The announcement of the federal election call and the news about the escalating crisis in Afghanistan occurred within hours of each other, the latter threatening to derail the former before the campaigns had even begun.
For the governing Liberals it meant scrabbling to respond to queries from Afghans here in Canada and abroad, worried sick about their families at home in Afghanistan. Immigrant serving organizations, particularly those with refugee resettlement programs went on high alert, memories of six years ago- another campaign, another humanitarian crisis, all too fresh.
With haste, the federal government issued public policy notices to bring Afghans who have worked as interpreters and/or had an enduring relationship with Canada, and their families, as Government Assisted Refugees (GARS). As the public became aware of how quickly the situation was deteriorating and with the US signaling that it would stick with its end of August deadline to completely withdraw, there were increasing calls for the Canadian government to do more.
In response the government issued another public policy notice which expanded those who could receive protection from the Canadian government to women leaders, human rights defenders and members of the LGBTI plus communities. The various humanitarian streams being used, including temporary resident permits, is an example of what can be accomplished where there is political will. Janet Dench, the Executive Director of our national organization, the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) points out as much in a recent media article.
Community-based refugee resettlement agencies across the country were brought to the table immediately. But other than media reports there was very little intelligence on what was happening getting to the broader immigrant and refugee serving sector, private sponsorship groups who have a keen interest, and the large and active Afghan communities, including student groups, here in the Greater Toronto Area and across the country. There was much misinformation. Some believed that Afghans were being landed at military bases and processed there. Trenton was often mentioned. This turned out to be false.
It took OCASI as the provincial Council more than a week to figure out what was happening because no one in government thought to include the umbrella organizations in the initial communications or on the planning bodies (while there are regional reps on the national Refugee Assistance Program working group and the new Afghan Resettlement Steering Group, there was no formal channel of communications put in place). Remember, umbrella associations are the connective tissue for service agencies. It is where those working in the sector, some immigrant communities, broader community members and media look for information in situations like this. There’s a lesson here.
But that is water under the bridge now as the urgency of the moment calls for focused and coordinated responses.
As of this writing eighteen hundred people, a significant number being children (estimates are as high as 40% of arrivals) had landed at Pearson airport in the Toronto Region. OCASI member agency and a Refugee Assistance Program (RAP) delivery agency, Polycultural Immigrant and Community Services, located closest to the airport was pressed into service by IRCC (Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada) to lead the reception, triaging and relocation of the Afghan arrivals. A call was sent out through IRCC and OCASI for Dari and Pashto speakers to assist at the airport and in the hotels where the Afghans are being housed.
There is a blend of immigration status of the Afghan arrivals - from Canadian citizens returning home, to permanent residents, to refugees, to those with unclear status. There are several mixed immigration status families.
Afghan organizations like Afghan Women’s Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services were on the frontlines as the first flights arrived, taking up tasks like purchasing appropriate clothing as many have arrived with only the clothes on their backs. Other agencies including New Canadians’ Centre of Excellence Inc. (Windsor-Essex-Leamington) and Toronto based, The Neighbourhood Office (TNO) stepped up to support with staffing and logistics. COSTI as the Toronto lead agency on Government Assisted Refugees Program opened its doors and was soon at capacity supporting almost two hundred Afghan refugees as of this writing. We know that other RAP agencies across the province are working as hard to prepare for the arrival of Afghan families (about three hundred have already been sent to final destinations like London and Hamilton in Ontario, and to western provinces) knowing that there will be challenges like finding adequate housing for large families, that is affordable and accessible to public transit, public schools and hopefully places of worship.
Due to the public policy issued by the government which is an expanded definition of a refugee, many extended families - in one case as large as twenty-eight members - would need to be housed in the same neighbourhood if not the same apartment building. This will prove difficult in housing markets like the GTA and other large cities like Vancouver and Calgary.
The operations put in place at the hotel are nothing short of amazing. As individuals and families are sorted to hotels based on final destinations (BC, Prairies, Atlantic and possibly QC) most initial processing and early settlement needs are met at the hotels- from COVID testing to vaccinations, registration for Interim Federal Health coverage and issuing of Social Insurance Numbers (SIN). All required medical tests as well as other immigration processing are done at the hotels. Many refugees destined to other provinces (outside Ontario) are leaving the hotels (approximately sixteen days after arrival and end of quarantine) with provincial health coverage as well.
Here is another opportunity for Ontario to eliminate the three months wait period for OHIP for new residents.
Our federal government has announced that the airlifts from Kabul, Afghanistan have ended. There are over a thousand Canadians and thousands more Afghans with Canadian immigration documents that must still be evacuated. The government has committed to getting them to safety over the coming weeks, months and years.
The government’s commitment to bring approximately twenty-one thousand Afghans (6K as GARs) over the next two plus years is welcome although more details are needed. As a sector, and as Canadians wanting to support through private sponsorships, we understand the geopolitical challenges facing our and other governments. But we cannot turn our gaze away from this crisis we helped to create. There are too many lives depending on us.
In the meantime, the service sector, municipalities, provincial governments, public schools and their Boards must be prepared to create welcoming and supportive environments for our newest residents and neighbours. Welcome to Canada.
A few comments on the federal election campaign that is underway.
It has been disheartening to say the least to witness the vitriolic push back against a progressive agenda being put forward by some of the political parties. The right-wing, white supremacist, violent mobs and others of their ilk who have been disrupting campaign stops, defacing campaign signs especially those of racialized candidates, the dog-whistle slogans like ‘take Canada back’ and other echoes from the US 2020 elections should give us all pause. Is this really about the right not to wear masks or get vaccinated? Or is this the backlash against the progressive and necessary supports and policies that were put in place to support Canadians during a health pandemic and the economic consequences of having to shut down our cities and towns from time to time for health reasons?
Issues of racism, anti-Muslim hate, LGBTI issues and immigration reform, starting with a robust regularization for all who are undocumented and without immigration status in Canada, seem to have fallen off the table. We can’t afford not to have these issues debated by the political party leaders. These questions must be asked of those seeking our votes.
Are the protests really about vaccine ‘passports’ or about the redress policies and funding that recognized the historical erasure of Indigenous, Black and racialized lived experiences? Is it about the centering of women and their labour market participation (national childcare program), right to physical, mental, emotional and financial safety (funding for GBV and other women’s programming); or addressing a key driver of poverty- the lack of adequate and affordable housing?
All of the above were put in place by the multi-party progressive bloc in the last minority parliament. The work is unfinished. On September 20th, if you are eligible, vote. This should be the message that all OCASI members and other agencies in the women dominated Care sector should be sending to their staff, clients and Boards. Vote - for a well-funded sector. For national programs that support those who have been made most vulnerable amongst us. VOTE!