When justice is denied
April 2019 / Toronto - The space was standing room only as the Toronto Planning Group including OCASI in partnership with the City of Toronto’s Newcomer Office, launched Refugee Rights month. This year marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Singh decision. Since my two decades at the Council we have marked this important Supreme Court of Canada decision each year.
But this year seemed different. There was a sense of urgency beneath the celebratory mood. At least half of the audience were refugees- from Africa, Asia, Europe, Central and South America and all points in between. The spoken word artist, Ahmed Adan, a young man of Somali descent, born and raised in Toronto spoke of the experiences of his family and his experience as a Black man finding his way as a Canadian- the anti-Black racism he must confront, the daily micro-aggressions he must push back against, the stereotypes that want to paint him into an identity of ‘less than’, as ‘criminal’, as ‘other’.
Those of us who have been around City politics for a while and may have grown cynical after many years of politicians of all stripes mouthing platitudes were pleasantly surprised by the dynamic presentation of the proclamation by Deputy Mayor Michael Thompson who subbed for the Mayor that morning. He spoke from the heart, giving the sense that he has been paying attention and shared the collective concern about the growing xenophobia we have been witnessing here in the province’s capital as well as in cities and towns across the province and the country.
The journey from and through violence, fear and resistance to refuge, hope and activism was poignantly captured by the keynote speaker Chenkplen Cox, a Nigerian feminist mother, activist and service provider. She left us with these powerful words: “I am not a warrior because I fight, I am a warrior because I survive”. Powerful and evocative words.
I recall this moment of solidarity to remind myself and readers of the importance of the work that we do, the lives that are impacted, including our own and the possibilities that can be realized with bold policies like the Singh decision. We will need to hold on to these knowings.
As we enter the second week of Refugee Rights Month, we are faced with the very real possibility here in Ontario that the provincial government will make good on its promise to defund Legal Aid Ontario’s immigration and refugee program. Already stretched to its limits this co-funded program (the federal government contributes upwards of forty percent of the national legal aid budget to Ontario) provides critical legal support to refugee claimants seeking asylum, working and poor immigrants seeking remedies on a variety of issues through the justice system, women seeking relief from violence and so much more.
The provincial government reneging on its responsibility in this area of the justice system is an affront to the very principles that underpin our democracy. I would argue that there are few rights greater than the right to justice.
Community agencies and lawyers committed to access to justice for all who are resident in Ontario are calling on Members of Provincial Parliament, especially those who are members of the ruling party to stand up and speak out against these cuts. We appeal to their sense of decency and fair play to raise this issue at caucus and for those in the inner circle, at the Cabinet table. Ontario has a shared constitutional responsibility for immigration and for the integration and inclusion of Newcomers. Access to justice is fundamental to this responsibility.
The provincial budget will be tabled on April 12. We are concerned but hopeful that the provincial government will know that ongoing funding of immigrant and refugee services, women services, youth and disability services, and Francophone, seniors and Indigenous services are critical to building a society that is inclusive of all, particularly those who live on the margins.
We will have a window of opportunity even after the budget is tabled to reach out to MPPs to reverse any adverse cuts to our already fraying social safety net. This is the time when we need collective action. When those of us who can, must speak truth to power. The future of our province and its people depends on it.
As if the expected cuts by the provincial government isn’t enough, adding to this assault on refugee claimants, advocates, lawyers and regular Canadians who are concerned about the plight of those in need of protection were shocked to find buried in the federal government’s 2019 budget bill, proposed changes to the laws governing claimants application for asylum.
In effect, the federal government through the Minister of Border Security is proposing changes which will prevent asylum seekers from making a refugee claim here in Canada if they had filed a similar claim in a country with which Canada has various information sharing agreements, including the USA.
This decision is predicated on the belief that the USA has similar laws and political orientation as Canada, therefore a failed claim there will most likely be a failed claim here. It also promotes the idea that the USA is a safe place for those seeking refuge. However, a cursory look at some of the changes brought in by the US government over the last year or so clearly shows that some asylum seekers are not welcome and will never be successful. Of great concern is the fate of women fleeing violence – intimate partner or State violence. The USA no longer recognizes violence against women and girls as grounds for protection. Canada does. Are we to assume that women who can no longer seek protection in the USA will be turned away at our borders and/or have their claims refused because they first attempted to find safety in the USA? Is this who we are as Canadians? Is this a measured response to the primarily right-wing rhetoric about the Liberal government losing control of the borders or the false claim that Canada’s sovereignty is under attack?
I hope that as I write this, lawyers and their various professional associations are looking to mount a charter challenge about this. These proposed changes undermine the 1985 Supreme Court Decision that we are celebrating this month; and as important, Canada’s internationally stated commitment to the world’s dispossessed. We must push back against this.
To quote anti-slavery abolitionist and public intellectual Frederick Douglass, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”