Reclaiming Our Place


(This installment of the ED message is taken from a keynote address to the Employment Ontario Leadership Summit in May 2016. It has been edited for publication.)

The sacred land on which we are gathered today has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years. This land is the territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.
Today, the meeting place of Toronto is still the home to many indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful for the opportunity to live and work on this territory.

The past six months or so have shown how much we can accomplish when civil society works hand in hand with government. The Syrian Refugee resettlement initiative is the largest such movement of people by Canada within a very short period of time. We resettled over sixty thousand Indo-Chinese/Vietnamese people in 1979/80, and this was done over a two plus years period. In 2016, if all goes according to plans we would have resettled almost forty thousand Syrians within a one year period. Canada and Canadians deserve a rousing round of applause.

The reception sites like COSTI in Toronto who received and is resettling the largest number of refugees in the country, as well as the other reception sites across Ontario in Ottawa, Kitchener, London, Hamilton, and Windsor as well as the reception site at the airport deserve great recognition for their commitment to the important work of refugee resettlement and integration. The newly named temporary refugee resettlement sites of Thunder Bay, Peterborough, Kingston, Mississauga and Leamington also deserve recognition for stepping up to assist in the resettlement initiative of Syrian refugees to Ontario.

And, of course, we cannot forget our frontline colleagues in settlement, immigrant and refugee serving organizations across the province and particularly those in Toronto and Central west (Peel/Halton) who answered the call for support at the airport reception at Pearson, and who made themselves available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and did so with enthusiasm and welcoming smiles, reminding us again and again that for them this was what active citizenship is all about.

The leadership and staff of our sector, partners in health, education, social planning, employment services and business rallied and continue to rally to ensure the success of this political project.

Ontario should congratulate itself for being the first province out of the gate, stepping up to say it will accept ten thousand Syrian refugees and putting resources in place to back that commitment. At the national level there is good recognition of the role that OCASI played, both the member agencies and the Council, because the airports Toronto-Pearson (and Montréal-Trudeau) were ground zero for landings for the whole country.

We did well despite the challenges, and there are many.

We are all aware I am sure of the challenges that make it to the front pages of the Toronto Star, of CBC’s Metro Morning or the evening news.

We have heard the stories of groups of Private Sponsors waiting week after week for sponsored refugees to arrive. There was a concerted move by some private sponsor groups to have the government allow private sponsors to resettle government assisted refugees (GARs), without any regard to the policy implications of having Canada’s refugee resettlement program privatized, a slippery slope the government was right to avoid.  

It is a critical issue that OCASI, the Canadian Council for Refugees and others flagged for the Minister, who listened and refused to bend to that pressure. Having said that, I want to acknowledge the goodwill that many private sponsors brought to the resettlement initiative and to recognize that the frustrations and sense of betrayal they are expressing is legitimate and arises from the federal government’s decision to quietly end the expedited resettlement process and to dismantle the infrastructure that was put in place to bring in twenty-five thousand Syrian refugees over a two month period.

However instead of re-profiling GARs, we must advocate for an increase in resources – both human and financial- at visa posts abroad and here in Canada at the processing centre in Winnipeg. We must promote the concept of additionality whereby any and all ‘special’ resettlement programs like the Syrian initiative is in addition to the annual caps for government and privately sponsored refugees.

We know the media has given lots of ink and airtime to covering the challenges, from finding housing for refugees to providing appropriate settlement and employment services, and most recently reporting that Syrian refugees are turning to food banks. The latter is hardly surprising for those who have worked in refugee resettlement. Or with any group of people dependent on government income, like Ontario Works.

The GARs for instance get the same level of financial support given to someone on Ontario Works – which barely covers shelter and basic living costs, despite the fractional increase to Ontario Works (1%) in October last year. The allowance is not enough, especially in large urban centres like Ottawa and Toronto where the cost of housing for instance tends to be higher.

There have been some good news stories as well, as we’re are seeing this week with the tragic fire in Fort McMurray and the kind hearted response of some Syrian families in Calgary who have stepped forward to help and to contribute. But as always, it is the negative and difficult stories that stay in public memory.

A recurring theme is the need to work carefully and delicately with the many private sponsors who for the first time are confronted with a very different reality that questions their notions of cultural, religious, racial and ethnic pluralism and equality. These are not exactly covered in the standard training provided to private sponsors, and neither are refugee and immigrant settlement agencies resourced to give them the ongoing support that is clearly needed, although the sector and new entities like lifeline Syria and Refugee 613 have stepped up to in that role. Cultural and religious communities have also been at the forefront in forging partnerships and offering support to private sponsors and to reception agencies.

We anticipate there will be sponsorship breakdown, and when that happens we must be ready to respond.

As a sector we continue to work on improving service collaboration for better case management and referrals, both among sector agencies and with institutional partners in healthcare, mental health and education, with employers and with local governments.

Things are working very well where we have pre-existing relationships. And where there are none we see the growing tension in service provider relationships over issues of turf and more. The Windsor reception site managed by the Multicultural Council of Winsor and Essex County implemented a service model with its sister settlement agencies that is a good practice and should be adapted for use in other areas across the province and country if another occasion of such mass movement of people presents itself.

The impact the many years of funding cuts has had on the sector is very evident. We are short on people resources, particularly in experienced frontline staff, supervisors and managers. This new fiscal year has been a disappointment with respect to federal and provincial settlement funding with agencies being flat-lined at a time of increasing demand for services, and the complexity of the services required.

The federal funding formula for settlement disadvantages Ontario since it is tied to a three-year rolling average of arrival numbers. This year too, the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC) applied the formula to decide Ontario’s overall allocation for the fiscal year, which resulted in a $17million cut to the sector. While the federal government provided new funding for refugee resettlement, any gains were offset by the fact that regular settlement dollars were cut. As far as the sector is concerned, we are at status quo for funding despite the increase in caseload as a result of the Syrian refugee resettlement initiative.

The funding formula is an ongoing concern, and is a program policy priority for the Council.  We have requested a formal review of the funding regime including the formula with an eye to significant changes to the current approach.

Ten years of the conservative agenda has left its mark on the Sector and the Department, and the job of rebuilding must begin now. We remain optimistic that the goodwill that has been developed between the sector and the bureaucracy over the years will hold us in good stead as we work together to build a service infrastructure that centres the needs of immigrants and refugees, and where enabling public policy is removed from ideological considerations.

As the former President of the OCASI Board of Directors keeps saying, “Never waste a good crisis”. We must keep reminding government that while the sector stepped up to the challenge, it came at great cost to our employees and our organizations and we need to see a shift in how this work is funded and how our role as civil society organizations is recognized as integral to the public good.

This crisis has brought us much visibility and lots of opportunity. Now is the time to talk about forging a new and different relationship between the sector and the federal government, to revisit the issues we stopped talking about ten years ago when it became very clear that it was falling on deaf ears, and was often times met with hostility.

Does anyone remember the federal government’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Funding? The Voluntary Sector Initiative? Does anyone remember when we had something called core funding (which was done away with more than two decades ago)? Does anyone remember when advocacy was central to what we did, and how we defined ourselves? It is time we started to reframe our role in this country, to assert ourselves as civil society organizations, and for many to shake off the creeping self-imposed censorship on matters of advocacy.

It is our chance to boldly influence the national conversation about Canada’s refugee protection and immigration programs.

Let us raise the bar in how we treat all refugees – particularly refugees from African countries, who it seems are once again pushed to the back of the line when it comes to government assistance, or private sponsorship or refugee determination. We have seen a particularly stark contrast in places like Jordan where refugees from South Sudan and Eritrea are lined up outside the UNHCR office waiting to hear if they would be resettled, but instead were being passed over. They too have been waiting for years to be resettled. According to the UNHCR, a third of the world’s refugees in need of resettlement are in Africa. So let us apply the lessons from the Syrian experience to make Canada’s resettlement program work more effectively for more refugees.

And while we are at it, let us look at making our refugee determination process more humane by getting rid of the Designated Countries of Origin (DCO) regime, the Safe Third Country Agreement, and the myriad other barriers that prevent many in need of protection from finding refuge in Canada.

We must pay attention to the impact of the introduction of the Express Entry immigrant selection management system and the piecemeal and short-sighted approach to meeting labour needs. Let us look at who is allowed to come, who is kept out and the impact on Canada as a whole not only at present, but looking into the future.

Let us talk about the cost to ourselves, our families and society of long family separation. As long as we are talking about family, let us talk about who is counted as family when it comes to refugee protection and immigration – about the contradiction of Canada’s veneration of large family gatherings on holidays like Thanksgiving but denying those same family ties when it comes to immigration sponsorship and family reunification.

Let us talk about the real cost of the unfettered growth of the temporary foreign worker program, while at the same time Canada restricted  or eliminated pathways to permanent residency for migrant workers.

Let us talk about the real cost of having thousands of people living and working here without immigration status, the casualties of a rigid, unjust, and uncaring immigration system. It is time for us to talk about the regularization of status. Let us talk about an amnesty!

This year is the 50th anniversary of the migrant farm worker program in Canada. Let us talk about the fact that migrant workers, mostly from the Caribbean, Mexico and Latin America have been growing and harvesting the food we eat for half a century, coming back to this country year after year after year; and yet are not allowed to apply for permanent resident status. They face massive abuse and exploitation from recruiters and employers. When they are hurt or killed on the job they become virtually non-existent in our eyes, erased from our collective consciousness. Let us talk about strengthening our labour laws here in Ontario and about enforcing laws already on the books.

Recently, I saw the documentary Migrant Dreams which tells the stories of a group of Indonesian women working in the green houses of Leamington in south western Ontario. It is a brilliant, honest and heartbreaking portrayal of the lives of temporary foreign workers the systemic abuse and exploitation they experience. The film is a call to action, and as the federal government begins its consultation on the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, we must speak up about need for radical changes.

We need to talk about citizenship rights. Notwithstanding the government’s Bill C-6 to reverse some of the more egregious changes introduced by the previous government, let’s talk about who gets to be a citizen and how.

We also need to talk about Canada’s truly appalling and completely unacceptable practice of the indefinite detention of refugee claimants and migrants, including the detention of children.

Earlier this year, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) detained a sixteen year-old Syrian boy who arrived at the Canadian border at Fort Erie, claiming refugee status. They took him into custody, and then put him in isolation for three weeks in a Toronto detention centre.

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) recently shared data based on detention reviews held in 2015 by the Immigration Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board. The CCR acquired the data through an Access to Information Request. There are many observations that stand out and I will highlight just a few:

  • At least 82 children were detained in 2015. But this number does not include the children who were in detention with a parent. The CBSA describes them as ‘guests’.
  • The children were detained for an average of 23 days. No doubt, some children spent much more than 23 days in detention.
  • Most of the children were detained because of identity issues, or because the State believed they will not report.

In 2013-14 CBSA had detained 10,088 immigrants. Almost one-fifth were refugee claimants. They were held in a variety of facilities, including federal holding centres and provincial and municipal jails. Many of the detainees are held indefinitely. Some are held for years. The majority of detainees are likely racialized people, and most likely are from the global south. Since 2000, 14 people have died in immigration detention, while in the custody of CBSA

I could go on, but I don’t think I need to. This is completely unacceptable. It is wrong. We need alternatives to detention. We need to end immigration detention now.

Closer to our daily professional realities - Let us open up the conversation about who should have access to federally-funded immigrant settlement services. OCASI has long argued that anyone who needs it should be able to access services, whether they are migrant workers or international students, naturalized citizens or people without immigration status.

If we are to talk about refugee resettlement, we also need to talk about the racialization of poverty – about the fact that Indigenous and racialized peoples, including racialized refugees, are over-represented among those who are low income, and the resulting disadvantages are persistent and deeply entrenched.

When we talk about helping refugees and immigrants find jobs, we need to go beyond just connecting them with a survival job, despite the issues of official language ability or literacy or accreditation. We need to begin a conversation with government about the continuum of support that is needed – not by all, but certainly there are many who need it – until the person can navigate their settlement process including labour market integration on their own. As one of my Directors pointed out at a recent Board meeting, it is not enough to just push people out into a job and then say you are done with them.

The sector has a role to play in providing support even beyond that – whether it is job maintenance and ongoing support in the workplace, or supporting them to move beyond the survival job. It will mean a retooling of service delivery to think about working towards where refugees and immigrants can live and thrive, and not merely survive.

We must recognize the role we have to play as advocates – in calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage; in calling for better labour protection laws in Ontario so that workers don’t have to resort to extreme measures to access basic rights - like the 12 workers at Fresh Taste Produce in Etobicoke who were on strike because their employer paid them $5 below the average hourly wage at the Ontario Food Terminal where they are employed. Most of the workers are Tibetan immigrants. Or the findings of the recent study released by the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic that show gross exploitation of Chinese workers in the restaurant industry.

As immigrant and refugee serving organizations and as employment agencies working with immigrants and refugees we are the ones who see first-hand the impact of racial profiling in hiring and retention, and thus we must be the ones to call for mandatory employment equity legislation in the province.

In fact, Ontario’s soon to be established Anti-Racism Directorate has the potential to make a real difference for many of our constituent communities.
For instance the Directorate could implement mandatory disaggregated data collection across all government ministries and departments as a measurement and evaluation tool to determine if and how racialized communities, women headed households, immigrant and refugee communities and other equity-seeking groups benefit (or not) from legislation and policy, such as the Poverty Reduction Strategy.

I am encouraged by many initiatives introduced recently by the province, particularly the strategies to address Violence Against Women. We need to do more work to extend the conversation to protecting women with precarious immigration status. We need to re-invest in women’s organizations and reverse years of funding cuts and disinvestment in the women’s sector by the federal and provincial governments. We are encouraged by the recent funding announcements for women programming, but more is needed if we are to successfully tackle the growing gender wage gap.

We need to address head on the growing xenophobia – particularly Islamophobia – and in certain quarters a growing anti-refugee sentiment.

Canada has nothing in place to deal with racism and xenophobia, not even to meet our international obligations under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to which Canada is signatory.

Canada’s Action Plan Against Racism, launched after the 2001 World Conference on Racism in Durban, died a quiet death. Canada also boycotted the 2009 Durban Review Conference and the 2011 high level UN meeting marking the 10th anniversary adoption of The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. In this country with a long history of colonization, and ‘cultural genocide’ in the words of Justice Sinclair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there is no plan of action for the elimination of racial discrimination. This is not good enough. This must change.

We have much to do to regain lost ground for our communities and for our sector.

We are the legitimate and authoritative voice in refugee and immigrant settlement and integration. With the role comes the responsibility of putting out our vision of the Canada we want to see, the treaty obligations we must uphold, and the nation we want to build.

After the October general election, our still-new Prime Minister said ‘Canada is back’. It is time that we say, ‘the sector is back’ and reclaim our place as civil society leaders.