OCASI – A Collective Voice for Immigrant Serving Agencies
By Christopher Wulff
On a Tuesday afternoon in April, the office of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) is alive with energy and activity. Tonight the Council will help host the launch of a new report produced by the Institute for Social Research, York University highlighting the rising poverty and growing divide between racialized minority newcomers and European immigrants. This is an issue that OCASI has been working on since its creation in 1978, and the staff are excited to see it front and centre again.
“It may look really busy around here as we get ready, but this is a very normal day for us,” said Khanh Le, OCASI’s Manager of Finance and Resource Development. “We always have new initiatives and new projects starting, and we are really involved with our membership on many issues, so there’s always high energy in our organization. Yes, there’s always a lot going on here.”
OCASI was formed to act as a collective voice for immigrant serving agencies, so they could communicate with each other, develop coordinated responses to government and media, and share resources and information. They have more than 170 community-based member organizations and are a registered charity governed by a volunteer board of directors with representatives from all across the province. The mission of OCASI is to achieve equality, access and full participation for immigrants and refugees in every aspect of Canadian life.
While OCASI does not provide direct service to immigrants and refugees in Ontario, they support a province-wide network of member organizations who help newcomers participate and integrate in their new communities. This support includes professional development opportunities, policy development and advocacy, as well as many special projects relevant to newcomers. They also run Settlement.Org, Canada’s premier information website for newcomers and Etablissement.Org, a resource for Francophone newcomers in Ontario.
Public education and government policy reform are important parts of OCASI’s mandate, as they work for positive and accurate representation of immigrant and refugee issues and concerns in the media, in public debate and in political discourse. Some of the issues they’re working on right now include access to professions and trades, the regularization of non-status persons, and family reunification.
OCASI’s advocacy and policy work involves not only its many members but also partners in many fields. “Working on policy issues related to newcomers in Ontario can be difficult sometimes because there isn’t an issue out there that doesn’t affect newcomers in some way,” said Paulina Maciulis, Manager of Policy and Programs. “To address newcomer issues of health, of housing, of employment, we need to work with all kinds of partners, including government, businesses, labour and other advocacy and service delivery organizations.” Martha Orellana, Membership Services Coordinator, highlights the importance of OCASI’s grassroots approach with its membership, saying “it allows us to do really effective consultation and gather constant input from others in identifying priority issues.”
The 170 member agencies of OCASI provide community and social programs for immigrants and refugees, and many offer specialized programs for women, refugees, seniors and young people. They provide workshops, trainings and an annual professional development conference to help their agencies deliver the best services they can. The Council’s objectives in this area are to enhance the professional competency and skills of immigrant service workers and volunteers and to facilitate networking and information-sharing of innovative approaches and expertise.
On top of its member support and advocacy work, OCASI also has many other projects keeping the office busy. These special projects include supporting the Toronto Social Development Network, working with Community Colleges on accelerated training programs, and developing resources to prevent violence against women, amongst many others. One of the most significant projects of the organization is its communications, like the Settlement.Org websites and its own website www.ocasi.org, where people can find information about OCASI and the many issues it’s working on.
It seems that the hustle and bustle found in the OCASI office that Tuesday afternoon was just a regular day for an organization working hard to make it a little bit easier for newcomers to settle in Ontario.