By Neil Armstrong
A policy expert and community activist, a public health advocate, and two historians from Ontario’s Black communities are among the 78 Canadians recently appointed to the Order of Canada by Governor General Mary Simon.
Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), will be one of those who will receive the honour. Her work entails highlighting issues of equity, antiracism, gender, economic class and sexual orientation. She has promoted the creation of safe, welcoming spaces within the settlement and integration sector.
Douglas’s appointment is in recognition of her work — “for advancing principles of equity and inclusion in the Canadian immigration system as a leading policy expert and community activist.”
“I don’t want to pretend that my work in any progressive movement has to do with me only. It’s always a collective effort, and so I think it provides a bigger platform to be able to raise some of these issues and to put some of them on the public agenda — issues of migration and race, and migration and sexual orientation,” says Douglas.
She says the appointment is also important for her and other Black women leaders, “who are often not recognized for the work that we do as we continue to toil in various communities and in various ways to try and make this place where we live a better place, with so much systemic issues around.”
Douglas will continue to raise issues such as the regularization of status, the systemic racism that exists in the immigration system — for example, families from Africa are overly DNA tested, she said —and it allows her and colleagues to pay attention to what’s happening with refugee claimants, especially with queer refugees, but also other refugees coming from the continent.
She believes that it is because OCASI, Black community churches and other faith groups, and Black organizations have stepped up in a way that has never been seen before on the African refugee issue why there is some response from the federal government to what’s happening in Sudan with the announcement that it will provide a family sponsorship program for Sudanese.
“Still need the federal government to step up in a big way, in terms of refugee claimants’ shelter and housing, in terms of supporting the municipalities where they are located, but also in funding things like a reception centre. They’ve put some money into and found a space in Peel Region — the $7M is not enough because we know there are hundreds and hundreds of refugee claimants who are in Ontario, some were relocated from Quebec, but many others have arrived, in the last year, through Pearson.”
The OCASI executive director said they will continue to see people looking for safety as governments in some countries, including Uganda, Kenya and Ghana, implement draconian laws that persecute people based on their sexual orientation.
“We have got to ensure that the same reception that we gave to Ukrainians that we’re giving to African refugee claimants. The same reception that we gave to Ukrainians in the war is the same reception that we’re giving to people in Sudan where there is a budding civil war, people from Congo where unrest has been going on forever.”
For many years, Douglas worked in frontline management and executive positions with community-based service agencies. As a management consultant, she worked both with Non-Governmental Organizations and public institutions on organizational development and change.
She was a member of the provinces’ Expert Panel on Immigration which published the report, Routes to Success, and led to the province’s first immigration legislation (2015); sat as a member of the provincial government’s Income Security Reform Working Group (2018); a member of the Immigration and Refugee Advisory Committee of Legal Aid Ontario and the federal government’s National Settlement Council.
Douglas was the co-founder of Zami, a political and support group for LGBTI Black and Caribbean people in the early 1980s.
She is the recipient of several awards including the Women of Distinction from YWCA Toronto (2004), and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations Anti-Racism Award (2014), among others.