Toronto / December 2023

Sankofa: An Akan term that means “to go back and get it”, the idea of moving forward while reaching back to connect to one’s heritage. The Akan people are primarily found in today’s Ghana in west Africa.

Sankofa has sat unspoken on my lips since the summer when the African Refugee Claimants abandonment in Toronto and their diverse experiences of disregard in communities throughout southern Ontario first came to our attention at the Council. The word would arrive in my consciousness during news stories about their abandonment, or during the multiple meetings with different configurations of the same people, organizations, bureaucrats and politicians. What about reaching back? I would ask myself. Are there lessons from the past that we should be applying to this situation? How far back in the past? 

Ancestral memory is a real thing. For me whose ancestors were shackled as they were prodded to ships anchored on the western and eastern coasts of Africa (Afrika) and shackled in the dark deep holds of ships bound for lands across the Atlantic and Indian oceans, my body responds viscerally to images of Black people moving around aimlessly with their worldly possessions being pulled and lugged with no known destination in mind.

I had such an experience the other day, as I joined a national television news program to discuss the current state of Canada’s immigration program. As I started my prepared remarks about the experience of migration depends on who one is and the various pathways to Canada, I saw out of the corner of my eye that the show was playing images of African Refugee Claimants outside a shelter intake office in downtown Toronto. I literally had a moment of blackout (no pun), lost my train of thought and can’t to this day recall what if anything I said. I remember the interview ending, scrambling to say something coherent at the end before turning off my zoom connection.

I assume it was a disjointed and horrible interview, because a few days later I mentioned that I’d had a horrible national TV interview during a meeting with sister organizations from across the country and I saw the small smiles of confirmation from my colleagues from Manitoba and the Atlantic. I had a moment of embarrassment which quickly passed to my pleasant surprise. The benefits of having lived for six decades.

In the three or so weeks since that fateful night, I’ve received two calls asking me to lend my time and mind to Black community projects. First to engage in building a strategy and program to maintain and build on the federal funding streams so many of our community organizations and individuals including our elected officials at the federal level have secured. Where are the gaps? How do we continue to build? How do we ensure that our tax dollars are being spent on initiatives that benefit all of Canada’s African diaspora – those whose ancestors arrived over four hundred years ago, and those who arrived last week in search of refuge and protection - The women, men and gender diverse people in that image that have stayed in my mind’s eye?

The second call was from a sister friend, a well-respected academic who heads up the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. They’re planning a series on Black health and wellness and wanted me to come speak next Spring on migration and health with a focus on the recently arrived Refugee Claimants.

I gladly accepted both. And as I said yes, I thought, this is the lesson I need to take from the past and bring to the present and future: Sankofa.  It is our collective actions, in various places, at different times, all with the same goal of liberation- of access and of building spaces of belonging. That is how we have and continue to overcome as a people. This is how we have survived “The Wake” the aptly named experience of my people as so eloquently written by Christina Sharpe.

Forming and working in various coalitions is the only way forward in creating a society where all who are seeking refuge whether from the South and Central America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa, Asia or Europe, are welcomed and supported to find their way. It is a political and civil society movement that I and the Council are committed to. A vision that we know can and will be realized.

What else?

As we come to end of the calendar year, it is also good to look back and acknowledge the progress we’ve made on various files. And where we have lost ground or continue to stand still.

I am encouraged by the federal Department of Immigration’s small gestures towards addressing racism and other forms of discrimination. At least on the settlement and integration side of the Department we have seen new policies, new consideration of the need to approach the work from an intersectional antiracist lens (GBA+ as is the current lingo there) and to acknowledge that to level the playing field for all communities to participate and to be supported special measures must be put in the place. The establishment of an equity fund in this new call for proposals should be applauded.

Similarly, the continuation of funding for Women, 2SLGBTIQ+, Black and Racialized organizations from other federal departments – WAGE and ESDC and the ongoing support to combat online hate and racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia through Canadian Heritage. In government, antiracism shops like the Antiracism Secretariat and public institutions like the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) continue to hold government and its various Departments and institutions accountable. This is important work and we must safeguard all of it.

On the policy side, we have seen some positive movement for adults who come out of the foster/state care system and for those who were not born in Canada sometimes find themselves facing deportation countries with which they have no attachment. OCASI has and will continue to call for an end to all deportations. An end to double punishment for those caught up in the criminal and penal systems. In the meantime, we are encouraged by the draft Bill S-235 making its way through committee which will hopefully end these deportations for those who were once children in State care and allow them to gain citizenship. We are yet to see any movement from the Minister of Immigration on the regularization file. We need a comprehensive and inclusive immigration status for all program.

At the provincial level, there has been a mixed bag of policy and funding announcements. We welcomed the provincial government’s infusion of forty-two million dollars into the Canada-Ontario Housing program which provides housing subsidies for those who are homeless and living in shelters including in our refugee houses. We also saw a one-time allocation (we need to work to make permanent) of just over thirteen million for our immigrant and refugee serving sector. Our members have been working flat out trying to meet the needs of clients, primarily Claimants, international students and people who are undocumented with little staffing capacity. These dollars are greatly needed. We appreciate our colleagues in the bureaucracy who heard the call for assistance and moved their political leaders to act. The infusion of cash for places of worship to provide security and create safe spaces for their Faith communities was prescient, as we continue to witness the sharp increases in Islamophobic and anti-Semitic acts of violence and intimidation across the province and country.

At the policy level, a number of labour related laws to benefit immigrants and refugees have been passed. Some have been stalled at the implementation stage such as the establishment of a registration and fee structure for recruiters and agents; while others, like the ban on employers being able to ask for Canadian work experience are having unintended consequences as regulators and other employer groups find new ways to frustrate the process for internationally educated and trained individuals to have their credentials accepted.

And of course the Sector stepped up and went beyond in supporting the arrival of displaced Ukrainians, and welcomed over forty thousand Afghans. Here in Ontario –which receives the largest number of people coming through mass movements, we also welcomed a record number of refugee claimants, many relocated from Quebec.

All in all, 2023 has been a good year. Here is to 2024. For those of you in the OCASI membership, I wish you success in your proposals writing. May all that you plan for the coming years be of success. Proud to walk beside you as we co-create decent workplaces and livable, welcoming communities.

In Solidarity