It was less than a day after the declaration of a pandemic and the closing of most workplaces when we received the first call of concern. It was a colleague in the sector working with Caregivers who raised the alarm. Her concerns were mirrored by my policy and membership colleagues at the Council that the shutdown of services, of work places including home care would exacerbate the problems faced by Ontario residents with precarious immigration status and those who are undocumented.
As weeks turned into months, we heard from allied advocates working with refugee claimants including from the LGBTI+ communities and women who worked in the service industry as cleaners and sex workers, that situations were becoming desperate. Many were going hungry and landlords were threatening evictions. The provincial moratorium on evictions was a welcome reprieve.
At the same time the federal government was announcing various income and other supports for individuals engaged in the formal labour market, small businesses and non-profits. But many with precarious immigration status and those who are undocumented could access none of these supports.
A significant investment was made to agri-business owners to upgrade the housing stock for migrant agricultural workers and to provide wage support for those who fell ill. We now know, after many illnesses and the deaths of two migrant workers in Ontario that the interventions were inadequate, not monitored, and farm owners not held to account. A recent court decision on the side of a migrant worker who was fired for raising the alarm on the dangerous situations on the farms was a rare bright light in what continues to be an industry built on indentured servitude where all the power resides with the owners and the workers are at their mercy.
About a month or two into the pandemic, OCASI received two calls that would bring some relief to a few of the thousands who were facing dire situations. The Atkinson Foundation called to ask if the Council would be interested in working with them to support some of the individuals and families hard hit by the pandemic and without supports. We jumped at the opportunity and quickly devised a distribution plan to get funds out. We concentrated on the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area and southwestern Ontario where many people with precarious status and engaged in the informal economy reside. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars were distributed through OCASI’s membership network.
A few weeks later, the Council received a similar call, this time from the Mariam Assefa Fund, the philanthropic arm of the World Education Services (WES). This would be their first granting of funds in Canada and it could not have come at a better time and for a better cause. The Fund granted OCASI one hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars for distribution to those in need.
Realizing that some of our smaller member agencies were facing financial pressures due to the lock down and lacking funds to pivot to online services, the Council set aside a portion of these funds to assist with a small grant to eleven such organizations. The balance of the funds was again distributed (with the inclusion of Ottawa) to those who are undocumented or with precarious immigration status.
The $285K was not a lot of money given the need but it made a difference for the one thousand plus individuals who benefitted. The testimonials below speak to this and to the veracity of the concerns that were raised by frontline worker advocates:
“Client arrived in 2017, was denied both her refugee claim as well as her humanitarian and compassionate application. She is unable to claim any source of assistance.”
“A senior client is in hiding having lost her immigration case and did not wish to come out of her basement apartment to receive the funds, as she thought I was coming to deport her”
“G_ is sharing a house with 15 other undocumented migrants and the landlord. Lost his job in landscaping and the landlord refused to offer them rent relief and threaten them with calling CBSA”
“All recipients were in need, some afraid thinking that Canada Border Services was coming to deport them; some were hard to reach as they were moving from place to place couch surfing and/or trying to find cheaper rent after having been evicted. All were ever so grateful. Thank you for this grant Atkinson Foundation. It made a difference in the lives of the recipients.”
In addition, we received handwritten/drawn notes of gratitude from many of the recipients of this support.
But we know it isn’t enough. As we enter another season of lockdown, as the number of COVID infections spirals out of control across the province, and as the weather turns cold, we know that the precarious situation of those without full immigration status will worsen.
There is no moratorium on evictions this time around. Informal work is few and far between and our advocacy efforts to have programs like Ontario Works open up to include all those resident in Ontario and in need, have failed. Municipalities like the City of Toronto where the majority of people with precarious status or who are undocumented live (the homeless shelters’ numbers tell the story) continue to renege on their own Access Without Fear policy by refusing to extend social assistance to all in need who are residents of the City. They continue to point to provincial legislation which they claim prevents them from extending these supports.
The single best response to the situation of precarity for those who are undocumented is an immigration regularization program and that lies with the federal government. We have an immigration minister who has demonstrated that he’s open to expanding pathways to permanent residency for some groups with precarious status - a sort of contractual approach whereby those who have risked their lives by working throughout the pandemic in our hospitals, long-term care and other care institutions are allowed to apply.
A similar program has been offered to agricultural workers, and we know pre-pandemic the federal government had established a small pilot for construction workers in Toronto in partnership with the Canadian Labour Congress. All these pilots are windows of opportunities and we welcome them. But these small programs are focused on those with some sort of status who the federal government has decided have contributed during this emergency so this is pay back - a contractual rather than a humanitarian response.
We are calling for a comprehensive regularization program with a clear, inclusive, accessible process that will be open to all who want to stay in Canada. We know that it will be necessary and support clear conditions and criteria for individuals including number of years in Canada (to distinguish residents from visitors). Our sister umbrella organizations across the country, including in Quebec, are joining this national call for regularization, joining the call from our allies in the migrant workers’ movements and others asking our government to do what’s right.
The time is now. Canadians know that this is the right thing to do as we face this global health pandemic and the social and economic disparities and injustices that it has surfaced. Regularization of immigration status for the thousands who live, love, work and worship with us as neighbours, family and friends is the only answer. If not now, when? If not this Liberal feminist government, then who? Add your voices to the call for Immigration #StatusforAll.