It has been almost three decades since the federal government lifted a ban on queer immigrants, and 13 years since the Supreme Court Of Canada ruled that homos could apply for refugee status based on their sexual orientation. Now a coalition of Toronto organizations is launching what its members say is a first: a program to teach the city’s service agencies about the unique needs of queer immigrants.
“Agencies themselves don’t feel they have the capacity — a lot of times they recognize it’s a gap but don’t feel comfortable because they don’t have the training,” says Rachna Contractor, program coordinator for the new Among Friends program.
Newcomers to Canada may face difficulties including navigating the healthcare system and government bureaucracy, language barriers, difficulty finding employment, and discrimination. These problems are often compounded for queer immigrants; a lack of queer-positive space can shrink already limited options. Refugees may also face the burden of proving their sexuality to immigration authorities through community involvement or other means.
“It’s clear from all studies on the topic of what immigrants really need to adapt well to their homeland is it is not just general immigration services, but services targeted to specific communities,” says Michael Battista, a Toronto-based immigration and refugee law lawyer. “These services go a long way toward supporting an immigrant in the community, such as the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer] community.”
In April representatives from the 519 Community Centre, CultureLink and the Access Alliance Multicultural Community Health Centre launched the three-year program, funded by a $224,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
It seems a bit counterintuitive that Toronto, the largest destination for queer newcomers in Canada, didn’t already have these sorts of services. Shouldn’t community agencies already have the skills to create these safe spaces?
Battista agrees. “It’s surprising that it’s taken this long. It has been a real hole in service provision in Canada.”
“There are currently no services in Toronto which confidently deliver to queer and trans newcomers, other than AIDS service organizations (ASOs), which predominantly focus on their HIV/AIDS prevention mandate,” says Contractor.
“ASOs such as Asian Community AIDS Services or Alliance For South Asian AIDS Prevention have largely been serving people of colour who are queer or trans beyond what falls within their mandate. But these groups are the only ones who know how to deliver the service from an antiracist, queer-and trans-positive framework,” she adds.
The Among Friends program has two mutually supportive components. First, up to 150 community agencies will receive specialized training about the needs, challenges and experiences of queer immigrants and refugees. For instance, The 519’s volunteers and staff will study best practices for working with new-comers, while Access Alliance will learn about creating queer-positive space.
Second, newcomers will largely provide the training. “This project allows people to participate by providing work experience and involvement in the community… and increase access to settlement agencies through their involvement in the project,” says Janet Rowe, program manager at The 519.
Among Friends was spawned by another project of the same name. Staff members from several community agencies used a City Of Toronto grant to create a guide to serving queer refugees. When the Among Friends guide was published in 2005 the committee members decided to take it a step further.
“The folks on the advisory committee identified this gap and a need for more service for LGBTQ refugees,” says Rowe, who would like to see targeted education for settlement agencies on the needs of queer immigrants and refugees.
“We sought out Access Alliance and CultureLink and both were very keen to work collaboratively on a project that would train settlement agencies on LGBTQ issues and LGBTQ agencies on newcomer issues.”
“It’s an extremely exciting initiative,” says Battista. “It seems to be a very important step in supporting LGBTQ newcomers. “But I think much more is going to be required — it’s just a temporary program. Three years, in my view, would provide just a start up for a program designed to serve tremendous needs.”