February 2023 / Toronto
The new year dawned with me in a security line heading out of Kenya’s international airport in Nairobi. It was my first sojourn to East Africa and I marveled at the majority of white faces around me. Judging from the immigration control lines which they joined, many are representatives of international NGOs including UN Agencies or returning spouses of Black Kenyan migrants to Europe and North America.
As I eavesdropped on the various accented English conversations around me, the naming of themselves as expats brought up a question that has stayed with me for decades. How come white people (western Europeans especially) were expats when they took up residency in a country not of their birth, but Black and racialized people are migrants?
The clock struck midnight and there were tepid responses with a few of us clapping and calling out Happy New Year! My partner and I looked at each other bewildered that we were in a Black majority country and yet this response was so un-Black! And yes, we smiled in recognition of what we were both doing, but didn’t care- don’t be essentialist we said at the same time. There is no universal Black response to anything, including the dawning of a new year. But still.
Where was the energy of a revolutionary Kenyatta for whom the airport was named? Shouldn’t I/we- returning daughters to our ancestral lands have had a separate pathway to return to the homeland five centuries after forced removal? One without visas and passports and borders? It is a question that surfaced for me from time to time throughout my month of travel in East Africa and eventually to South Africa, where settler-colonialism and its resultant economic apartheid, continues unabated.
My visits to South Africa always leave me with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the complex responses Indigenous peoples in Canada have to settlers and those of us violently forced here but not of this place.
My travels from Nairobi to Zanzibar to Cape Town filled with sights and sounds and smells and conversations left me with one nagging impression, change was in the air. Everywhere I went, in cities and rural areas, townships and affluent expat neighbourhoods, there was an underlying energy buzzing just beneath the surface of fed-up-ness. People are tired of the status quo. They’re tired of working multiple jobs at ridiculous hours and are still unable to pay for food and school fees and a proper home for their families. The conversations around me on the ground and in the various airplanes and in airport waiting areas was all about affordability and a recognition that at the end of this global health pandemic, those with plenty had even more, while the majority continue to see a diminishing return on their hard labour.
The first pause to my winter vacation was a meeting of OCASI’s membership that I attended online from Zanzibar. There was a great amount of discussion at the annual autumn OCASI conference of sector leaders about the disruptive nature of the health pandemic, the growing and blatant expressions of racism and xenophobia, and the increasing economic class divide including in our nonprofit sector. And the inflationary period we have entered exacerbating the tensions and difficult choices clients and employees alike were facing each month with the mounting costs of food and rent and medications (when they could be found on the shelves of pharmacies).
Two things surprised me about that meeting. Over eighty organizations from every geographic location in the province attended. Large, small and in-between; women, francophone, queer, ethno-specific, the diversity of the membership was present.
And second, that sense of change. That as a sector we were not going to accept the status quo of lower salaries, often no extended health benefits, no retirement investment support and little for administration and technology required to provide, track and evaluate the services and programs our agencies are delivering.
It had been a long while since I sensed this coming together of the membership as a force to be reckoned with. The debates were robust with talk about accountabilities, need for research to make our collective case; situational analysis that looked at the broader environment, recognition of the differential impact on government approach to funding of organizations that are Black, racialized, women and queer led, mandated and serving. And on the francophone sector. And agencies serving in rural and smaller centres.
There were disagreements. And political posturing. But in the end, a broad consensus emerged that we would move forward as a collective, negotiating from a common set of principles and numbers. OCASI was directed to start the discussion with the major sector funder IRCC and eventually with the provincial Ministries that support our sector agencies in Ontario.
There was a renewed spirit of resistance and a collective belief that change is necessary. And it will come.
It is this same collective advocacy and activism that has taken us this far in our call for a broad and fair regularization program for residents who are undocumented across Canada. And while at this writing we are yet to hear from the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship exactly what the regularization program will include, there is a sense on the ground that it’s now or never. That individuals caught in this limbo of uncertainty and their allies and supporters will not and cannot wait beyond the mandate of this government to see fairness done.
This resistance - pushing back against regressive forces - have called the federal government to announce the appointment of a special representative to hold the government to account in its response to islamophobia and other expressions of racism and hate. And it is this collective anger and fed-up-ness that will ensure that the progressive people of goodwill will hold the federal Liberals to their promise of fighting racism, faithism and all forms of discrimination and hate regardless of the short-term political fallout in Quebec or elsewhere.
Ms. Elghawaby has shown great grace during these early days of her appointment as the special representative. As her political commentary over the past years are parsed and misinformation spread about her, she has shown that in this fight for equality and a dismantling of systems of oppression while changing hearts and minds, one must always remember that truth will win out. That the arc of history, with political and popular will, can and will bend towards justice.
In the meantime, during this African/Black Futures/History month, I am committing the Council to walk in solidarity with her as we do with all who are committed to building a Canada free of racism, xenophobia and all forms of discrimination.