled within a couple of weeks, but a good step in the right direction.
The conditions attached to spousal sponsorship that differentially impacted women, and particularly women from the Global South (South Asia, China, Latin America, etc.) have been eliminated. Bill C6 has been introduced to overturn some of the more egregious policies changes that were made to the Citizenship Act by the previous government. The new Bill will rescind the Minister’s ability to strip dual citizens of their citizenship (the Courts will continue to have the ability to do so in very specific cases as they’ve always had); narrow the age range expected to write the citizenship test; count some of the time that international students and others (like live-in Caregivers) have spent in Canada towards their residency requirement for citizenship, among other changes. We have even heard the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship muse publicly that regularization of status (amnesty) may even be on the table. This is a welcome change in tone and policy direction. One that is welcomed by advocates and activists.
There are other policy changes that are urgently required, especially on the refugee determination program front. We need to pay attention to the increasing number of men, women and children who are incarcerated for immigration purposes. We must especially speak out against the practice of years of detention of primarily racialized men due to identity document issues or the refusal to sign ‘voluntary’ return documents especially when one is resisting because of fear of torture or death if returned to the country of origin. We need to end the Designated Country of Origin (DCO) regime that unfairly truncates the process for asylum seekers from these countries. The mechanism of cessation, where refugee status and even permanent residency can be removed if there’s a change in country condition or a successful claimant returns to the country for a visit must be removed.
On family reunification we need to change policy on the income sponsors must have to be able to sponsor parents and grandparents. We were disappointed that at the recent Metropolis conference when asked if he would change this policy, the IRCC Minister said no. Not everything can be changed. We have work to be done on this front.
There is a growing consensus in civil society that the advocacy chill is warming. That NGOs are beginning to believe that not only can they speak out on public policy without negative repercussions – funding cuts, threats to charitable status, etcetera, but that they are being heard. There is a clear sense that this government is open to proposals from folks doing the work on the ground – that they see the relationship between government and civil society as important and vital for our democracy.
On the international level, Canada was up for review of its compliance on the Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) by the United Nations. The Council was represented by its Senior Policy and Communications Coordinator, Amy Casipullai, as a member of the Colour of Poverty, Colour of Change (COPC) delegation, which also included the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. The African Canadian Legal Clinic, also a member of COPC was present in its own right as an NGO.
Presenting a report that discussed the growing racialization of poverty in Canada especially among immigrant and refugee populations and calling for the strengthening of federal employment equity policies, improving working conditions for migrant workers, the collection and reporting out of disaggregated data across all government ministries, the issue of family reunification restrictions and delays and other remedies, the Council joined its voice to others calling for equity in housing, children services (issues of overrepresentation of African Canadian and Indigenous children in CAS), health and education.
The Council and its partners in the Coalition were pleased to see the official UN report released on March 7, 2016 highlighting many of the concerns raised, and called on Canada to address the outstanding issues. Our work now is to hold the federal government and subnational governments (Provinces, Territories and Municipalities) to account.
All of the good news on the policy front, and the successes that the sector and society as a whole has had in our movement and reception of over twenty-five thousand Syrian refugees is being tempered by the news that once again Ontario’s immigrant and refugee-serving sector will experience cuts to services funding. According to the federal bureaucracy, landing numbers in Ontario averaged over a three year period continue to decrease (we assume) which resulted in a $17M cut for fiscal year 2016-17. As part of the special fund established to support the resettlement efforts for Syrian refugees, $15M was added to the budget of the region to be spent specifically on that community.
This still left the region $2M short at a time when most organizations especially those in reception cities (and we have 6 traditional areas of reception with two temporary additions as of this month) are seeing significant increases in service demands and new areas of service delivery as they provide information and technical support to private sponsors. In non- reception municipalities, agencies are seeing an increase in service demand from privately sponsored refugees. All of this is good, except that at a time when funding should be increasing, agencies are facing in some cases cuts of more than 5% across service lines. This is not sustainable and unfair. And, as the provincial Council, we are hoping that the Minister and senior bureaucrats will intervene to find some additional resources to alleviate the financial pressures many of our member agencies across the province are experiencing.