Canada's immigrant and refugee-serving sector is heading to Ottawa next week (November 13-15) for the first National Settlement and Integration conference in a decade. The last national gathering was held in Calgary in 2003. What a difference a decade has made, yet how things have stayed the same.
Invited by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), four hundred delegates (300 from the service sector and 100 from government, universities and colleges, etc.) will spend three days in discussion about Canada's immigration program and its vision of immigrant settlement and integration. Titled Vision 2020, the conference intends to look at the why and how of immigration settlement. We can anticipate conversations and debate on what it is the sector is doing. What is working? What is not working? What type and where should we be delivering services? To whom should we be delivering services? And who should be the delivery agents?
There has been much discussion in the OCASI membership over the years about the responsibility of the various levels of government to ensure successful integration, and the changing language of inclusion of immigrants and refugees - socially, economically, culturally and politically. The Council was adamant that all levels of government had a role to play as the Ontario-Canada Immigration Agreement was being negotiated in the early 2000s, and we saw for the first time the formal inclusion of municipalities in such an agreement. This formal recognition (tri-partite agreements) resulted in programs and funding for municipal initiatives brokered by the province. The conversation about extending the responsibility for the successful inclusion of immigrants beyond the federal government must continue…The conference is an opportunity to do so.
It is also time for us to reopen the discussion on eligibility- who should we be able to serve with federal funds? Ontario's funding through the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration (MCI), whether for English as a second language or general settlement programming, has been available for residents based on need as opposed to immigration status. This is the right approach. We have a window of opportunity at the gathering in Ottawa to push the envelope on broadening CIC's eligibility criteria. Strategically, it is an easier sell for us to introduce the notion of extending services to some categories of temporary migrant workers and international students. We know that a certain percentage will access in Canada pathways to permanent residency through the Provincial Nominee Programs (PNP) or the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) program. It makes sense then for them to be able to access the existing service infrastructure to support their social and economic settlement and later cultural and political inclusion. This should be palatable for policy-makers and their political bosses.
A more difficult sell, but a longstanding priority for us as a sector here in Ontario and across the country, is the extension of services to refugee claimants and migrant workers (including seasonal workers). I can hear the naysayers now saying that this is a distraction that will undermine our move to extend services to TFWs and students. And given the political climate they have a point. But while we may not win in the short-term, we must keep it on the agenda. I'm particularly concerned about the lack of access to services for women who are fleeing violence –State or intimate partner violence and of Gays or Lesbians fleeing persecution and discrimination due to sexual orientation or Trans folk fleeing extreme violence and exclusion because of gender identity or expression. As a country we have set the bar high in recognizing violence against women and LGBT individuals as legitimate grounds for our protection. We must include access to necessary services as part of this protection as soon as they arrive.
When and where services should be made available is another discussion that we need to weigh in on. For almost half a decade pre-arrival services have been provided in particular countries for those chosen to come to Canada as permanent residents. These services have been developed as pilots and have been delivered by a very small number of agencies here in Canada. The program has been evaluated and every indication is that the federal government intends to extend this program. In fact, there has been musing by policy makers that we may need to rebalance the funding envelope between overseas and inland service delivery. The Council and its members must weigh in on this discussion.
The provision of settlement information and some services overseas makes absolute sense. Individuals having their credentials assessed, beginning language programs if necessary, knowing what educational upgrading will be required and having a pre-arrival settlement plan all lead to better short-term settlement outcomes. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that services in Canada both in the short and longer term continues to be important to successful integration and eventual inclusion. To that end, we must frame the discussion as a continuum of needs and services.
Questions we must engage are who or what agencies are best situated to deliver services overseas? How do we support existing service agencies to expand capacity to meet overseas service needs? What new technology does the sector need to maximise its service delivery expertise and who should pay for it? What are the opportunities for partnerships among service agencies and with other players like colleges, universities and employers? There are great opportunities here and the sector must prepare itself to seize them and lead the way forward in this expanding frontier of service delivery.
Other big ideas and discussion points include how we should be funded as a sector. Are Contribution Agreements the best way to fund human services including immigrant and refugee settlement? What are the implications for the sector if the federal government moves forward with the policy of social financing? How will that change our work? Where are the points of intervention for us in this critical funding policy discussion?
We have chosen a dynamic group of leaders to represent the province at this once in a decade conference. We look forward to an engaging three days and know the voice of Ontario's immigrant and refugee serving sector will bring value and new ways of thinking to the national dialogue on these and other pressing issues. For those not attending, the Council is in the process of offering information for webinar-like streaming of key sessions (including all plenaries). I encourage you to take this opportunity to participate virtually. Change is on the way for our sector. Let us be the vanguard of this change.