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Immigrant and Indigenous Solidarity Workshop a great learning experience

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

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  • Fuerza/Puwersa Guelph volunteers stand outside a health fair for migrant workers.

    Fuerza/Puwersa Guelph volunteers stand outside a health fair for migrant workers.

Written by Peter Miller

The Harper Conservative Federal Government has been attacking immigrants and indigenous communities during their time in office.  With the Conservative Government’s new bills, recent migrants in Canada will become the largest prison population. For instance, the Federal Government recently passed a bill that makes detention mandatory if the identity of the refugee claimant cannot be established, human smuggling is suspected or the claimant arrived in Canada by “irregular arrival.” Asylum seekers also face the risk of deportation if they come from a country that is deemed as safe by the government. Bill C-31 denies the class of asylum seekers from these countries access to basic health-care services. Meanwhile, despite the federal government admitting that criminalization of indigenous women in Canada is at “crisis levels,” Harper’s tough on crime agenda will result in exasperating this problem.

These issues and more were discussed during the Immigrant and Indigenous Solidarity event at 10 Carden Street last Wednesday. The event was hosted by Fuerza/Puwersa – Guelph and OPIRG Guelph with speakers from No One is Illegal Toronto and London.

MaryCarl Guiao and Eduardo Huesca from Fuerza/Puwersa started off the workshop. Fuerza/Puwersa stands for "strength" in Spanish and Tagalog. The group of community members in Guelph is dedicated to exposing the injustices faced by migrant workers in Canada. They believe that “all beings deserve dignity, agency, and the ability to both “move” and “stay” wherever on earth we choose, according to our basic and self-determined needs.” The group’s activities include raising critical awareness about migrant justice issues, and particularly the issues workers face under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker’s (SAWP) program as well as the Live-in Caregiver program (LCP).

The thousands of migrant workers that come through the SAWP to Canada face many issues while on the job. They are often placed in rural communities that are extremely isolating. Workers can face up to 9 months away from their families in various countries where they come from like Jamaica, and Mexico. They often face dangerous working conditions (for example, from exposure to pesticides), they do not have the right to form unions and collectively bargain, they get paid lower wages than Canadian workers, and they often work 12 to 15 hour days, six days a week.

Each year the LCP brings thousands of people from the Global South, the majority coming from the Philippines, into Canada to work as caregivers providing live-in care for Canadian children, seniors and people with disability/ies.  Although the LCP is the only program of the Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Program or TFWP to offer workers an opportunity to apply to become a permanent resident (this can only be done after they have completed the program’s mandatory work requirements within 2-4 years of their arrival in Canada), like all programs of the TFWP, many human rights issues are experienced on the job.  Guiao argues that “this is due to the unchecked excessive amount of power granted by government to employers over those working as migrant workers.”  Adding to that, Guiao points out that “The Canadian government is increasingly denying both entrance into the LCP and the granting of permanent resident status to those working under the LCP.  This is a demonstration of Canada moving towards getting rid of any programs or infrastructure that offer a pathway to permanent residency, meaning any infrastructure that continues to offer any protections for migrants and immigrants against exploitation and other forms of abuse – being granted permanent residency significantly increases the chances of being protected against abuse.  This is all a part of the broader shift of Canada’s immigration system to staying away from building citizenship, and in place, expanding the number of pathways to temporary migration to here in order to continue to build a super-dehumanizableexploitable labour supply in Canada.”

Guiao and Huesca spoke about past work done by Fuerza/Puwersa. The group works on supporting and advocating with migrant workers. The group has done health workshops for migrant workers in rural communities in Ontario in the past, providing information and workshops on alternative healthcare, and providing information letting migrant workers know their rights, and how to access basic health care. For instance, Fuerza/Puwersa has translated healthcare resources that are not available to migrant workers in their own language. The group also organizes both the May Day Potluck that brings migrant justice activists to speak in Guelph, as well as buses from Guelph to Toronto for the May Day rally organized by No One is Illegal on May 1st each year. In the past, the group also organized a protest by Liz Sandal’s office, which was called “Solidarity with the Hands that Feed Us.” Liz Sandals, Guelph’s MPP is against giving Migrant Workers the right to unionize and collectively bargain, and on the same day as this protest, the group went to the Supreme Court to support a group fighting for the right of migrant workers to unionize. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not give agricultural workers this basic human right. The group also organized a protest when Jason Kenney, Canada’s immigration minister, came to Guelph. Kenney has pushed legislation that has been detrimental to the rights of refugees that are mentioned above. In the future, Fuerza/Puwersa will be looking to gain grant money, continue to provide health workshops, and know your rights workshops for migrant workers in Ontario, and also start a campaign against a local employer of migrant workers that is abusing its employees. The group is looking for new members and if you are interested in helping out, you should contact  .

Harsha Walia, an organizer from “No One is Illegal” Vancouver also spoke at the event. Walia spoke broadly about how displacement from colonialism and capitalism has forced many migrants to seek refuge in countries like Canada. Walia cited many examples of when western imperialism has resulted in an increase in immigration from different countries. The North American Free Trade Agreement has resulted in an estimated 12 million refugees from Mexico because of social and economic displacement, and over 6,000 Mexican refugees died last year as they tried to escape from Mexico to the United States due to increased militarization of the US – Mexico border. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have caused these countries to have the highest population of refugees fleeing them in the world. Walia also mentioned how by 2050 it is estimated there will be from 50 million to 200 million refugees as a result of climate change. Industrialized countries like the United States and Canada are the most at fault for climate change providing another example that shows western countries are often the one’s responsible for forcing members of the world’s population to be refugees. Walia connected the plight of refugees around the world to the indigenous community in Canada. Not only have indigenous people been displaced as a result of colonialism, but displacement of native communities is occurring today. The Alberta Tar Sands have forced indigenous people in the province to move to cities like Vancouver because of the negative health conditions created from the extraction of oil.

Trini Kaos also spoke about creating inclusive and accessible campaigns for migrant communities during the event. Kaos’ workshop focused on tools for organizing respectfully within migrant communities. It was discussed that organizations should use inclusive language. For instance, oppressive language like using the term “illegal” to describe a group creates marginalization of immigrant communities. Using accessible tactics for non-status communities was also discussed. Kaos called on activist organizations to mark their events and protests with green zone, orange zone, or red zone. Green zone’s are events where there is no chance, for orange zones there is a small chance, and  for red zones there is a high probability that activists in the action will get arrested. It is good to have this transparency because non-status immigrants face the risk of being deported if they are arrested. Kaos also called on the audience to use translators to rewrite materials when seeking to reach out to communities along with a lot of other great advice.

Another organizer from No One is Illegal London also spoke about the event. Sâkihitowin Awâsis discussed how to show solidarity with indigenous communities.  Awâsis discussed indigenous history. Included was discussion about various federal policy and actions that have greatly harmed and discriminated against indigenous people in Canada, including the Indian act and the colonization of native land, residential schools, resource exploitation of native land, and other examples. The speaker spoke about the importance of calling on the federal government to recognize the many indigenous nation’s in Canada right to self-determination. The relationship between natives and settlers in Canada should be mutually nurturing and not an extremely exploitative relationship like it has been in the past and still is today. The speaker told participants that solidarity work is empowering and emphasized that it is important to be on the same page, and negotiate goals with the indigenous community you are working with. It is also important to have a structure in your organization that reflects the population you are doing solidarity work with.

The event was comprehensive and very helpful for activists that attended it. Afterwards, there was a hip hop show at the Albion Hotel to celebrate past work over the year done by different people attending the event. The celebration was a great way to unwind and get ready for future actions and events by organizations like Fuerza/Puwersa, OPIRG, and No One is Illegal.

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