It is a windy, icy mid-April Spring morning as I turn my thoughts to the beginning of a new fiscal year and what it means, especially this year, for us as a Sector.
While the new fiscal year began with the routine complaints – late contracts from funders, too tight timelines for financial claims for end of last fiscal year, inconsistency in communication from the federal funder on contractual matters, less than ideal communication from the provincial funder of immigrant and refugee services, there is a sense of anticipation in the air: A sense of possibility. There is a sense that the Sector is being listened to, and that some of the ideas that it has put forward over the years to strengthen the work and relationships will come to fruition.
We began with a small win with the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC) agreeing to put a stop (a moratorium) to the practice of clawing back property tax rebates from Ontario charities and non-profits. And we have some signal that the concerns raised by sector organizations about contracts and contribution agreements will be resolved for the most part in the coming year.
But nothing signals to a Sector the direction and the considerations it has been given by government more than the budget. Both the provincial and federal governments released their 2018 budgets over the last couple of months.
The more recent provincial budget was greatly anticipated as the Council had engaged over the past year not only on the immigrant, refugee and marginalized communities files, but was active on the income security reform agenda through participation on the working group; the Women/Gender file through the Roundtable on VAW and other initiatives, as well as on the anti-racism file through committees and activities of the Anti-racism Directorate. We looked forward to seeing significant financial commitments in response to the recommendations made by various interests in the province.
The budget was mixed bag of surprises and disappointments. Probably the most anticipated was the income security reform agenda and what the government’s response would be to the measured, well thought out roadmap for reform. It was a mixed bag. While deeply disappointing in the miserly three percent per year over three years increase for both Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Plan (ODSP), there were significant commitments that move the agenda forward. In particular we were pleased to see the removal of asset testing for ODSP in 2019-2020). This change is the first step towards an assured income for people with disability on social assistance.
Other positive commitments on this file include the move to a flat rate for both OW and ODSP and change to the duration of living together for definition of spouse consistent with the Family Law Act whereby individuals can live together with a partner to whom they are not married for three years, before income and assets of the partner are considered in determining eligibility for social assistance.
The women/gender file also saw significant commitments of over two hundred million dollars over three years with a commitment to increase the core funding of women’s centres, which have not seen an increase to that category of funding in almost eighteen years. It is the persistent advocacy of the women’s centres across the province, many who are OCASI members that has led to this budget win.
The Council also welcomed the new $45.3 Million over three years, earmarked for Immigrant Bridge Training Program. A highly sought and effective program – over seventy percent of program participants get their professional licences, the new dollars will support up to fourteen thousand internationally trained professionals. This is a welcome program expansion for new communities, and with a focus on in-demand occupations. The new funds will also increase access to loans.
We were greatly disappointed that there was no new money earmarked for the Newcomer Settlement Program or the recently developed Refugees and vulnerable individuals program. This latter program signalled the province’s engagement on the refugee file (including refugee claimants) in a significant way, following up on Ontario’s leadership role in the Canada’s resettlement of over forty thousand Syrian refugees in 2015-16. The budget’s silence on this file is worrisome as its financial commitment ends in March 2019.
The federal budget released earlier this year held quite a few pleasant surprises for the immigrant and refugee serving sector, racialized communities and others concerned with antiracism and women.
On the immigrant and refugee settlement and integration front, the budget included funds to cover the new multi-year levels plan; funds for Bridge Training in Ontario, as well as for overseas pre-arrival services and innovation in programming.
What was truly exciting and signalled a new attention to the recommendations of civil society organizations was the inclusion in settlement and integration funding of $31M over three years to support racialized immigrant women’s labour market participation. Research after research has shown that these women are often underemployed or unemployed, have less labour market participation, and are overrepresented in low wage jobs and in poverty numbers. Providing support to facilitate their increased participation in the labour market is a win for them and for the Canadian economy.
We strongly encourage the Department of IRCC to earmark these funds where they will benefit the largest number of racialized immigrant women across the country. This should be set up as a special initiative with an RFP two-step process for agencies that can demonstrate their experience and history of effective engagement with this diverse population of women. To do otherwise would be a missed opportunity to have real impact.
Also welcome in the federal budget was $23M earmarked for the creation of the Canadian Action Plan Against Racism (CAPAR). The budget anticipates a cross-Canada consultation initiative on antiracism. First created coming out of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Other Forms of Discrimination, no real work was accomplished and the plan was shelved during the years of Conservative government rule. This is a new opportunity for Canada to renew its commitment to antiracism particularly in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Commitments and the UN Declaration of the Decade of Peoples of African Descent. We have also seen a significant rise in incidents of islamophobia with the tragic murders of six men at prayer at a Quebec mosque last year. In Ontario we are also hearing about increased incidents of antisemitism with the defacing of synagogues. All this to say that the time is now for Canada to grapple with growing ethno-racial inequities and the lasting impact of colonialism on First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities. It is also time for recognition, apology and discussions of reparations for the descendant communities of enslaved Africans on Canadian shores.
40 years of OCASI
This is a year of celebration for OCASI as we mark our fortieth anniversary: forty years of advocacy for immigrant and refugee inclusion, for fair immigration policies, for processes and systems free of bias and for transparency and accessibility of systems and decision-making. We have much to celebrate as our sector has moved from strength to strength and agencies are having measurable impacts on the lives of immigrants and refugees and as important the communities they serve.
We will make this year one of advocacy and recognition of ongoing work with a kick-off of the Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change tenth anniversary forum to be held in Toronto in mid-May focusing on racial and economic justice.
Stay tuned for webinars on exciting and important topics throughout the year. Our celebrations will culminate with a gathering of the sector’s leaders at the November Executive Directors’ Forum which will be kicked off by an evening Gala.
OCASI is proud of its role as a leader on the national scene and for our insistence on raising issues that are at times uncomfortable but issues that must be addressed. We will spend this year doing advocacy and celebrating as we politic and dance our way to realize the inclusive society we envision!