It is the beginning of August and as it is every year after the celebration of the Caribbean Carnival formerly known as Caribana, and the celebration of Emancipation of people of African Descent from enslavement in the Americas (including Canada), there’s always this sense that this is the beginning of the end of summer.
A long opening sentence I know, but we are in a political moment where words matter. Where clarity in communication matters. Where truths must be repeated over and over in order to drown out the false narratives about refugee claimants, about racialized (particularly Black and Indigenous) communities, about poor people and about the activists, advocates and rights defenders concerned about the state of our cities, province, country and world.
I am having moments of déjà vu – of having moved forward to the past. The feeling in the air in the social and political circles in which I find myself is reminiscent of the mid-nineties - a time when I worked in community development and a couple of years before I landed at OCASI. It was a time of political disruption and chaotic policy-making as the new government of the day sought to remake the province in their own image – a province that was less generous, less sympathetic to the plight of those who struggle to meet their daily needs; a time when every progressive social policy –from employment equity to antiracism was repealed or watered down or shut down. It was a time when a crisis was created in education, when social service recipients were demonized and separated into the deserving and undeserving poor, when services for refugees were not only discontinued but the welcome houses which provided reception and a warm and welcoming place were all closed down. It was a time when women’s services, including funding for abused women’s shelters and other VAW programming were drastically cut.
It was a time of sleepless, worrying nights and days spent reassuring and educating about human rights, social policy and justice. It was a time of great collaboration when community activists and advocates were forced to find common cause and work across differences of political ideology, race, gender, faith and organizational affiliation. It was a time of crisis and opportunity. And many, many lessons were learned.
Which brings me to now. As I write this it is exactly two months since the provincial election and a change in the make-up of government – both the ruling party and the official opposition. It is about six weeks since the new cabinet was sworn in and the new Ministers given their mandate and priorities. Much has happened in this short period of time – some expected developments, others complete surprises. For the immigrant and refugee serving sector in Ontario we were shocked by the elimination of a stand-alone ministry concerned with immigrant and refugee settlement, Ontario’s Immigrant Nominee Program (OINP), the specialized employment program for internationally trained professionals, the Fairness Commissioners Office, etc. All these functions have been distributed across various ministries with the funding and policy for immigration settlement and integration being housed with the new super ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. The minister here is also responsible for women’s issues because unfortunately the newly created Ministry of the Status of Women was also eliminated on June 29, 2018. I’ve lamented these changes in this space before.
But what are the lessons that we learned from twenty years ago that we can and should apply now? To start, we must remember that we must take the long view. That the work we have done to move the province in a positive progressive direction must continue. That we will have to find ways through collaboration to ensure that ground isn’t lost in the longer term for our most vulnerable residents. Second, we must move beyond our bubble and spheres of influence to speak to individuals and communities about our vision for an Ontario that honours its obligations to First peoples, and is inclusive of all regardless of (dis)ability, economic class, gender or gender identity, race or ethnicity or immigration status, sexual orientation, political affiliation or Faith or religious identity. Third, we must search for areas of common ground with the government, ensuring that we find opportunities to influence their thinking and actions on key issues like income security, housing and homelessness, food security, social services (including services for refugees and immigrants), education (elementary, high school and tertiary education), employment and childcare. We must impress on the decision-makers that our collective security and social cohesion within our province lies in addressing the needs and providing social and economic opportunities for those who are marginalized among us, and not in increased surveillance and policing.
There is much work to be done and there are many issues that we must move forward as a public benefit sector. It will be difficult, but we shouldn’t be discouraged and mustn’t lose heart. When it is most difficult is when it is most important to work together to remind everyone that people matter beyond ideology. We can only win if we break down the silos and make common cause with each other, knowing that the communities and individuals with whom we work will in the end be the beneficiaries of this collaborative spirit.