Resetting The Municipal Agenda


Resetting The Municipal Agenda

Increasingly those of us working in the immigrant and refugee serving sector have recognized the importance of municipalities in immigration, immigrant and refugee settlement, and inclusion.  It took the provinces and the federal government a bit more time to acknowledge this but it came together for us in Ontario in 2005 with the signing of the Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement (COIA, which expired in 2010) which for the first time formally recognized the important role municipalities have to play in our political project of immigration integration. Having formal agreements among the three levels of government created the framework for the NGO sector to engage municipalities on settlement and inclusion policies and programs.  And as important, on ensuring that the planning work of the various municipal departments and processes take into account the growing ethno-racial and Faith pluralism, which is driven in large parts by immigration. In the last decade municipalities - cities, towns and regions, have had to pay attention to national policies (and to a lesser degree provincial policies) on immigration and integration and inclusion programs.

It has been a little over a month since we held municipal elections here in Ontario. The dust has settled. New Councils have been sworn in and mayors have outlined their priorities. Appointments have been made and municipal bureaucracies are gearing up for the next four year cycle of new (in some cases) leadership. This is the optimal time for civil society to engage with the decision makers. To put on the agendas, their own priorities that would best further the interests and meet the needs of their constituent communities. For immigrant and refugee advocates and the service sector that supports the successful settlement and integration of newcomer communities in Ontario (and I would suggest across the country) there are three key areas that we must focus on over the next four years.

First, extending the municipal franchise (municipal vote) to non-citizens.  In 2013, after years of advocacy, public education, political and media debates and the concerted effort and leadership of various civil society organizations and political champions, the City of Toronto became the first municipality in Canada to vote to extend the municipal vote to permanent residents residing in the City (there is an ongoing debate about strategy in having a broader policy that speaks to extending the vote to all non-citizens). The City has written to the province asking for amendments to the City of Toronto Act and the Municipal Act to effect this change. This win in Ontario and Canada's largest City galvanized the movement, and with the continuing leadership of Desmond Cole - a dynamic advocate who led “I Vote Toronto” during the mid-2000s, has taken up the leadership of this renewed campaign. In collaboration with OCASI and other civil society organizations (and desperately needing resources to support the work) the campaign has seen the issue placed on the agendas of various municipalities from North Bay to Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario, and Halifax in the Atlantic Region. It is heartening to report that earlier this month, Halifax City Council voted as well in a 15-1 split, to extend the municipal franchise to immigrants.

We have the opportunity to get this done in Ontario in time for the 2018 municipal elections. The provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs has been given the mandate of electoral reform with a particular focus of studying ranked ballots. While it is disappointing that it did not include the extension of the vote to permanent residents (as requested by Toronto) it is an opportunity to broaden the mandate to include this. Advocates have pointed out that it is a fairly simple change - to remove the term ‘citizens' and replace with ‘residents' where applicable which will allow municipalities the option of extending the vote to non-citizens or not as they choose. (This change will also allow non-citizens to stand for elections. The province and/or municipalities can also impose conditions for qualifying for the vote. All details that can be worked out). What we need is political will from the Premier and her cabinet to make this critically important change which will facilitate immigrant and refugee social and political integration.

Second on our agenda, is the creation of sanctuary cities or at the least, ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policies. The City of Hamilton adopted this motion earlier this year following a similar decision by the City of Toronto in 2013. We know that immigrant and refugee advocates and organizations in Kitchener-Waterloo also have this on their priority agenda, and there is a growing discussion on the need for these policies around the country.

There's a sense of urgency to this priority. Come April 2015, the federal regulations governing low-skilled temporary foreign workers (four years in/four years out) come into play. The first cohort of workers in this ‘pilot' project will be expected to leave Canada after having lived and worked here for the past four years. Those of us on the ground know that there will be a significant number of workers who will choose to stay and work in the informal economy, rather than return to countries of origins without prospects for work. We know that people live, and work, and use services locally. There are serious implications here for municipalities, and they must decide how they are going to respond.

There's very little time. Councils across the province (and country) must be educated on this issue, and proposals placed in front of them to address how they will manage. There's a democratic consensus in Canada that we support those who are most vulnerable amongst us -that services should be based on need, and that other considerations like immigration status should not be used to deny needed supports or interventions. We understand that to have a socially and economically inclusive and cohesive society, we cannot create underclasses of people with no access to the collective good. As advocates we have much work to do on this file. We need to educate our communities and neighbours, our elected officials and others, about the need for policies that encourage access and equity.

The April 2015 deadline also provides unexpected opportunities. It is creating the perfect storm where unusual bedfellows like immigrant and refugee advocates, labour, employers' organizations like the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB), greenhouse growers and workers' activists share an interest in finding pathways to permanent residence for these workers. It is time to reopen the discussion of regularizing status (Amnesty by another name) for those in Canada without full status. In the case of the low-skilled workers who are here with work permits, this is the time for the federal government to work with the various stakeholders to develop regulations that will allow workers who want to remain in Canada to transition from temporary visas to permanent status, before they become out of status in mid- 2015.

Organizations like the CFIB and greenhouse growers have made the economic and labour market arguments for this move. They have invested four years in training these workers, and say there's stability in their workplaces and a multiplying effect for spin-off industries and for the local economies where these workers live and work. Now is the time for municipalities to speak up about the potential benefit to their economies by allowing workers to stay permanently. Civil society advocates and workers activists have long argued for an immigration program that is about permanence - about nation building. It is an opportunity for us to reverse the trend towards a guest worker program complementing an immigration program that is more labour market recruiter than nation builder.

Last on our priority list, is the adoption of the “Integrated Cities Charter” (former Eurocities charter). The City of Toronto is once again leading in this area. Borrowing the framework from the European Union, the Integrated City Charter outlines a City's commitments to immigrant and refugee social, political and economic inclusion in four areas: as policy-makers; service providers; employers and buyers of services and goods. All areas provide opportunities for inclusion, from employment equity to social procurement policies.

The adoption of this charter by municipalities in Ontario will truly embed the interests of newcomers in the official plans – from urban planning to workforce development. It will situate Ontario and its municipalities as leaders in Canada on immigration and immigrant settlement, integration and inclusion, and will signal to the world that Ontario and its municipalities are serious about immigrant recruitment and retention. The adoption of the charter signals to the world that immigrants and refugees are welcome for the contributions they can make in all spheres of municipal life, and not only as low-waged cogs for labour market needs.

This is a heavy lifting agenda for municipalities and their civil society organizations. But it is an agenda that is doable. The way forward is clear. For advocates and activists our work is to educate, to propose, and to build coalitions across political and ideological lines. Let's get moving

In Solidarity,