March 2021 / Toronto

It is the beginning of Women’s month. Although the first week in Toronto - Treaty 13 Territory where I reside and where OCASI’s office is located it is Black Mental Health Week. The Week was inaugurated in 2020 by the City of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit in partnership with Community Health Centres like TAIBU, mandated to serve the health needs of Black Torontonians and the Black Health Alliance, a multidisciplinary network. Black Women’s mental health is a feminist issue. Black, Indigenous and racialized women’s history with the medical establishment is women’s history - often ignored or erased but still women’s history/herstory.

As I write about erasure I can’t help but land on the contemporary erasure that is happening as we speak. The experiences of undocumented women and their families during this health pandemic and the devastating economic impact it is having on women’s lives. We’ve heard the stories of the significant loss of jobs in women dominated sectors. The untenable challenges women will face if and when the labour market opens up - but there is dearth of affordable childcare. We’ve even more recently seen passing spotlights on women and migrant workers in general, here on work permits, exploited, under-housed, tied to an employer in spite of recent tweaks to the policies governing their lives (availability of open work permits within a specific sector if the migrant worker can prove abuse).

But there are many who live in the shadows with no documentation, working in private homes long-term care nursing homes, cleaning our tower offices in the dead of night, washing dishes in our restaurants, working in our meatpacking plants and other manufacturing shops, with no recourse when agents or employers withhold their wages or terminate their employment at will. These are the people - racialized, often non-English/French speaking, often resident here in Ontario (and elsewhere across Canada) who when they are sick (and many are becoming infected with COVID) cannot take time off because of the absence of paid sick days and knowing that they cannot afford to lose their jobs - this one lifeline they have to care for themselves and their families.

We’ve advocated along with other activists like OCASI member agency, Workers Action Centre and the broad alliance they’ve built, calling on the provincial government to implement paid sick leave. The calls have been falling on un-listening ears as we watched the whole provincial Conservative caucus vote down an NDP (official opposition) Bill calling for the implementation of sick days as one important policy tool in the fighting the health pandemic toolbox. This is a shame.

There has been some movement in having COVID-19 related funds allocated to incentivize undocumented workers who have tested positive to stay home. The uptake has been very slow. Not because there is no need but because workers know that after the one-month stipend runs out and they’ve been able to stave off the worst of the disease, they will not have a job to return to. Others are fearful of coming forward not convinced that their information would not be shared with CBSA and they would face imminent deportation. Canada has ramped up deportations during the pandemic- another hidden act by our federal government.

In spite of the various Access Without Fear policies adopted by several municipalities across Ontario supports are not reaching those who are in great need. Training has been abysmal so those responsible for service access do not know about the policy or do not understand who are undocumented. Often refugee claimants, work permit holders are counted here. They are not undocumented.

We can’t really track how many individuals, families or households we are speaking of, because many of these policies have ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approaches meaning no stats are collected. (I’ve long advocated for an ‘ask, but don’t tell’ approach which will allow us to quantify to some extent the scope of Ontario’s and Canada’s undocumented population). 

The current situation and what we are hearing anecdotally from undocumented residents is that there has been an increase in policing of their movements - everything from ‘special constables’ on public transit who have the power to stop and ID transit users to these similarly designated security forces patrolling our public housing communities. Heading out to the foodbank to feed one’s family or even to work has become a dangerous undertaking for the undocumented. This must end. Access without Fear should mean exactly that, including the police who after all are employees of municipal, provincial or federal governments. It is time to rein in their unfettered powers and to put up a thick firewall between local police and CBSA.

We must continue to advocate for mandatory sick days, preferably paid for by employers but with government support during the short term as we battle this health pandemic.

Along with the loud and persistent calls from organizations and networks like the Migrant Rights Network, Justicia For Migrant Workers (J4MW), Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change (COP – COC) and others lending their influence, for a broad regularization program, the responses from our federal government with the implementation of varying pathways and policy tweaks (the latest being inland sponsorship of out of status partners) is not enough.

The demand for a transparent, fair, all-inclusive regulatory program must continue. And must be heeded by a government that brands itself as progressive and feminist. The body and soul destroying experiences of many undocumented gender diverse people, women and girls are feminist concerns. And should be a rallying cry for us all.

In solidarity