Race and Refuge: The Crisis Continues


Toronto / September 2023

It is anti-Black racism. Intentional or not, the result of a shelter and housing crisis and an ongoing flow of asylum seekers into the larger urban centres of Ontario - has resulted in hundreds of refugee claimants sleeping rough on the streets or unsustainably housed in makeshift emergency shelters in the halls of Black churches in the GTA. Many had been moved here by the federal government to appease and support Quebec’s capacity challenges.

The individuals and families who crossed through Roxham road in Quebec and were later moved to Ontario have had a softer landing. They were moved to hotels in the Niagara region and Ottawa/Cornwall areas. When Niagara’s Mayor raised concerns they were moved to Peel region where the Regional Municipality opened up several hotels to house them. We assume the costs are being covered by the federal and provincial governments with some costs covered by the regional government. This is as it should be. The demographics of these asylum seekers is quite diverse with folks hailing from various countries on all continents.

The majority of the folks who’ve landed in downtown Toronto, often directly from Pearson airport, found themselves sleeping rough. They are Black. Primarily from African countries- east, west and south. After weeks on the streets, Black led and mandated community agencies sounded the alarm. Black community leadership groups, Faith communities and their places of worship stepped in to provide emergency support assuming it would be short-term. All involved had a common response when asked why they became involved. It went something like this: “We could not stand by and watch our African (Black) siblings sleep on the streets of Toronto. The indignity of it all was a stab to our collective hearts.”

People involved didn’t have to say it out loud, but the differential response to these asylum seekers vs. other displaced peoples welcomed by Canada and Canadians is stark.

As various groups and organizations within the Black community across the GTA responded to this crisis, two things became increasingly clear. First, very few Black community non-profits are funded by the federal and provincial governments to support immigrants and refugees and their immigration and settlement services needs. (The capacity that was being built in the early 2000s was significantly depleted with the defunding around 2011 of several organizations by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper).

Black led organizations funded for other services, incurred significant costs providing coordination (staffing, equipment, etc.) of the situation as was the case of Margaret's Housing and Community Support Services. Newer community organizations who responded to the crisis, scrambled to make sense of the funding environment, rightfully asking where the funded Black led service agencies are in the regions around the City of Toronto. 

Funding of 3Bs (Black led, mandated and serving) community based non-profit agencies must be a priority for funders at all levels of government. This is work that OCASI is committed to, and has prioritized in its policy advocacy and government relations work. Black agencies and groups seeking funding must be in the leadership of this advocacy work as well.

Educating the broader public including Black communities about the funding regime for immigrant and refugee services has been as challenging as anything else. How do you make sense of rules that say the federal government is responsible for immigration and refugee protection including determining who will be granted asylum in the country, but its funding for immigrant services cannot be used for some people based on their immigration category? This makes no sense, and this crisis situation of increasing numbers of asylum seekers into Ontario has clearly demonstrated this.

In Ontario we believe that access to services should be based on needs and not immigration status. Provincial funding for immigration, settlement and integration services adheres to this principle.

Expansion of eligibility for immigration, settlement and integration services for all who need it regardless of immigration status must continue to be an advocacy priority for the Ontario and the national immigrant and refugee-serving sector.

While we continue to pull and push governments to respond on these two issues, we must keep front and centre what is required now: safe and adequate shelter immediately, access to immigration services so that claims for asylum can be submitted, work permits obtained and health and other social concerns addressed.

There is an opportunity here for funders, the immigrant services sector and Black community agencies and groups to meet and agree on a path forward to address this crisis situation.

In Solidarity

Debbie Douglas