Substance NOT Performance


Since 2020 when the world, especially in this part of the world (North America), could not look away or deny the existence of anti-Black racism after watching almost 10 minutes of a Black man’s murder by police officers in the US, there has been escalating noise about the need for systems change, for broader ethno-racial representation in positions of power and decision-making. Or at the least, for governments, business, community-based organizations and faith groups to pay lip service to what is now commonly called DEI- Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (and its various cousins, like JEDDIA -Justice, Equity, Diversity, Decolonization, Inclusion, Access). At OCASI we use the term ARAO- anti-racism/anti-oppression. Always centring the central issue impacting the individual(s) or organizations.

For years, OCASI has raised issues of racism, ableism, trans/homophobia, class bias and sexism in the immigration system and the settlement and integration (a contested term in some parts of the sector) program. We have raised the lack of Black, Indigenous and racialized people in senior positions at IRCC (regional director and above). We have voiced concerns about cuts to funding to agencies based on the complexion of the leadership and clients. And we have complained about the differential resources provided for immigration processing globally, with far fewer resources allocated in the geopolitical south. At every table, at every consultation, at every Standing Committee where we were invited and when not, we called for the Department of IRCC to engage formally with issues of intersectional antiracism, equity, access and social justice.

Fast forward three years and the Department was ready to engage. What did they land on as the go forward framing/approach to issues of discrimination and exclusion? GBA+!

A brief history (or herstory as my younger feminist self would have written). The Gender-based analysis framework was developed by what was then called Status of Women Canada. At the time the political conversation dominated by second wave feminist leaders through national organizations like the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), the National Alliance of Women and the law (NAWL) and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) centred around women’s right to work and women’s access to positions of power in government, in the corporate boardroom and in the society at large.

And it worked. Throughout the nineties we saw a significant acceleration of women’s advancement especially in government. Slower movement in corporate Canada’s highest rungs, except in federally regulated sectors like banking, that had to follow the federal Employment Equity Act (enacted in 1986 with the naming of four equity-seeking groups), but holding their own and outpacing men in leadership positions in the non-profit sector.

By the early nineties, women’s organizations like the Native Women’s Centre of Canada, Congress of Black Women, the Black Women’s Collective, the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible-Minority Women, Women Working With Immigrant Women, DAWN Canada and others started questioning this analytical framework being socialized throughout government and the sectors that they fund.

Indigenous, Black and Racialized women were becoming increasingly frustrated with a framework which, by design, excluded much of their experiences. Women with disabilities, poor and working-class women, immigrant and refugee women, queer and trans women, all joined the call for a more robust and expansive framework that would capture their diverse intersecting identities. After much debate, advocacy and a changing of the old guard in Ottawa, GBA+ was born. The fact that all other identities has been corralled in this ‘plus’ didn’t go unnoticed especially by those of us who had spent years fighting the catchall phrase of “visible minority” for anyone not deemed to be white.

The “plus (+)” added to the GBA framework is often ignored, an after-thought only to be addressed if raised by women occupying marginalized social locations.

Back to the present and IRCC’s plans to apply this framework to its activities- at least in the settlement and integration program Branch. During the recently completed Call for Proposals, GBA+ was introduced for the first time to the broad IRCC funded sector. For the past year or so, there has been a national initiative, a partnership of sort among the provincial and regional umbrella organizations including La Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne (FCFA). Led by the National Sector Engagement Team (housed at Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Social Agencies - AMSSA), the GBA+ initiative is meant to promote the application of this framework in the work of sector agencies. We at OCASI are just as keen to see the equity frameworks (GBA+, ARAO, etc) applied by IRCC itself to its own activities especially funding (who and what) contractual relationships (how) and internal hiring processes.

Hearing concerns from our membership about the shift to applying a GBA+ lens to their work, I chatted with a number of women leaders to get their take on this move and on their experiences of working with IRCC/CIC over the years. I got an earful, especially from leaders of this new term I’m coining -W3s - women led, women mandated, women serving (A play on the term B3s that was coined by the City of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Initiative).

The stories came fast and furious, memories flooding back, the varying inflections in tone of voice mirroring the re-living of vexing moments of dismissal, undermining and erasure.

They told the stories -ever recurring from male and female funding officers. Stories of missed funding opportunities. Questions about their capacity. Questions like: “but how will you work with men”? And comments like: “Yes, your organization was cited as a best practice in the delivery of the initiative, but we’ve decided to go with another agency since you’re a women focused organization”.

Some spoke of micro-aggressions in their engagement with male funding officers. One story that stuck out for me wasn’t necessarily the most egregious but after hearing it, I remembered the occasion and questions I had then about why this particular leader wasn’t taking up her rightful space as she usually does, contributing greatly to the discussion of the moment.

It was a meeting of a standing intergovernmental and sector Table. (I’m being careful here as I do not want the organization punished for sharing this story). At that meeting we were paired and asked to engage with a set of questions for about fifteen minutes with each pair reporting back. This leader tells of picking up the list of questions and taking the lead to start the discussion with her discussion partner, at that time a CIC funding officer. A couple of minutes in and his first comment is that her earrings matched her eyes. She ignored the comment and continued to answer the questions, asking for his take on the issues. His comments all centred on her- the dress she was wearing and how it fitted her body, the way she was wearing her hair, etc. She shared with me how she became flustered and found herself in a crisis of fight or flight. She thought of her organization’s funding, the hundreds of women and their families who accessed their services and the tens of employees, all women who depended on her. She fled.

This leader shared with me how she quietly got up from the table where they were sitting and made her way to the bathroom, shaking with anger and frustration and a sense of impotence all the while cursing herself as a coward. She told of watching her feminist self in the bathroom mirror believing that if she were to confront this male funder, to make a scene, her reputation, her organization’s reputation will become mud within the Department and the funding inequities that she experienced as a women’s agency would only deepen.

She came back into the whole group meeting and when called on to report, said she had nothing to report. I recall being quite surprised by this, as she always had something to share, always insisting that the voices of women and their organizations are taken into account in policy and program development. I should have known something was off. I apologised to her for missing the cues, for not asking, for not paying more attention.

And there are other stories like this that are shared over wine or cannabis at the end of long conference days, when inhibitions are lowered and trust has been built over shared experiences of exclusion and inequitable treatment.

IRCC has much work to do internally to address issues of sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination practiced by its staff through micro-aggressions and other egregious behaviour and decisions.

As IRCC prepares to integrate GBA+ will it also look at its own practices? Will it undertake a review of levels of funding based on organizations’ profiles? Is it an accurate statement that women’s organizations are underfunded compared to those led by men or those serving a non-gender specific client group? Do women’s organizations get overlooked when regional or national initiatives are being planned? Do we see this similar differential in treatment when a race lens is applied? Are organizations working with racialized communities or racialized women’s communities even more disadvantaged? What about those focused on the settlement of queer newcomers?

These are the questions the Department must answer for itself as we move forward on walking the talk on equity and equitable outcomes. We have the vehicle to do this work in partnership between government and the sector. IRCC has the Collaborative Table on Ant-Racism that I co-chair with my IRCC colleague. This internal review of the funding practices should be part of its mandate and its work-plan.

In addition, before funded agencies are requested to submit their plans on applying a GBA+ lens, the Department must undertake a series of training sessions on GBA+ as a way of ensuring a common understanding of the concept across the sector including its relation to other equity frameworks and their application.

In Solidarity.