Walking the Talk: Embedding Anti-Racism in Immigration Policies and Practices


Debbie Douglas Keynote Address at the Canadian Council for Refugees Consultation, November 2022

Good morning and thank you CCR for allowing me this space to address you this morning. It’s very difficult to say no to Janet as many of you know.

Take a look around you.

It is wonderful to be here with you all – with people who are interested in – and I am certain – are committed to “the rights and protection of refugees and other vulnerable migrants in Canada and around the world and to the settlement of refugees and immigrants in Canada.” I hope that sounded familiar to you because that is the CCR self-declaration of who we are.

That is our commitment. That statement is us.

I want to start my remarks by sharing a very short video clip.

When I have the privilege to acknowledge the land on which I am present as a guest, I wonder if others struggle as I do to create meaning and make connections, so that my acknowledgement of the land is not by rote; it is not a performance; but instead it is an expression of respect to the first peoples of the land and it comes from my centre and speaks my truth. This search for words to express my relationship to this land and its first stewards, is informed by my people’s complicated relationship with these lands called Turtle Island and our complex 400 year shared histories with its first peoples. My short hand is often ‘stolen people on stolen land’, but that is too glib and runs the risk of the erasure of millennia of First Peoples presence in what we now call the Americas. So I continue to search for ways to acknowledge my ancestors’ histories on these lands. While committing to walk in solidarity with First Nations, Inuit and Metis on these lands where I have been granted the privilege to live.

The late Arthur Manuel wrote in, “Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-up Call” his book with Grand Chief Ronald M. Derrickson,

“There is room on this land for all of us and there must also be, after centuries of struggle, room for justice for Indigenous peoples.”

What better way to begin a Canadian Council for Refugees consultation on the theme of “Towards equity and anti-racism in Canada's immigration system”, than by reflecting more deeply on the land acknowledgement.

That by acknowledging the land and the treaties, we also acknowledge that the first peoples have collective ownership and stewardship to the land – not the crown, not the federal or provincial governments, but Indigenous peoples.

The CCR has seven resolutions under the subject heading, Indigenous peoples – including a resolution from 2013 – almost ten years ago - that the CCR honour all the Treaties upon which this country is founded and which bind all of us living in the territories where treaties exist. And there are lands where treaties do not exist that too are stolen.

In affirming our commitment as Treaty Peoples, we must also affirm a commitment to truth, because there can be no reconciliation without truth.

If we are to affirm our commitment as treaty peoples we must also affirm a commitment to land back.

As Arthur Manuel reminded us, “there is room on this land for all of us … and there must also be room for justice for Indigenous peoples”.

He wrote:

“We simply understand that the cause of our poverty, and of the enormous distress that comes with it, is the usurpation of our land. The only real remedy is for Canada to enter into true negotiations with us about how our two peoples can live together in a harmonious way that respects each other’s rights and needs. We are looking for a partnership with Canada, while Canada is trying to hold on to a harmful and outdated colonial relationship.”

“Unsettling Canada” – that is the book and I urge you to read it. If you are not able to get your own, there are copies in public libraries across this land. Check it out and read it.

And you will learn why there cannot be reconciliation without truth.

Why we cannot simply stop at land acknowledgements.

And Why we cannot disrupt settler-colonization without land back.

I’m sure there are many more messages and insights. I’m still reading.

Where would we be today as a people, had the entity that calls itself Canada fully and completely honoured the treaties and the underlying land rights of Indigenous peoples?

What would an immigration system look like, if Canada wasn’t a settler-colonial state?

What will our borders look like? Would we even have borders?

Were you to look at our planet from space you would not see countries. You would not see borders.

Borders, citizenship.

Human constructs that divide and rule.

That structure inequities and inflict trauma on generations.

I have another book recommendation for you – and I promise this talk is not going to be all about my recommended reading list. Well mostly not. And I’m just starting this book.

"Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism" by Harsha Walia explains how the so-called refugee and migrant crises are the “inevitable outcomes of conquest, capitalist globalization, and climate change.

We cannot begin to talk about equity and anti-racism in Canada's immigration system without first acknowledging its roots in settler-colonialism, racism, patriarchy and capitalism.

Quite simply, Canada has weaponized the immigration program against Black and brown people.

The disparities we see in how different peoples are treated.

The disproportionate disadvantages faced by certain refugees and migrants – particularly those of African origin.

The family separation endured by refugees and migrants – longer and more prevalent in racialized communities.

These are not accidents.

These are not co-incidences.

They are the inevitable outcomes of program design, policy decisions, and operational directives. And of course human behaviour and practice.

Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada has described it as “policy inflicted refugee trauma”.


How would you respond to this statement - let’s see a show of hands if you disagree with the following statement:

“Overall, there is too much immigration to Canada.”

If you disagree, put your hand up.

It seems the rest of Canada agrees with you.

Environics asked this question in a survey conducted in September 2022.

The majority of Canadians disagreed there is too much immigration.

It was the highest level response to this question since 1977, when Focus Canada first began asking this question of the Canadian public.

In the same survey, the majority of respondents also agreed that, “Canada needs more immigration to increase its population”; and with this statement, “Overall, immigration has a positive impact on the economy of Canada.”

There is a high level of public support for immigration in this moment, and it presents an opportunity.

This is our moment to advocate more strongly for an equitable, fair and just immigration system that does not entrench structural disadvantage, does not perpetuate systemic racism, and is free of bias.


Now I have dropped some terms like structural disadvantage, systemic discrimination and bias.

I am sure you all have your own definitions. Let me share mine.

Systemic racism consists of the organizational culture, policies, directives, practices or procedures that exclude, displace or marginalize racialized groups or create unfair barriers for them. They routinely produce inequitable outcomes for racialized people, and often produce advantages for white people.

Structural disadvantage or racism is racial bias among institutions and across society. It consists of the cumulative and compounding effects of a range of societal factors, including the history, culture, ideology and interactions of institutions and policies that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color- people who are racialized.

The CCR resolutions database is a superb source of examples for all of the above.

This CCR consultation is a conversation on moving towards “Equity and anti-racism in Canada's immigration system”. But I hope we will also have conversations about racial justice.

What is the difference?

Racial equity is a process of eliminating racial disparities and improving outcomes for everyone. It is the intentional and continual practice of changing policies, practices, to make systems, and structures more responsive to and prioritizing measurable change in the lives of people of color.

Racial Justice is a vision and transformation of society to eliminate racial hierarchies and advance collective liberation, where Indigenous, Black and racialized people in particular have the dignity, resources, power, and self-determination to fully thrive. It is a tearing down and a reimagining of existing systems and structures to the benefit of all.

Racial equity is the process for moving towards the vision of racial justice. Racial equity seeks measurable milestones and outcomes that can be achieved on the road to racial justice. Racial equity is necessary, but not sufficient, for racial justice.

I thank “Race Forward” for these definitions. Race Forward is a US-based non-profit that brings systemic analysis and an innovative approach to complex race issues to help people take effective action toward racial equity.

Our current public narrative is peppered with reference to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – or DEI as some people like to say.

Diversity is an acknowledgement of difference, but it is not an acknowledgement of racism. It does not recognize that some are given more power and privilege while it is taken away from others.

Diversity without inclusion is just tokenism.

Inclusion is the measure of the quality of representation and participation. But inclusion alone is not enough. We need to ask inclusion in what?

Inclusion in Canada’s ongoing settler-colonial project? Inclusion in systems that continue to oppress many?

That is not what we want.

DEI is the road – or part of it – but racial justice and “Unsettling Canada” must be the goal.


We have more than enough evidence of systemic racism in the immigration system and in legislation, policies and practices right across government.

The Federal government adopted an Anti-Racism Strategy in 2019, but stopped short of giving anti-racism a legislative foundation in Canada. We need a federal Anti-Racism Act.

Federal government departments have made a commitment to address systemic racism, issued statements and come up with action plans. Federal Ministries and other orders of government in the country have made a commitment to collect disaggregated data, as means to identify and remedy systemic inequities.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) acknowledged the presence of racism – but not systemic racism - within the Department – in an anti-racism value statement, and in its response to a Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration report on “Differential Treatment in Recruitment and Acceptance Rates of Foreign Students in Quebec and in the Rest of Canada”.

IRCC does however make a commitment to address systemic racism, and proposes several remedies in its Action Plan, including the collection of disaggregated data. These are promising steps and ones we hope will bring about positive and long-lasting change.

But are they enough? Will they end the blatant systemic discrimination in the immigration system that the CCR and many others have been fighting for so long?
Will they eliminate deeply-embedded structural racism?


Black children are taken into foster care in Ontario at a rate 2.2 times higher than the percentage of Black children in the province. That’s what the Ontario Human Rights Commission found in 2018.

There is ample evidence that contact with the child welfare system increases the likelihood of criminal justice contact later in life.

It is no surprise then that Black children are disproportionately affected by the association between child welfare and criminal justice systems.

If those children don’t have Canadian citizenship, they might find themselves targeted for deportation – thanks to the criminal inadmissibility provisions of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA).

We have this double-standard in Canada, that anyone other than a Canadian citizen is marked out for double punishment – first in the criminal justice system, and again through the immigration system which could see their permanent residence status taken away and then they are deported, most often to countries they have no connections to having grown up here in Canada.

It is outrageous.

In 2018 the Canadian government was set to deport Abdoul Abdi upon his release from prison. Mr. Abdi came to Canada as a refugee at age six; taken into State care at age 7; lived in 31 different foster homes; and became involved with the criminal justice system as a teenager.

The State, which was legally responsible for his care, never applied for citizenship on his behalf. On his release from prison, Canada Border Services Agency targeted him for removal. He went to federal court to fight to stay in Canada.

This case led to a policy change that now allows provincial child welfare workers to apply for citizenship on behalf of children in care. Not many child welfare offices have taken up this offer. Nova Scotia is the only province as far as I know that have moved forward with this. Ontario is moving on it.

Our System, Our Children, Our Responsibility: A Campaign against the Deportation of Child Welfare Survivors” has called for a public policy to avoid the deportation of any foreign national in Canada who came to Canada as a child and spent any period of their childhood in the child welfare system.

I urge you to support their call. I do. We do as OCASI. You can find more information on the Black Legal Action Centre website, blacklegalactioncentre.ca
Let’s also push for a broader demand for racial justice for everyone, in addition to child welfare survivors.

Let’s call for an end to the criminal inadmissibility provision in immigration law so that people without citizenship are not punished twice – once through serving a criminal sentence, and then again through loss of permanent resident status and deportation.

We need to get rid of it, without reservations and without conditions.


Because double-punishment is morally repugnant.

Because it is racist.

Because Black and Indigenous people in particular, and racialized people in general are over-policed, over-criminalized and over-represented in the criminal justice system.

And if they don’t have Canadian citizenship they are highly likely to be targeted for CBSA attention – eventually leading to deportation.

Let’s get rid of crimmigration.


Let’s not stop there.

IRCC has weaponized Section 91 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and it’s having a differential impact on Black and brown people – denying them free help from community agencies for immigration matters. Black and brown people are more likely to be low-income in Canada despite having higher levels of education compared to white people. They are more likely to rely on community agencies for help. But IRCC actively denies them that help.

Long family reunification delays are felt disproportionately by racialized refugees and immigrants, particularly people from the Global South who don’t have the privilege of freely crossing borders, unlike most people of the Global North – and unlike capital/money.

Canada’s immigration system privileges spousal relationships over parents and grandparents. While there are hiccups including long delays for applicants particularly from the global south, on the whole, the sponsorship process is easier, shorter, there is a shorter sponsorship undertaking period and every spousal application is processed. But even within spousal sponsorships which the government has deemed a priority we see differential treatment of applicants based on country of origin. Data shows that there are far more refusals of spousal sponsorship applications from South Asia for example, than Europe.

The metrics used to determine the genuineness of spousal relationships centres Euro-Canadian practices as the norm and any behaviour deviating from this “norm” becomes suspect resulting in increasingly high refusal rates from global south couples. This practice is further exacerbated for same gender couples, particularly those who hail from one of the 169 or so countries where same sex love is criminalized.

IRCC plans to collect disaggregated data across all its practices. We must ensure that we are consulted and our input informs the areas for study and the tools used to collect this data. We must also insist that findings are reported out transparently and consistently.


Let’s not forget migrant workers.

IRCC’s own report from July 2021 (Racism, Discrimination and Migrant Workers in Canada: Evidence from the Literature), confirmed the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program – SAWP - traces its roots to racism. The program has not changed in design since it was created in 1966 – other than an expansion to include more countries.

A quote from the report:

“The program originated because there was a shortage of labour to fill seasonal jobs in Ontario in the mid-1960s. Some government officials believed that black workers were racially suited for backbreaking labour under the hot sun and so justified the program in part on the basis of racist beliefs about the innate capacities of black people. Further, government officials thought that while black workers were useful as sources of temporary labour, they were not good as potential Canadian citizens because their presence in Canada would cause the emergence of a “race relations” problem. Although these racist ideas no longer explicitly sustain or justify the program, it is arguably a continuing example of institutional racism in Canada because it had its origins in racism.”

SAWP has been part of the immigration system for almost 56 years. For more than fifty years Black and brown workers have been coming here year after year to work on Canadian farms, spending most of their lives away from their families, without any chance of permanent residence, working for low wages, in harsh and degrading conditions, tied to a single employer, with little practical access to the rights they are supposed to have as workers.

Let’s not forget migrant care workers – a program that came out of the Domestic Worker scheme of the 1960’s – another program rooted in anti-Black racism and patriarchy. The changes since then have further restricted the program, and there is no longer an assured pathway to permanent residence.


International students are now the largest category of temporary or permanent immigrants to Canada. They pay higher tuition, work for minimum wage or less.
In 2021 they made universities rich, contributing at least 12.2% of total university earnings. Pre-pandemic, in 2018, they contributed almost $22 billion to the Canadian economy.

The majority are racialized. The majority are from the geopolitical Global South. They all pay tuition at a rate that is several times more than that paid by domestic students. With the unequal exchange rates – rooted in colonization, systemic racism and the ongoing plunder of resources from the Global South – they put far more into the Canadian economy than they will ever get out.

The whole system is simply a new way of plundering the Global south for resources, with universities and colleges increasingly dependent on these fees to fill gaps left by provincial government underfunding.

Meanwhile, international students are still denied access to IRCC-funded settlement services; many live and work in horrendous conditions; and the rate of suicide among students is high and continues to climb.

And yet, despite this reality, potential students continue to apply to Canada, sold the hope of a pathway to citizenship after graduation. The majority who apply from Africa or Caribbean – primarily Black students, are refused a student visa even though their acceptance rates by post secondary institutions are comparable to other international students (“Submission on Nigerian Study Permit Declining Approval Rates, 2015- 2020”. CAPIC. February 2021)

There is much more. More examples of differential treatment in our immigration system based on racial identity and country of origin.

When IRCC eventually rolls out its plan for regularization of immigration status, we expect it to be accessible and open to everyone (although there is loud chatter that Seasonal Agricultural Workers will be excluded, along with refugee claimants already in the system) and we must push back against this because we expect it to also be free of bias and prejudice; that it will be free of systemic racism. That it will be free of social and economic class biases. That it will be inclusive.


A recent CBSA survey showed one in four border agents said they directly witnessed a colleague discriminate against a traveller in the last two years. 71 percent of respondents suggested the discrimination was based, in full or in part, on the traveller's race. More than three-quarters of respondents cited the traveller's national or ethnic origin.

Bill C-20 to establish independent oversight of CBSA is making its way through the Parliamentary process. That will certainly help, but a Public Complaints and Review Commission, if established, may not be enough.

IRCC is considering setting up an Ombudsperson office – something we have all called for, for many years. An independent Ombudsperson office, appropriately resourced, can certainly help. But it will not be enough.

Even with the best of intentions, IRCC’s Anti-Racism Action Plan is simply not enough.

To conclude, I believe that what we need and I hope you’ll join me in this call - for an independent commission on systemic racism in the immigration and refugee system, properly resourced, a broad enough mandate, using a GBA plus framework. This commission will hear from the public. Hear from people in this room and other advocates and activists from around the country. Hear from IRCC employees, especially those who are Black and racialized – so that Canada can go forward with an immigration program that is proactively antiracist and inclusive of all wanting to call Canada home.


I cannot end without saying thank you to Janet Dench and wish her well on the next stage of her life’s path.

About Twenty-four years ago, I joined OCASI and the sector and my first national sector event a few weeks later was the CCR consultation in Halifax. Nervous, unsure of what to expect, I left my dorm room (I took comfort in that familiar experience having attended many a feminist/women’s rights/lesbian rights gathering where we bunked in dorms often with strangers who quickly became friends) and entered the plenary space. Hundreds of faces, mostly white, most friendly, keeping close to my then OCASI Board chair Miranda Pinto, who was making her way to the front of the room to introduce to the one and only Janet Dench.

A warm, welcoming, no BS greeting and Janet was off gathering all involved in the opening plenary ensuring the plenary started almost on time. Lesson one. Make newcomers feel as if they belong- a member of the family and not a guest. Over the years there were many other lessons that Janet gave to me. Solid policy analysis. Creating opportunities for membership to lead. Being a servant-leader or leading from behind. Clear, consistent, transparent values and principles that were never to be compromised. Walking into every room and sitting at every table as an equal, never forgetting that her goal was the changing of systems, policies and practices so that those made most vulnerable, those who are most marginalized locally, nationally and internationally are provided opportunities and pathways to better lives where they can thrive. Janet, I thank you for these lessons.

Thank you my colleagues for your ongoing commitment to this important work that we do. Merci et Asante Sana.