by Ranjit Bhaskar (@ranjit17) in Mississauga, Ontario

If a beer company can harness the power of Canada’s diverse languages to open a fridge full of its wares as a marketing stunt, why not use that same force for civic engagement? 

In time for this year’s Canada Day and the upcoming federal elections, the Canadian Arab Institute (CAI) has released an Arabic version of “O Canada” to open the hearts and minds of its cultural community. 

[youtube height="315" width="560"]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33oWbDJAamw[/youtube] 

Part of the CAI’s Your Voice campaign, “Ya Canada” is performed by soprano Miriam Khalil, and hits all the right notes, including the replacement of the contentious, “in all thy sons command” phrase with the gender-inclusive “in all of us command.” 

This unofficial translation of the national anthem is “one of the tricks up our sleeve” to roll out the non-partisan voter engagement campaign, said Raja Khouri, president of the CAI during a recent panel discussion titled “From Marginalization to Integration” it hosted in Mississauga, Ontario. 

The panelists included Ratna Omidvar, Executive Director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University; Cathy Winter, Manager of DiverseCity onBoard; Crystal Greer, Director of Legislative Services & City Clerk with the City of Mississauga and Mohamad Fakih, the CEO of Paramount Fine Foods. 

Bemoaning that voting was becoming more transactional in nature and not part of nation building, Omidvar emphasized the need to shift away from this trend. “Democracy belongs to all of us only when we actually start participating.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][Mohamad]Fakih shared his experiences in civic engagement at the local level. Fakih stressed that, “Change is a belief that you can make a difference even if it takes time and hard work,” and it starts with voting to ensure the right to have a say isn’t lost.[/quote]

Omidvar said there are all kinds of opportunities, including small daily acts as well as sitting on the boards of various public and non-profit institutions that lead to participation. “It is all about taking ownership and paying it forward.” 

She said it is not an anomaly for people to have split national loyalties in an increasingly globalized world where multiple identities are a fact of life. “As long as we wear our various hats properly, it is the values we uphold that matter.” 

‘Don’t have to Keep Heads Low’

Picking up on the importance of being involved in the community, Winter highlighted the work of DiverseCity onBoard. The program enables visible minorities to find a place on non-profit and charitable boards. Winter said it is imperative that the face of leadership reflects the new Canada and all communities need to stretch their social capital.

Greer showcased the City of Mississauga’s efforts in engaging citizens and making sure city council utilizes its skills and knowledge while developing policy. Greer said this is mostly done by including citizen advisers on the different committees of the municipal council and making sure their input and feedback is heard.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“[W]e must all become members of one political party or the other. We must infiltrate the system by not just sitting aside – when we move, we make change.” - Ratna Omidvar[/quote]

With the self-deprecating claim that, “I am a shawarma man, not a politician,” Fakih shared his experiences in civic engagement at the local level. Fakih stressed that, “Change is a belief that you can make a difference even if it takes time and hard work,” and it starts with voting to ensure the right to have a say isn’t lost.

Apart from merely voting, Omidvar wanted the level of involvement in the political process to be a notch higher. She suggested that, “We must all become members of one political party or the other. We must infiltrate the system by not just sitting aside – when we move, we make change.”

All the panellists were of the opinion that new citizens coming from repressive societies must be made aware that it is possible to make change happen here in Canada and they have nothing to fear. “You need to unlearn repressions and know that you don’t have to keep heads low to stay out of trouble,” was the collective message from panellists to new Canadians to elevate their involvement in nation building.

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Published in Arab World

by datejie cheko green (@seeksolidarity) in Toronto, Ontario

“How can I help?” For the last five days, that refrain has been like music to the ears of Ratna Omidvar, Chair of the Steering Committee of Lifeline Syria in Toronto. The non-governmental initiative, barely six months old, hopes to rally private citizens to self-organize as “sponsor groups” to resettle Syrian refugees.

The organization’s goal is to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) over the next two years, and inject momentum into the government’s overall target of 10,000 over three years.

Since publicly unveiling the project on Wednesday, Omidvar, who is the Executive Director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University, has been overwhelmed with offers of support. But there’s an edge of concern in her voice. “Becoming a sponsor and understanding the routes and process are extremely complicated,” she concedes.

Overseas and in Canada, securing asylum, transit, authorized entry and appropriate and supportive landing have become far more complex than during this country’s first mass refugee resettlement more than a quarter century ago. “The application forms alone have gone from three to 52 pages in that time,” Omidvar says.

A History of Refugee Lifelines

The time she’s referring to is 1979 when members of Canada’s civil society – individuals, community groups and Church groups – created the first organized private refugee sponsorship program. It was in response to the international humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia, the aftermath of decades of war against France and the U.S.

Known as Operation Lifeline, the citizen-led response addressed the plight of the “boat people” – those fleeing wars, devastation and repression in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. By the late 1970s, regional and neighbouring countries had reached their capacity to receive refugees and began to refuse asylum to new arrivals.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The needs of Syrian asylum seekers are eerily familiar, with nearly four million outside the country and seven million internally displaced.[/quote]

After surviving multiple waves of displacement, many were forced to take the most unpredictable and treacherous exit path of last resort: the sea. In the face of thousands lost to drowning, the international community finally stepped up.

Today, many in Canada’s now well-established resettlement sector see the similarities in Syria’s conflict. The needs of Syrian asylum seekers are eerily familiar, with nearly four million outside the country and seven million internally displaced.

Canada's Global Image

Back in 1979, Operation Lifeline managed to resettle more than 60,000 Southeast Asians in Canada over 18 months, providing harbour and hope to future generations. It marked a turn in citizen generosity toward groups that did not match the British and French heritage that previously dominated immigration norms. It also earned Canadians a prominent international reputation for being a globally minded, welcoming society.

Although the government’s official welcome mat has shrunk in recent years, the people behind Lifeline Syria are feeling the citizen spirit return.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]After being granted refugee status at camps in the region, “sponsored Syrians arrive in Canada as permanent residents.” It’s up to sponsors to connect them to housing and orient them to schools, health care and their new life.[/quote] 

Many from that original effort have helped inspire and inform the project this time around, including former Toronto Mayor, John Sewell, Professor Emeritus at York University, Howard Adelman, former Ontario Deputy Minister of Citizenship, Naomi Alboim, and Dr. Wendy Cukier, founder of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute. Cukier plans to repeat her role as a sponsor.

And there is a notable difference with Lifeline Syria, as a core group of established Canadians of Middle Eastern, South and East Asian origin are leading the project, with experienced staff on watch.

More Than Writing a Cheque

Canada’s private sponsorship program is “unique in the world,” explains Lifeline Syria Project Manager Alexandra Kotyk. “We’re the only country that permits non-family groups to join forces as “Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH).”

A lesser-known achievement of Operation Lifeline, the SAH permits groups of five or more individuals to pool their resources and share the liabilities of sponsoring refugee individuals’ and families’ first year of resettlement in Canada.

With this arrangement, family members can gain the support of faith-based or other participating self-organized citizen-sponsor groups, Kotyk explains. They don’t have to wait for the government process alone to help accelerate refugees’ path out of harm’s way.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“It’s an opportunity for people to come together to share the burden, and in doing so, really connect with each other.” - Ratna Omidvar[/quote]

Lifeline Syria is attuned to the hundreds of questions people have and “will be hosting at least one monthly session” explaining private sponsorship, Kotyk reports, noting the first workshop for 50 people at Toronto City Hall filled up in three days.

Kotyk adds that sponsorship is not just about money. After being granted refugee status at camps in the region, “sponsored Syrians arrive in Canada as permanent residents.” It’s up to sponsors to connect them to housing and orient them to schools, health care and their new life.

Omidvar, herself an immigrant to Canada by way of multiple migrations and forced displacement in Europe and Asia, agrees. “Writing a cheque is easy. The hard part is holding the hands of these families, once they arrive.”

Far from being a cautionary message, Omidvar, like her colleagues in this initiative, is excited as she describes how “almost 100 per cent of the people I’ve met” are eager to get involved. She notes that her own circle of university colleagues might consider sponsorship as a group, a template that she finds full of promise.

“Let’s look for private sponsors in unusual places. Think of your book club or walking club. Think of the IT department if you work in a big organization. Think of your street, your residents associations. Think of your school communities.”

The veteran of anti-poverty and immigrant inclusion work in Toronto adds, “It’s an opportunity for people to come together to share the burden, and in doing so, really connect with each other … When I think about all the work I've done, somehow this work at this particular moment feels marvellous.”

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Published in Top Stories

by Jacky Habib (@JackyHabib) in Toronto

Canada is taking a step back on immigration policy, according to the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), released yesterday.

Canada scored 68 out of a possible 100 points for 2014, which is a four-point decline from the score of 72 it received in 2011, and dropped Canada out of the top five countries in integrating immigrants. The report examines if policies provide equal rights, opportunity and support for immigrants.

“Canada has undergone several restrictions in recent years that all together sent Canada in the opposite direction,” the report stated. These restrictions include: greater processing times for permanent resident applications, restrictions and documentation burdens to become Canadian citizens and restrictions on reuniting dependent family members. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Is Canada still a global leader? Certainly . . . but there are worrying changes.” - Thomas Huddleston, Migration Policy Group[/quote]

“It is surprising to see Canada go down [in its score]. If Canada continues to go down this path, we may see a continued score decline, like the U.K.,” said Thomas Huddleston, a policy analyst with Migration Policy Group, the independent European think tank, which released the report. “Canada is still a global leader. The general public has some of the world’s most positive views on immigrants.” 

The Migration Policy Group collaborated with the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement to gather statistics and information on Canadian policies in eight areas including: labour market mobility, family reunion, access to education, health, political participation, long-term residence, access to nationality and anti-discrimination. 

“Is Canada still a global leader? Certainly . . . but there are worrying changes,” said Huddleston. “We find that MIPEX scores very strongly relate to public opinion. The higher the score, the likelier it is that public see immigration as a contribution rather than a threat.” 

Labour Market Mobility

Canada scored an 81 on its ability to provide legal residents with the same labour rights as citizens. Indicators include: access to labour market, access to general support and targeted support and workers’ rights. 

“Canada is one of the world leaders in this regard,” Huddleston said. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“While on paper immigrant workers have the same rights, there’s a real difference if you’re a temporary foreign worker.” - Ratna Omidvar, Global Diversity Exchange[/quote]

Although Canada ranks fifth internationally in terms of labour market mobility, there are major discrepancies between policies and the reality on the ground, according to Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange. 

“While on paper immigrant workers have the same rights, there’s a real difference if you’re a temporary foreign worker,” said Omidvar. “There is a real gap between getting the credentials and getting the job. In terms of precarious work, the data shows [people most impacted by this] are immigrants.” 

Canada is advised to look at countries including New Zealand and Australia for ideas on how to utilize people with foreign skills, including developing mentorship and coaching programs for newcomers. 

Family Reunion 

Canada scored a 79 when examining how easily immigrants can reunite with their family members, by bringing them here. The report cited that recent changes have started to undermine the traditional Canadian policies, which welcomed immigrant families. 

Sponsorship of parents and grandparents was frozen in 2012 and reopened in 2014, to be judged on criteria of economic value, rather than dependency. This new process relies on applicants to have 30 per cent more financial income. Applicants should also be able to cover their family’s basic living expenses. 

Furthermore, fees for this process was deemed high in comparison to other countries and the length requirement to sponsor family members has doubled – from 10 years to 20 years. 

“We were surprised to see restrictions,” Huddleston said. “[The federal government] is creating a more select approach so that only people with certain revenues can bring family members.”           

Access to Education 

Canada scored 65 on its education assessment, which looked at access to education, targeting the needs of newcomers and developing opportunities for this group. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Canada recognizes the importance of diversity and what immigrant children bring to the classroom. This is where Canada leads the world.” - Thomas Huddleston[/quote]

The Index also looked at initiatives by the education system to teach students about multiculturalism, modifying curriculum to serve a diverse student body and promoting intercultural and interfaith understanding. 

“Canada recognizes the importance of diversity and what immigrant children bring to the classroom. This is where Canada leads the world,” Huddleston said. 

Health            

On its ability to provide inclusive, accessible and responsive health care to migrants, Canada scored 49, falling behind 17 other countries. The Index stated that health care is an area of weakness in integration policies, with major differences between provinces. 

“Canada’s ranking here is not surprising considering Canada’s treatment of refugees’ health,” said Morton Beiser, founding director and senior scientist of the Toronto-based Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The MIPEX report found that policies in Canadian health care were weak in addressing diverse populations and providing interpretation of health services.[/quote]

In 2012, the federal government made changes to the Interim Federal Health program, taking away access to basic health care from refugee claimants. Eventually it was restored after public pressure and court orders. The government is continuing its appeal of these court orders. 

The MIPEX report found that policies in Canadian health care were weak in addressing diverse populations and providing interpretation of health services. 

“On Citizenship and Immigration’s website, their advice to immigrants is to get a health card and find a doctor,” said Beiser. “But the website says if their paperwork isn’t done correctly, they might be charged for services, but they can receive free care at a hospital. And then we go around and criticize immigrants for overburdening our hospitals.” 

On the positive side, Beiser did point out initiatives around providing health services to immigrant populations, including clinics and doctors who provide pro-bono services. “It’s wonderful, but it’s not sustainable, nor is it just.” 

Political Participation 

Canada received its lowest score – a 48 – on its ability to integrate newcomers into participating politically. The indicators included: electoral rights, political liberties, consultative bodies and implementation policies. 

Canada is one of the few major destinations without voting rights for permanent residents, the report stated, however, it did acknowledge grassroots movements in Canada, which are mobilizing city leaders behind the idea of granting voting rights to newcomers. 

Immigrant groups in Canada do not have the opportunity to inform policy through consultations with government, which was a process found in 27 out of the 38 countries examined in the Index. The report said that consultative processes encourages diversity in political discourse and promotes inclusive policymaking.           

Long-Term Residence 

In Canada, legal residents have the option to apply for permanent residency, which offers security and near-equal rights, although it is a lengthy and expensive process. This landed the nation a score of 62 on the ability of migrant workers, families and refugees to become long-term residents. 

Canada’s eligibility is wide and flexible, according to the report, and in line with that of  Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Nordic countries.     

Access to Nationality 

This time around, Canada’s score dropped four points to a 67, when it came to the ease of permanent residents becoming citizens. This drop was caused by changes in 2012 and 2014, which made the process longer and more bureaucratic to obtain citizenship. 

The report found that eligibility requirements are overall favourable in Canada, however there are increased restrictions including a delayed wait for naturalization – up to four years from three years – as well as the additions of language proof and a good character requirement. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Getting citizenship is a longer process, more difficult to obtain and it’s easier to be taken away.” - John Shields, Ryerson University[/quote]

John Shields, a Ryerson professor and managing editor of the Journal of International Migration and Integration, said these measures have moved Canada in a different direction. 

“Getting citizenship is a longer process, more difficult to obtain and it’s easier to be taken away,” he explained. For example, the federal government now has the ability to revoke citizenship from dual citizens if they are deemed to have committed crimes against the state. 

Processing fees in obtaining citizenship have increased over six-fold, Shields said, at over $500 for an adult. 

“It’s particularly challenging of newcomer families who are working survival jobs.” 

Collectively, these measures don’t fare well for Canada when it comes to integrating newcomers. 

“We are challenging multicultural values and endangering our score to fall further,” Shields said. 

Anti-Discrimination 

According to the report, Canada is soaring in this area, ranking highest of all countries with a score of 92. This is thanks to the strongest laws on discrimination in the developed world, the report said.

Many types of discrimination are clearly defined in Canada, as opposed to countries such as New Zealand and Sweden. People in Canada are protected in all areas of public life and federal, provincial and territorial human rights codes provide protection against many types of discrimination. 

Despite Canada’s number one spot, Omidvar said there are still challenges which the ranking might not reflect. 

“There’s a big difference between what we say and what we do,” she explained. “The presence of a foreign-sounding name impacts your chances of getting [a job] interview.” 

While the report mentioned the government’s federal level employment equity programs as a success, Omidvar suggested stronger policy to regulate workplaces so that they better reflect demographics around them should be implemented.

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Published in Top Stories
Tuesday, 24 March 2015 16:22

Restoring a True Canadian Narrative

by Danica Samuel (@danicasamuel) in Toronto

It is time for Aboriginals to reclaim their power and influence in Canada. 

This is what author, essayist and president of PEN International John Ralston Saul is advocating for. Host of ‘A New Conversation: Indigenous and New Canadian Perspectives on Canada’ held at Ryerson University Monday night, Saul aims to bring this message to the forefront. He has already sparked a lot of global and national attention on citizenship and the public good with his books A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada and The Comeback.

“Here we are in the new Canadian city with the majority of its population unborn here, it is also the biggest reserve in Canada,” says Saul (pictured to the right). “There’s 75 to 100 thousand Aboriginals and there’s basically no conversation going on, between the people who are from here and the people who are coming here.” 

With both the Native and newcomer voice present, event panellists include: Indigenous author and poet, Lee Maracle, senior advisor to the president of the University of Manitoba, Ovide Mercredi, director of zone learning at Ryerson University, Randy Boyagoda, and executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange, Ratna Omidvar. 

After an opening prayer from Cree elder, Joanne Dallaire, panel members deliver individual opening statements, all underlining the main point: reissue the Canadian narrative back to its original state and find out what the original conversation surrounding Aboriginals consisted of. Furthermore, once the original conversation and narrative is brought to life, share it consistently.

Understanding History 

Mercredi says the lack of knowledge on the issues that Indigenous communities face stems from people not having an understanding of Canadian history. He then alludes that the majority of Aboriginals’ history was spent protecting themselves and avoiding poverty as an essence for survival. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The conversation between the first peoples of Canada and the newest people of Canada is a vacuum, it does not happen.” - Ratna Omidvar, Global Diversity Exchange[/quote]

“Historically, the conversation between [Aboriginals], French and the English, didn’t go too well, because once they got a foothold of our territory they were dismissive of our people our culture and our own sovereignty,” explains Mercredi. 

“Then, began a process of displacement and a process of non-engagement. So, most of the history has been about trying to protect our history.” 

In parallel to Mercredi, Maracle states that European’s colonization over Canada has been nothing, but detrimental.

“Things changed when the British lost their rights to automatic citizenship. It changed because the people coming from the other parts of the world were people of colour,” she explains. “Although, the [British] didn’t lose their place as the dominant white male.” 

Dialogues Without Barriers

The panellists emphasized that the conversation around the land people come to needs to be accurately taught. Boyagoda explains that growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, the talk of native people in Canada was greatly circumvented.

“I probably lived through what I would describe as the institutionalization and professionalization of the conversation around Indigenous rights and relations with the rest of Canada,” he says. He adds the continuation of raw, in-depth conversations would be considered a “luxury good” to a lot of immigrants he knows..

But, Omidvar claims the issue is far more deeply rooted.

“The conversation between the first peoples of Canada and the newest people of Canada is a vacuum, it does not happen,” Omidvar says, passionately. “I think this is a result of the way the country has constructed itself, which encourages people to stay separate as opposed to coming together. It’s the way we have constructed our national narrative.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We have a short history as far as the nation states is concerned, it will be about 150 years old in 2017, when you’re celebrating these years, look around you, how many Indigenous people will be celebrating with you?” - Lee Maracle, University of Manitoba[/quote]

Maracle adds her narrative began with her not being a citizen at all.

“I am not a Canadian, because to say that I would have to say I colonized myself and I was happy doing it. I was under immigration until I was 12 years old and then one day they said you’re a citizen… of what?” she asks. “Who said [Aboriginals] wanted to be [‘Canadian’]. Nobody asked us.”

Making note of Maracle’s maltreatment, Mercredi encourages audience members to think about where their pride for the Canada they know comes from.  

“We have a short history as far as the nation states is concerned, it will be about 150 years old in 2017, when you’re celebrating these years, look around you, how many Indigenous people will be celebrating with you?” he asks. “If poverty remains the result of Canada becoming a nation’s state and the only opportunity we have on our traditional homelands there really isn’t much to celebrate. We have to envision a better country.”

Developing a Better Country

The panellists all put forth various ideas for how to move the Canadian narrative forward. Ratna says developing a better country involves all provinces working together, as some are progressing faster than others. According to Saul provinces like British Columbia, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are ahead in the discussion, but the Maritimes and Ontario fall short.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Stop using the languages that have been forced upon us by universities, because they teach European [education].” - John Ralston Saul[/quote]

Mercredi says that political parties should not dominate the conversations surrounding Indigenous and newcomers – a sentiment the audience applauds.

Saul says the first step in generating a new conversation is changing linguistics.

“Stop using the languages that have been forced upon us by universities, because they teach European [education],” he says. “All of the terminology like ‘nation state’ and ‘sovereignty’ come out of Eurocentric societies and are designed to create monolithic states. This is the fundamental contradiction in the conversation.”

Perhaps most poignant is elder Dallaire, who as she closes the event in prayer, encourages a simple way to start: take the conversation outside academic settings.

“When you meet up with your friends for a drinks bring this discussion to them, and let the conversation spread.”

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Published in Education

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