Toronto / August 2023

And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free…

Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen….

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine

Shine all over the world…

By the river of Babylon, where we sat down, and where we wept, as we remembered Zion…

This medley of songs was the playlist soothing my soul and enveloping me in community hope, memory, deep knowing and celebration. It was a weekend of space creation where I and others whose life experiences mirror mine, could lay our burdens down and join in the collective exhale.

It had been a week of frustration at endless meetings and discussion and media feasting on stories of a people displaced – without place in a city where they came for protection and refuge. Literally a hard landing, with many sleeping on concrete outside the place where they were sent to seek support.

Most have been relocated to two churches that stepped up over three weeks ago, opening their doors as an emergency response to a growing crisis. Other churches and agencies and community members from the African continent and her diaspora have been providing shelter and other necessities before the loud outcry from a broad coalition of groups, communities, progressive politicians and organizations in the City of Toronto brought national and international attention to the issue.

Coincidentally, senior members from the IOM- International Organization for Migration were here in Toronto for a conference. They are often involved in designating and referring refugees from various areas of the world to Canada. Over lunch we discussed the unfolding situation in downtown Toronto. Both East African men, they were shocked that refugees (they were aware that the majority of people were refugee claimants/asylum seekers) were on the streets without a place to lay their head at night. I explained our system and the robust supports in place through our refugee resettlement programs for government sponsored refugees (GARS). Also talked about the private sponsorship program and the supports provided by generous and caring Canadians and families of the sponsored individuals and families.

 I also shared that at times there was sponsorship breakdown for various reasons, or that GARs after a year of support and placement in private housing, may still require additional supports and without it may end up in our shelter systems as well.

I talked about the significant backlog in all our immigration streams and how this program fail is resulting in some people falling out of status as work permits expire, which often results in loss of employment which also leads to houselessness and incentivizes individuals to put in a refugee claim so that they’re able to remain in Canada.

There are many truths about Canada’s immigration and refugee determination program and we must speak to all of them – positive and negative.

We visited one of the churches that afternoon with one of the IOM visitors. It was heartening to see the community response. Volunteers organized donated goods, while others worked to make the tight space as comfortable as possible. It was eye-opening for our IOM colleague.  

Since that visit, a few days since the movement into the churches, community organizations have stepped up to provide services, OCASI and others continue to advocate with governments to step up with additional resources (the federal government provided $212M for homelessness across the country including $97M to Toronto; Ontario’s government and the City of Toronto anted up about $6M each) so that short and intermediate term shelter/housing can be found for the hundreds still in the churches. A situation that is unsustainable.

Having new Mayor Chow make the situation of African refugees the first order of business at her first Council meeting as Mayor gave some hope to Black/African communities that they were being seen. And the commitment to opening up 250 hotel/shelter spaces was welcomed although that is not nearly enough to meet the need.

Coordinating tables of sector organizations including health and housing and City divisions are getting on the way, and public education on the issue is continuing, including through media stories.

A clear message emerging from this situation is that this is not a refugee claimant/asylum seeker issue. It is an issue of the chronic shortage of deeply affordable (rent geared to income) housing in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and across the province.

Housing as a human right is an Immigrant and Refugee issue!

As we neared the date of August 1st, designated as Emancipation Day in Canada but long celebrated as Simcoe Day in Toronto, in honour of the then head of Upper Canada who is held up as the author of the first directive to end the importation of enslaved Africans (but didn’t end slavery as so eloquently stated in Rachel Decoste’s timely article from 2020, "Why I’m not celebrating Canada’s “Emancipation Day”); the discussions among Black leaders turned away from what was needed - political strategy and frustration with systems slow to respond - to an emotional stock-taking.

We shared how the sight of Black bodies strewn along a busy sidewalk with their material goods around them, suitcases still wrapped in the plastic as is the practice at many airports on the continent, seared our souls. Tears welled up as we acknowledged the differential responses to this group of people in need of Canada’s protection and support, and others whose landing was softened as it should always be.

For me and I’m sure others who are of the diaspora, descendants of an enslaved people, the memories of deprivation and disregard held deep in our genetic bones surfaced as we bore witness to the loss of dignity visited upon our African siblings. It seared our souls even though many of us know and see the over representation of Black people of all citizenship and immigration statuses in the shelter system.

So, this week of talk of emancipation, the gathering of Black people here in Toronto and across the province and country, coming together to acknowledge this historical moment was a balm to the soul. And a recommitment to collective resistance.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds.
‘Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it’s just a part of it,
We’ve got to fulfill the book.
Won’t you help me sing
These songs of freedom
‘Cause all I ever had,
Redemption songs
These songs of Freedom!
(Bob Marley)

In Solidarity