A couple of weeks ago, OCASI hosted a meeting of colleagues from across the country. The one thing they all had in common is a strong belief that the sector is changing and as sector leaders they needed to be ahead of the curve, to influence, since we can't control the changes that are taking place. It was quite a collection of folks. From almost every province, they primarily came from immigrant and refugee serving agencies but also from umbrella organizations like OCASI and from universities.
The impetus for this meeting was a series of discussions that was started by OCASI's current president and an academic colleague from Pathways to Prosperity (P2P), formerly the WCI (Welcoming Communities Initiative). Their conversation started about the significant shifts in the social and political environment, namely an economic change in the manufacturing sector in Ontario towards the natural resource economy of western Canada, immigrants' destination shift to the west to follow those jobs, and their destination shifts even within Ontario away from major cities like Toronto to outer suburban city regions like Peel/Halton and York regions.
At the same time the relationship between the federal government and the provinces on the immigration file has changed significantly. In the mid-nineties, the federal government was throwing funds at provinces to take over the administration of immigrant settlement and integration programs. Fifteen years later the federal government is back in the game in a significant and different way, going as far as to “repatriate” the BC and Manitoba immigration agreements. We should have anticipated this in Ontario since the federal government, on negotiating and signing the Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement (COIA- 2005), refused to devolve administration of the dollars to the province.
These series of discussions between P2P and OCASI and the various observations about what was happening in and to the sector led to the question “how will agencies in the sector need to change to respond to the changing landscape?” And out of this question a partnership between OCASI and P2P was developed and the project, "The Agency of the Future", was born.
A P2P co-principal researcher had done work for CISSA-ACSEI (an organization comprised of settlement and integration umbrella organizations from western Canada and the Atlantic) that looked at the opportunities for innovation in the sector titled Reconfiguring Settlement and Integration: A Service Provider Strategy for Innovation and Results and another study on promising practices in the immigrant and refugee serving sector. The findings from these studies informed some of the early thinking on what a framework for discussion should comprise as we moved this project forward.
Our next step was to identify folks who we knew could make a significant contribution to the conversation. In our sector there's no shortage of brilliant minds interested in this conversation so our choices had to be strategic with an eye to the politics of this discussion as well as the very practical consideration of keeping the initial conversation circle manageable. We had no set criteria, but did agree on one thing: we were not looking for a representative group.
We agreed on the following as an introduction to the project and the invitation to the conversation:
The Agency of the Future project is designed to help the sector chart a more pro-active and strategic course. The project's premise is that agencies and umbrella associations need to open up new territory in place of defending existing turf. This will entail re-conceptualizing the opportunity landscape facing the sector and bolstering its capacity to identify and seize opportunities. The aim is to win new clients and fend off competitors. This will require a focus on excellence and innovation in areas where the sector enjoys a strategic advantage. The way forward implicates both individual agencies and umbrella associations. It also implicates government in that there is a shared interest by the sector and government in bolstering the capacity of settlement agencies in those areas where they enjoy a comparative advantage over other organizations.
All who were invited expressed an interest in having the conversation. Some could not make the meeting on the date set. Others who planned to attend were stopped by Mother Nature as our friends and colleagues in Calgary were flooded out.
The group that gathered in Toronto at the OCASI office was dynamic and interesting and passionate about the sector and the work that they do to facilitate the successful integration of immigrants and refugees. They were a mix bag of social justice advocates, social enterprise disciples, and everything in between. There was much debate and disagreement and laughter. The energy in the room over those six hours of discussions told us as hosts that the time for this discussion is now; that there is a growing consensus that things are changing and it is our place to lead and influence that change.
There are many in our membership, and in the sector in general, who disagree with the thrust of the debate of The Agency of the Future. Who argue (and legitimately so) that an emphasis on finding alternative ways of doing business including how we pay for the work that we do, is allowing governments to abdicate their responsibilities for resourcing the collective and public good including immigrant and refugee settlement and integration.
Whichever side of this discussion you're on, we all know that change is on the way; that relationships between non-profit organizations, government and other stakeholders are changing; and that there are new business models being introduced into our sphere of work whether we like it or agree with it. OCASI believes that effective leadership is to be out front of the change; to provide spaces where hard conversations can be had about the changing sector and the implications for agencies. Where together with our partners at P2P we can articulate a vision of the possibilities and opportunities that this shifting landscape will bring to the Ontario and Canadian Immigrant and Refugee serving sector.