Toronto / November 2023
They lined up at the microphones placed around the room just for this purpose. The applause for the Minister had barely stopped at the end of his remarks before the first question came: “Minister, thank you for your remarks. There are untold numbers of undocumented and precarious status residents here in Ontario and across the country. It has been more than two years since your government promised a pathway to regularize the immigration status of these people. When can we expect a plan?” The room erupted in loud applause, clearly the question resonated with all those present.
A second questioner: “Minister, there are hundreds of unhoused refugee claimants on the streets of Toronto. Most are from Africa. Our emergency shelters are full and are turning people away. Black community churches and other places of worship have opened their doors, but space and facilities are limited. Some are being forced to sleep on cold concrete outside the doors of the central housing office in downtown Toronto. We know this is playing out in other cities. What is the federal government plan to support these people”? The room erupted in even louder applause.
I glanced at Minister Miller, sitting to my right taking notes as the audience members spoke. “One more question before we hear from the Minister”, I said as the moderator.
The third conference participant moved closer to the microphone. “Minister, the turnover in our workplace is very high. Staff join our agency because they love the work that we do assisting newcomers to Canada. But often leave after two to three years as they find it impossible to make ends meet on the salaries that are being paid in the sector. This is especially true for us in large cities like Toronto and Ottawa. We need better compensation to be able to attract and more importantly retain qualified and committed employees”. There was a collective ‘Yes’ in loud agreement, followed by a resounding wall of sound, of hands clapping.
Over two hundred frontline workers with a sprinkling of senior executives showed their support for this and the preceding two questions at this closing plenary of our two- day conference. On a Friday afternoon.
Minister Miller, still newish in his role as Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC) said hopeful and welcome things, reiterating his commitment to providing a pathway for regularization. But with the anticipated political pushback from within his Liberal caucus as well as the general public he wasn’t promising anything that is as broad and inclusive as OCASI and others have been calling for.
We must push back against this. The federal government should be educating its own MPs and the general public about our immigration processes. The idea that a regularization program would be seen as rewarding those who broke the law (I’ve heard this from politicians from across the political spectrum) is false flag. During the recent health pandemic, all stripes of government praised the people who were showing up to clean the toilets in our hospitals and to wipe the bottoms of our elderly in long-term care homes. People who also grew and harvested and packaged our foods, butchered our meats; and cleaned our homes. We watched as they contracted and in some cases were the first fatalities of COVID-19. Media was filled with stories of their heroism. Yet once again we saw them, this underclass of workers, as good enough to do the work but not good enough to be granted permanent status.
We say No to this. No to incremental tweaking at the edges. Increasing the narrow construction workers program or extending the Guardian Angels program of Quebec across the country won’t cut it. These programs while welcome in the absence of anything else, are insufficient. They will not address the needs of a growing number of people who are with no status, or less than full immigration status, whose labour continue to be exploited and who while contributing to our daily lives, do not get to reap the benefits of contributing residents in our communities. We join our voices to the collective calling for Status Now!
On the shelter-less African refugee claimants issue, the Minister repeated what we’ve heard from the federal government since the summer- they have made over two hundred million dollars available for the Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP) with $97M going to the City of the Toronto. (Note that Toronto is yet to receive these funds, and the City has explained that this amount will cover only the costs incurred for the first six months of 2023).
The Minister on this question of African refugee claimants also fell back on the familiar refrain of the provincial government’s responsibility for refugee claimants. I note here that the province supports immigrant services for refugee claimants through its Newcomer Settlement Program funding envelope. The program requires a serious infusion of additional funds to meet the significant increases in service demand. In this response, he also quickly added that the nationality of the asylum seeker/refugee claimant really didn’t matter, ‘no one should be without shelter, especially with the colder season approaching”.
We agree. But Minister Miller, it is difficult not to compare the very recent and ongoing warm and supportive reception afforded the people displaced by the war in Ukraine by all levels of government, but particularly the federal government, and the cold concrete or congregate living in makeshift shelters afforded the Black African claimants also seeking refuge and protection from Canada. This is a question that won’t go away, an image of Black bodies on concrete with suitcases for pillows seared in the minds of Toronto and Ontario’s Black communities, who see and know anti-Black racism when it is happening.
The Toronto Star carried an important opinion piece from frontline street outreach worker Diana Chan McNally who was one of the first people to respond to crisis during the summer, on the need for a response from government on the growing housing crisis. We agree with her about housing as a human right and the urgency of the situation.
On the issue sector compensation, the Minister was careful in his response. He acknowledged the issue, especially during this economic times of high interest rates and even higher prices for essentials like food and shelter. He also mentioned the growing fiscal pressures on the federal government and the need for Departments to cut spending. He didn’t promise anything specific, but did say that any belt tightening that Departments are planning should not be on the back of our sector and its workers.
These workers are women, mostly immigrants and highly racialized. We know that the gender wage gap impacts racialized and immigrant (including those who arrived as refugees) women more than white Canadian born women. For example, while women earned 89 cents for every dollar earned by men, racialized women earn about 59% of the earnings of white men on average.
At a time of increasing demand for services including more complex services, employee wages in our sector are not competitive when compared to public institutions like school boards, or government itself. Unionization is making a slight difference but even here the sector comes up against entrenched and outdated beliefs of it being a voluntary endeavour with all the old tropes of charity work (read women’s work) not needing to be well compensated because it is not seen as professional work. This must change!
As I said in discussions with colleagues at the conference and more recently with sector agencies in our Central West Region at their annual Action Days with IRCC, we are the employers in the sector. We have an obligation to create decent workplaces for our employees. We cannot advocate and work towards creating equitable opportunities for immigrants and refugees, yet underpay and overwork the very people doing that good work. No one should have to use foodbanks, but certainly employees in the immigrant and refugee services sector shouldn’t have to join the foodbank lines at the end of the month. We cannot advocate and speak out against gender discrimination yet participate in upholding a low wage economy where racialized and immigrant women get screwed!
So, all this to say that the frontline representatives of the membership have spoken. Our advocacy priorities for next while are: A broad and fair regularization program; federal responsibility for refugee claimants including access to shelters/homes and immigrant services; and fair and competitive compensation for workers in the sector. We hear you.
See you on the frontlines of Change.