May 2020 / Toronto - I have spent the last month or so looking for the ‘blessings’ or ‘silver linings’ of this pandemic as the Council and the Sector shift-shaped ourselves into this new normal - a term that is quickly becoming contested (What is normal? For whom? Who defines?) as progressives dream and plan and organize for a near future that will be responsive to those who are marginalized and made most vulnerable by our economic and social systems.
Others, (unfortunately including many who were elected to represent all of us) see this near future as a time of belt-tightening, of cuts to an already strained system of support, an excuse to double down on an austerity agenda, that if nothing else this pandemic has shown to be immorally punitive to vast swathes of people, especially those living with disabilities, who are Indigenous, Black and racialized, who identify as women, femmes or non-binary; who are seniors on fixed incomes, or young people aging out of the care of the State, especially those who are Trans, 2Spirited, Intersex, Bi, Lesbian or Gay.
This pandemic has forced us to acknowledge that the workers with arguably the lowest wages, with precarious shift, part-time and occasional work schedules are the most essential workers in our communities, yet there continues to be political and business resistance to mandating a living wage for all workers.
Probably most important in this moment, is the uncovering or revealing of the significant numbers of workers who have precarious immigration status, many undocumented. These are people who clean our homes and offices, care for our children, grow and pick our food, package our meats, build our homes or provide pleasure through sex work.
As governments at all levels and of all political stripes issued Covid-19 directives which shut down office towers, closed schools and policed ‘social’ (we prefer ‘physical’) distancing with added powers to police forces, many of these workers-people- found themselves without an income as work in the informal economy dried up.
As a Council we have joined with our sister organizations in the non-profit and charitable sectors and with other activist allies to call on governments to provide income supports to those negatively impacted. We’ve called for supports to civil society organizations particularly those ensuring food security, safety for survivors of intimate partner and domestic violence, particularly women (Cis and Trans) and children. We’ve called for a moratorium on evictions, as many became housing insecure while the scramble was on to house those experiencing homelessness. And for the most part governments have responded.
We have seen millions announced for foodbanks, women’s shelters, sexual assault centres and most recently a $350M fund for the non-profit/charitable sector- not nearly enough to ensure sustainability and stability in the national sector but a good down-payment.
We have also called for and have seen the federal government respond with easy to access (for many but not all) income support programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), expedited EI and enhanced Canada Child Benefit. There are wage and rental subsidies aimed at small businesses and the non-profits alike.
And Billions have been poured into the coffers of big Corporations, which raises many questions about priorities, big lobbies, etc., but that’s another article for another day.
At the provincial level here in Ontario, we’ve seen flexibilities announced around Ontario Works and ODSP (although no meaningful increases which must seem like a ‘slap in the face’ to quote a disability activist given the $2K/month received by CERB recipients) and the introduction of a flexible OW emergency enhancement fund.
This is all positive for the most part except for one glaring omission. People with precarious immigration status, especially those who are undocumented are not able to access any of these income supports. Many have paid into the system (including through sales taxes and personal income tax) but can reap none of the benefits. This must change.
We are calling on the federal government to establish a special income/benefit program for those who do not qualify for CERB or EI. These include those who are undocumented but also some international students, migrant workers and refused refugee claimants unable to leave the country for a variety of reasons, including a moratorium on removals during this pandemic. Some have argued that this list should also include guests who are here on visitors’ visas but unable to leave due to the global shut down of borders and/or scarcity of flights.
Importantly, we call on the federal government to ensure that all Canadian children have access to the Canada Child Benefit now and post pandemic, including Canadian-born children of parents without immigration status.
We also call on the provincial government to direct the administrators of the Ontario Works program to make supports available to all in need who are residents of Ontario. We believe that legislation allows for this and what is missing is clarity of interpretation of policy and political will. As we head into month three of this pandemic, we cannot afford to have individuals and families fall through the proverbial cracks in our social and economic safety nets.
These are issues of human rights and morality. And all who are concerned about the public good and our collective well-being must add their voices to the call on the decision-makers, those who control our public purse strings to hear the urgent calls of those who are hungry, under-housed, abused and stressed due the uncertainty of life in Canada with precarious immigration status.
As a Council we are doing our small part to ensure some funds gets into the hands of those who are undocumented or have otherwise precarious immigration status. Together with our partners, the Atkinson Foundation and World Education Services, OCASI is working with a network of agencies across the province to distribute over two hundred thousand dollars for people in dire need, and for a few grassroots agencies doing significant work with marginalized communities. We know this isn’t enough and isn’t sustainable in the long term, but it will make a difference this month and next for individuals and families to help pay rent or provide food or medicine for their sick child or self.
I was heartened to read a few days ago that over fifty (it should be more) elected municipal and provincial representatives from coast to coast to coast have written to the federal government demanding “supports and all rights for essential workers regardless of immigration status”. We are adding our voice to this call.
We are also repeating as we do at every meeting with federal representatives including the Prime Minister, a call for pathways for regularization of status for all workers, many who have now been deemed essential: Good enough to work. Good enough to stay!
So what is the silver lining or blessing of this pandemic? The opportunity for governments and civil society to work together to craft a society and a future that is equitable, sustainable and is measured by the well-being of those made most marginalized by current economic, social and political systems.