The Federal Budget 2016 was tabled yesterday in the House of Commons, on March 22, 2016. The Budget can be found at this link: www.budget.gc.ca/2016/docs/plan/toc-tdm-en.html
The following are Budget highlights of interest to Ontario's immigrant and refugee-serving sector:
The Budget mentions the government’s immigration target of 300,000 permanent residents for 2016 as well as its commitment to family reunification. OCASI applauds this increase in immigration levels and specifically the increase in family class and refugee protection. The Council will continue efforts to urge the government to provide pathways to permanent residence for all migrant workers, remove restrictions in family reunification (such as excluded family members and income requirements to sponsor parents), and bring greater equity in the selection for economic immigration programs.
More specifically, the Budget proposes investment of $25 million in new funding to reduce family sponsorship application processing times. The new funding is to target specific backlogs in Canada and overseas, and reduce the processing times on decisions. OCASI welcomes this promised investment by the government as a way to act on its stated commitment to reducing wait times in family sponsorship applications, including parents and grandparents and live-in caregivers.
The Budget also proposes new funding of $56 million over three years for settlement programs. This is welcomed news for Canada’s immigrant and refugee-serving sector. We trust that Ontario will get its fair share given the significant number of Syrian refugees that we have welcomed and the many more we expect to welcome as the federal government works towards meeting its Syrian Government Assisted Refugee (GAR) targets by the end of December. In addition, the announced increased in the family and general refugee classes should result in increased landings for Ontario over the next year and the years to come.
Ontario Region has had cuts to its budgets resulting in cuts to service agencies annually since 2011. The current funding formula based on a rolling three-year average of permanent resident arrival numbers has disadvantaged Ontario, which has seen a loss in its share of immigrant numbers. While immigrant arrivals in Ontario are the highest of any province or territory in Canada, the proportion has reduced in recent years resulting in cuts to the overall funding envelope for the province.
Agencies across the province are experiencing a measurable increase in service demands caused primarily by an influx of private sponsors into the sector and the arrival of Syrian refugees both privately sponsored and government assisted. Yet, the regular settlement funding envelope was cut and many agencies received notices of cuts for another year, including agencies in RAP cities. The Council intervened with the Minister and additional funds were made available to cover the gap in funding.
The Budget proposes new investment of $245 million over five years for the overseas processing, transportation and resettlement of an additional 10,000 Syrian Refugees. OCASI applauds the government’s efforts to-date to maintain the statement commitment to Syrian refugee settlement as well as an expanded future commitment. We encourage the government to invest in the resettlement of the many African refugees who are in desperate situations in Europe, the Middle East and in refugee camps in Africa, as well as expand the Private Sponsorship of Refugees.
Media has been reporting that there are many private sponsors who have not been assigned a Syrian family although they have the funds and resettlement plan in place. We urge the government to mount a campaign to have these private sponsors redirect their support to other refugee populations and work to expedite the process similar to processes put in place for the Syrian resettlement initiative.
The Budget proposes to increase investment in the federal Youth Employment Strategy. The Budget also proposes to establish an Expert Panel on youth employment to assess barriers faced by vulnerable youth in getting and keeping jobs, reporting to the Minister of Youth and Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour by December 2016. This Panel presents an opportunity to seek systemic change for the many barriers to employment faced by racialized, refugee and immigrant youth, including better implementation of the federal Employment Equity Legislation, and encouraging Ontario to enact and implement similar legislation, among others.
The Budget proposes to increase investment in Labour Market Development Agreements with provinces and territories, which can then fund initiatives for unemployed workers who are not eligible for EI, and for under-employed workers. OCASI expects the Ontario government to maintain its ongoing commitment to addressing the labour market access needs of the many refugee and immigrant workers who are excluded from EI training programs.
The Budget proposes to change the rules for EI eligibility. New entrants to the labour market and those re-entering after an absence of two or more years will need to show the same number of hours worked as others in the region, instead of the much higher 910 insurable employment hours that applicants must currently meet. The Budget also proposes to reduce the waiting period for benefits from two weeks to one.
Recent refugees and immigrants are new labour market entrants, and as such can benefit from the change. Precariously employed workers will likely not benefit from the change. Refugees, immigrants and racialized residents are over-represented in precarious employment.
The Budget recognizes new immigrants among those who are in need of affordable housing, and proposes to invest $208.3 million over five years starting in 2016-17, including for the construction of new affordable rental housing units. The new monies are to be invested in a fund to be administered by the Canada.
The existing Child Benefits payments are to be increased for middle and lower income families and for those eligible for the Child Disability benefit, and are to be tax-exempt. The Budget introduces the re-crafted benefit as a measure intended to reduce child poverty. The higher payments can benefit many families in need.
The Budget makes a significant investment in non-repayable grants for low-income post-secondary students, and increases the loan repayment threshold. Students will not have to start repaying the Canada student loan until they are earning at least $25,000 a year. This proposal is good news for the many low-income refugee and immigrant students. OCASI will continue to engage with the federal government to call for affordable post-secondary education for students with irregular immigration status, including denied refugee claimants from moratorium countries. At present these students must pay the much higher foreign student fees for education, and further are not eligible for domestic financial support programs.
The Budget proposes to reinstate the Court Challenges Program (CCP) of Canada by providing new funding of $12 million over five years. The program is an important initiative that provides financial assistance to individuals and groups that seek to clarify in the courts, the equality rights provided in Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The previous government cancelled the program in 2006 by withdrawing its funding, and in 2008 partially restored the Official Languages minority component. Women, refugees, immigrant and racialized residents are among those who relied on the CCP to pursue their equality rights in the courts.
The Budget proposes a series of infrastructure investments as a way to grow the economy, including investments to improve and expand public transit systems. Provincial and local governments must adopt a Community Benefits approach to disbursing infrastructure funding, ensuring that the most disadvantaged residents benefit including through employment equity type programs and training opportunities.
OCASI contributed to the Immigration chapter in the Alternative Federal Budget.