It is a cliché that the only constant is change. But all clichés have their truths. We are living in a season of change. We have witnessed exponential changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection program. We are engaged in discussion (and debates) on changing how public services are delivered and funded. We are questioning and looking to change the way relationships of influence are established and utilized, and whose interests become paramount or are sidelined and ignored.
I have spent the past two weeks at Conventions or Summits of the non-profit or non-governmental organizations (NGO) sector (the OCASI Summit) and the for profit sector (the Ontario Economic Summit that is put on annually the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC). The two had similarities of course including the not so hidden policy agendas of the two convening bodies - OCASI and OCC - and the sincere desire to inform and inspire their membership to work to their potential. In both, government agendas were prominent but balanced with the privileging of the priorities of the sector stakeholders.
A welcome change is that the issues of immigration and role of immigrants and refugees in building an inclusive and prosperous province and country was very much on the agenda in the various discussions. While expected at the OCASI gathering, its prominence at an economic summit of Ontario's Corporate, Labour and political leaders speak to the success of initiatives like TRIEC and its counterparts across the province and country; and the many immigrant-serving employment agencies that have made employer engagement a central part of the work that they do. Of course, the economic imperative of profit gained from low wages of temporary low skilled service workers also drives this agenda, but the effective work of the community-based sector in putting immigrant employment on the political and economic agendas provincially and federally should not be given short shrift.
Some things do not change - or change very slowly, namely who gets to speak as expert. Unfortunately both the OCC and OCASI events (yes, I get to be critical of my own organization and myself as a key member of the leadership team) had panels that were primarily male and white. There are no excuses. Yes, leadership in Corporate Ontario is dominated by older white men (so much so that the premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne has announced a proactive campaign to ensure some degree of gender parity in the corporate boardrooms of the province (employment equity for women in corporate Ontario?) and recent studies have shown that while women leadership is increasing in the non-profit/NGO sector it remains very white, even in large urban centres like Toronto. There are no excuses. Not in 2014.
This apparent dearth of diversity in leadership does not mean that there are not diverse individuals who are subject matter experts. Our challenge as organizers is to go out and find them. To stop looking in the usual places, to challenge ourselves to look at new perspectives, at politics and policy done differently from what we are comfortable with or used to. We must interrogate our understanding of expert. What makes one an expert? Who confers that title?
In spite of the shared discussion thread of immigration and socio-economic inclusion at both events, a significant difference in the two conferences - and the difference is glaring in comparison - was the level of political influence or put another way, the difference in political importance given to the two events by politicians and senior political staff. The OCC event was dominated by provincial Cabinet Ministers (the kind of access the vast majority of the non-profit sector can only dream of) with both the Ontario and Quebec Premiers addressing the audience. (To be fair and accurate, Deputy Premier Deb Matthews also spoke at the conference of the Ontario Non-profit Network gathering earlier this Fall while Premier Wynne spoke at the same gathering in 2013).
Compare this to the OCASI gathering, where in spite of early invitations to the Ministers responsible for immigration at both the provincial and federal level, neither appeared. The Provincial Minister expressed his regrets in person (he was out of the country on the Trade mission to China) and the Council is still waiting for a formal response from the federal Minister's office. Busy schedules, competing interests and events, certainly play a role here, but there's a nagging sense borne out by experience that the sector concerned with those who are marginalized, with a policy focus on social and economic equity is given less credence than those seen to be of and for the mainstream of our society. This must change.
Both conferences were successes from a participant perspective. I know that OCASI gathered a wealth of information from sector practitioners and leaders. We heard time and again how important, powerful and empowering spaces like the OCASI Provincial Summit are for those working with and concerned about the issues of immigrant and refugee settlement, integration and inclusion. We know that participants appreciated the presence of senior policy-makers from government and other stakeholder sectors. And that they went away for the most part, with at least one new insight.
Probably more important was the collective sense of shared purpose. A gathering of the troops if you will, preparing itself to capitalize on opportunities as they arise. In the Council's 2014 Annual Report, I wrote that there was a sense of optimism in the sector. That feeling was palpable over the three days of the Summit. It is this sense of optimism that will carry our sector to the next level – in programming, in policy changes that are progressive, and in forging new relationships with government, business and other civil society organizations.
Premier Couillard (Quebec) reminded the audience at the Economic Summit that central Canada (ON and QC) is the bloc of influence in the Federation. I echoed that reminder to the Ontario Immigrant and Refugee serving sector at the Summit. Every new idea in immigrant settlement programming for the last decade that has been scaled up across the country has come from Ontario. We must reclaim our space as the bloc of influence and leadership in the national settlement and integration sector.