January 2023 / Toronto
It is the fourth day of Kwanzaa as I sit down to write this first blog of the new year, three days before the first day of 2023. Kwanzaa is a Pan-African diasporic holiday celebration created in 1966 by African-American Maulana Ron Karenga. It celebrates history, community, family and culture. And the seven principles celebrated over seven days (December 26th to January 1st) are grounded in the Swahili language, one of the most commonly spoken African languages across the continent.
Today as we celebrate and promote the principle Ujamaa- Cooperative economics, I couldn’t have chosen a better day to complete this last task in my role as executive director of the Council before I take off for a long and much needed vacation.
Our sector- the im/migrant and refugee serving sector is under siege. Historically underfunded, the sector which has evolved over the last three decades into a professional, effective human service sector, has become increasingly aware that the status quo cannot continue if we are to compete for qualified talent, especially against government, public institutions and the private sector which continues to expand its presence in the immigration sector.
The ongoing health pandemic which has upended how organizations in the sector operate, especially in areas of employees’ expectations for life-work balance; fair and adequate compensation including extended health and other benefits like that necessary but still elusive retirement/pension plan, brought this issue into sharp relief. And if there was any one in a leadership position not aware of this, employees are telling us by their actions, leaving sector agencies in droves. At the Council itself we have had significant turnover over the last five years. In the last six months alone, we have seen three employees move on and have two or three positions that we have been unable to fill within that same period of time. This is not sustainable for us. And more important, for agencies that are providing critical frontline services to newcomers to Canada.
This brings me back to Ujamaa- Cooperative economics- supporting each other, moving forward collectively, reaching agreements about bottom lines- price fixing if you will.
It has been heartening to see the growing calls by members to move forward as one sector. Never has the appetite for collective action been more pronounced. Inflation is at over 6%. Ontario is one of the most expensive provinces to live and raise a family – from food to housing to transportation, all areas have seen exponential cost increases without a concomitant increase in wages. This must change. But we can only bring about change if we speak with one voice, reach agreements on salary/compensation floors, agree on real costs of doing business and bring this forward to the funders of our agencies. I think it makes sense to start with the largest funder of the sector (borrowing a tactic from OCASI’s union Unifor and its union partners which often start negotiations with their largest employer), knowing that other funders tend to follow what the Canadian government (in the sector’s case- IRCC) does.
I’ve asked three of our colleagues to share in this space their thinking on what needs to be done as we prepare to negotiate our budgets for 2023-2024. This is our test run, as we prepare for deeper discussions and advocacy on contractual changes we want to see with the federal funder when they issue the Call for Proposals (CFP) in 2024 and with the provincial government (Newcomer Settlement Program) in 2025.
We know that we must remain vigilant and continue to raise concerns about the expansion of the Service Systems Management program of Employment Ontario. And we will continue to strongly advocate for increases to the Investing in Women’s Fund while ensuring that the provincial government’s plan to expand this funding to more women’s organizations is inclusive of grassroots groups and agencies working with the most marginalized women across the province.
2023 will be a year of advocacy for our sector. I’m excited about walking this path with you, and to all we can accomplish to ensure that we are fully resourced to provide the quality and timely services that newcomers to Ontario require and deserve.
Happy New Year.