November 2021 / Toronto
I forgot. For a long moment I forgot that I/we are living in “The Wake”, to borrow from Christina Sharpe. Sometimes the four hundred years old waves and eddies are disguised by the islands of liberation we carve out for ourselves in these broad and deep oceans of racialization and racism. Anti-Black racism.
This seat of privilege I inhabit- circumscribed though it is – in this moment of Black Lives Matter, evolving language of waking and being ‘woke’, a deepening of Black consciousness and a growing global awareness and awakening to the realities of Black lives in the diaspora, all colluded to make me forget to be watchful. To examine what is being offered. To look for motives beyond what appear on the surface.
Issues of anti-Black and other racisms particularly anti-Indigenous and anti-Asian racisms along with issues of anti-Muslim hate or Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have been points of discussion in this space often over the years. I have called it out in government policies that appear neutral on the face of it yet have differential and disproportionate negative impacts on racialized and Indigenous lives. I have called out the erasure of Black contributions and experiences from the Canadian narrative of nationhood and have pointed out the absence of faces that look like mine in many halls of elected power.
Yet the last couple of years have given me hope as I engaged in conversations in our sector and watched budgets reflect words. I became hopeful as movements of Black liberation found solidarity with movements for Indigenous sovereignty and movements for migrant and workers’ rights.
I cheered the small steps forward of our self-defined feminist federal government believing that the Ministers who looked like me- race, gender, politics- and their promises of action behind the expressed sentiments of social justice were truly onside to co-creating this better, kinder, caring Canada.
I looked to the federal government Department with whom our sector most engages – Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). We have shown in the past that by valuing and respecting what we – the public and non-profit sectors bring to our relationship with each other can and have made positive changes. I knew there was much still to be done on the race front but we had made great strides as it came to women’s representation and were even able to carve out some small wins around 2SLGBTI+ identity and issues. But there continued to be a glaring vacuum of people who looked like me in senior decision-making positions in the Department- a point I’ve spent the last two decades making. And in the governing cabinet. In 2015 to 2019 there was one. In 2021 there are two. Progress?
I write all of the above because I am peeved that I allowed myself to be fooled into thinking that the Department was changing. The ‘reckoning with anti-Black racism’ that everyone seem to be talking about in the aftermath of the public lynching of George Floyd in the USA and the many killings of Black and Indigenous people by the police here in Canada, punctuated by the daylight murder of the Afzaal family in London Ontario, had anti-racism on everyone’s agenda.
After years of trying to get the Department to seriously grapple with how race and racism impacted on their work – over-scrutiny through DNA testing of African families, the significant number of refusals of spousal applications from Asia, the defunding of African/Black and racialized community organizations in Ontario by the Department in 2011 without review or recourse - all issues still to be addressed, I thought we were making progress.
While my organization had been refused funding for antiracism work in 2019, the Department was now agreeing to host discussions on antiracism. They had funded sister organizations in the Prairie region to undertake solidarity work with Indigenous communities and had advised our joint national body that they had created an internal antiracism committee.
In the past year, the Department has hosted two webinars on antiracism. I co-hosted both. Positioning itself as leading on this issue for the sector and among government Departments, IRCC neglected to inform that it had commissioned and received an internal Departmental study that showed racism – particularly anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racisms were rampant within. And had a material impact on the lives of Indigenous and Black workers in the government. Blatant name-calling and employing of anti-Black racist tropes by those with institutional power. A culture of racism allowed to flourish where Black folx were expected to know their place and often found their heads against a double glassed ceiling. Where the one or two able to break through could only watch as those who resembled them cleaned up the shards of the broken glass from their ‘ghettoized’ position within the Department. I use the term ‘ghettoized’ deliberately because the report on racism in the Department cited this as the term used by senior managers for the area where Black staff had their desks. This omission, this hiding of the internal workings of the Department until it was leaked gave me great pause. How have I been complicit in this cover-up? How have I allowed myself to be used?
So much on the political front this month to raise here. As we await the mandate letters of the newly appointed Ministers, some shout outs: Glad to see the creation of the stand-alone Department of Housing with Diversity and Inclusion tacked on. Hoping that there is funding attached to the D and I part of the mandate. Looking forward to working with Minister Hussen on all three of this mandate. Housing is the issue for immigrants, migrants and refugees to Ontario. From Kenora to Windsor and all points in between, affordable, size adequate, safe housing is in short supply, yet is the key to the successful establishment of new lives for newcomers to Ontario and Canada.
Having a newish elected MP from Toronto, Marci Ien, take over the Women and Gender Equality, with Youth added, Department is welcome. The fact that she identifies as a Black feminist woman and has stated her commitment to continue the work on gender-based violence is promising. Her early musings of paying attention to men’s role in violence against women and root causes is certainly a positioning that many will be watching. For the immigrant and refugee serving sector, we have to ensure that the work being done to ensure women’s social and economic well-being is supported by this department as well. Too often immigrant women’s organizations are overlooked, and the important work that they do under resourced.
Good to have a Minister who understands the immigrant and refugee serving sector and the experiences of migrants included those who are undocumented, in the role of Minister of Public Safety. While a portfolio beyond immigration, customs and borders are a critical part of the role, which means immigration detention falls under his purview. Minister Mendicino will have to engage the urgent discussion of immigration detention and the use of provincial jails and prisons to house non-criminal detainees. Alternatives to detention works. And the Minister must show his commitment to working toward the elimination of immigration detention especially of children.
Closer to home here in Ontario, we saw a positive move with the provincial government promising to table legislation to remove the requirement for Canadian work experience, which is often an employment barrier foe internationally educated and trained professionals and tradespeople. It is a move that is long overdue and comes years after the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) had issued on a policy clarification on this requirement. We also support the province’s call on the federal government to increase Ontario’s numbers of the Ontario Immigrant Nomination Program (OINP). We certainly hope that the province will be open to exploring how OINP can be used to regularize the status of many essential workers with precarious immigration status or who are undocumented. We have called them heroes throughout the pandemic. A pathway to permanent residency is certainly a way to demonstrate how valuable they are to the social and economic fabric of the province.
In the same week the Ford government announced that it would increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour in January 2022. This will be seven years since the first call for a minimum wage at this rate. A living wage in Ontario is from $16+ to $23+/hour. This is where the minimum wage should be set. Decent work also requires that workers have paid sick time so that they can take care of themselves and their families when illnesses arrive. The ten sick days’ commitment from the federal government is certainly a floor the province should be exploring.
In its recent Fall Economic Update, the provincial government was silent on a number of critical issues including signing on to a childcare agreement with the federal government, funding for refugee resettlement and funding increases for the immigrant and refugee serving sector. Silence also on expanding the funds for Investing in Women’s Futures, a program that is critical to the work of women’s centres across the province.
June 2 or earlier will see an election held in Ontario. The campaigning has begun. It is time for us a sector to align in solidarity with other sectors to ensure that the voices and concerns of those who are most marginalized with and for whom we work are amplified and their concerns prioritized in our calls for social justice.