Taking the Pulse of the Immigrant and Refugee-Serving Sector


Since the millennium, Ontario's immigrant and refugee-serving sector has been witness to significant shifts in the kinds of programs and services required to meet the needs of immigrants and refugees. There has been a shift in demographics in terms of countries of origin beginning about a quarter century ago, but as important has been the later change in the education levels, employment experience and official languages facility of new arrivals.

This change in who we welcome to Canada (and Ontario) is directly linked to the country's changing emphasis in immigration policies. As we shift away from Family Reunification as the backbone and moral centre to a privileging of the economy as the driver of immigration policy, who gets in is now dependent on what assets they bring and how quickly they can economically integrate.

Leaving aside arguments for and against this shift in priorities in our immigration and refugee determination system, the community-based service sector has for the most part been as responsive as it possibly could be. In 2005, the Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement injected a significant amount of federal dollars into the Ontario sector. After years of responding to increasingly complex service needs within tight financial constraints, the sector had the opportunity and the space and time and dollars to develop, implement and evaluate new programs. At that time, the discussions about the changing face of immigration were front and centre, and many organizations with the Council and funders of the sector began to find new ways of doing business.

At that time (a decade ago) there was an expansionist vision. New partnerships with post-secondary institutions were developed (especially community colleges which came on stream with new social work courses targeted for work in the immigration and refugee services sector); programs that were piloted and kept going on a year-by-year basis were scaled up including settlement workers in the Schools and Libraries and other itinerant services; community-based research was receiving support and Citizenship and Immigration's only employment program, Job Search Workshops underwent significant revamping. Language programs (always the cornerstone of immigrant and refugee services) expanded to include higher levels of English and French, and new focus on language for the workplace was piloted and scaled. The federal and provincial governments invested in organizations and programming geared to employer engagement in acknowledgment that labour market and economic integration was the key to successful settlement.

This message was underscored by newcomers in the landmark study Making Ontario Home (2012) Commissioned by OCASI with support from the provincial Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. While that research showed that all services offered by the sector were used by all classes of newcomers (economic class, refugees, family reunification), there were two key messages that we heard. First, international students and upwards of 30% of non -service users were not aware of the availability of settlement and integration services (which clearly speaks to the need for resources for outreach and promotion); and that employment programming, particularly those that included mentorship and internship (i.e. Bridging programs) were the most effective and had the best measurable outcomes.

The time has come for us as a provincial and national sector to test some of these findings and the anecdotal information we have been receiving from the field. To that end a series of provincial and regional Summits are being planned to engage sector practitioners and leaders to review the various programs that we currently deliver, to acknowledge and discuss strategic responses to challenges; and to reach consensus on program priorities for the next five years. Framing this very straightforward discussion, Summit participants will be asked to locate their discussion within an intersectional framework, paying attention to the differential impact of services on particular individuals or groups and to develop responses to meet the specificities of the needs of these groups (i.e. Refugees, newcomers living with disabilities, LGBTQI+, Youth, Women and Seniors).

Scheduled for the end of this month (October 28-30), the OCASI Provincial Summit will convene over a hundred and fifty frontline practitioners and one hundred and eighty leaders from across the broader immigrant and refugee-serving sector. These three days of meetings will hear from presenters from the broader non-profit sector, from the private sector, academia and governments. We intend to create a space for debate, for harnessing the collective intelligence of the sector, knowing that any new initiative developed to facilitate the successful integration of immigrants and refugees must be informed by evidence including the lived experiences of those on the ground who on a daily basis are witness to the needs of the individuals who walk through the doors of their agencies, and of the communities where they are located.

Every effort has been made to ensure that the sector in all its diversity has representation at the Summit. There will be a parallel consultation process for Francophone participants for part of the gathering in recognition of the unique service needs of a newly-arrived minority community, settling within an established minority community.

A report of the proceedings and findings (recommendations) of the Summit will be available for public consumption at the beginning of 2015.