Immigrants making their mark in Canada honoured
June 30, 2017
The plan was to spend just two years at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) doing an assessment, seeing what the organization needed to better serve its constituents and making recommendations.
Nearly 19 years later Debbie Douglas is still there leading a sector of more than 230 agencies committed to immigrant and refugee integration along with social and economic inclusion.
OCASI was formed in 1978 to act as a collective voice for immigrant serving agencies and to co-ordinate responses to shared needs and concerns.
“The reason I am still with OCASI is because the work this organization does is incredibly important,” said Douglas who is a 2017 Pioneer for Change Award recipient for excellence in community engagement. “It ranges from immigration policy and ensuring Canada is living up to this great image it puts out there in the world to guaranteeing that once people do come here, they are able to participate and thrive with the promise we have made to them.”
As an immigrant coming from a family dedicated to community service makes Douglas the perfect candidate for the role.
“By the time I left Grenada when I was 10, I had already being exposed to the benefits of giving back,” she said. “You can imagine how happy I was to find a job that allowed me to fulfil this passion and make a difference.”
The recipient of several awards, this honour holds a special place in Douglas’ heart.
The Pioneers for Change Awards program is administered by Skills for Change, a Toronto-based non-profit agency established in 1982 that provides learning and training opportunities for immigrants and refugees to access and fully participate in the workplace and the wider society.
“They have pioneered a number of initiatives that have made a difference, particularly for internationally-trained professionals,” said Douglas who graduated from York University with a sociology degree in 1985.
She extolled the leadership of Surranna Sandy, the organization’s chief executive officer.
“Surranna is able to identify gaps, make partnerships with other organizations not only here in Toronto but in the province,” Douglas pointed out. “By absolutely understanding community development, she has taken the organization to another level.”
Douglas dedicated the award to OCASI which last year joined hands with the City of Toronto to launch a city-wide public education campaign to address xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments.
To mark International Women’s Day last March, the organization teamed up Le Mouvement Ontarien des Femmes Immigrantes Francophones (MOFIF) to unveil a graphic novel, ‘Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women’s Resilience’. The graphic novel is part of a public education campaign to prevent sexual violence in Ontario.
“I work with a brilliant team that goes beyond what is expected,” she said. “This is thankless work we do every day.”
Douglas singled out associate executive director Eta Woldeab for high praise.
“When I got to OCASI, she was already carrying the organization,” she said. “Eta has just being a stalwart over the last 25 years. This award is because of her and the work I do is because she keeps the organization going operationally so I can be out and about making noise, fighting with governments and doing the kind of things I love to do.”
Other Pioneers for Change winners were Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) artistic director Cameron Bailey, second-year Nigerian international student Lily Akagbosu who is enrolled at Carleton University, entrepreneur Shaji Nada who came to Canada as a 19-year-old refugee from Sri Lanka, federal judge Alan Diner and humanitarian Leen Al Zaibak who co-founded the Syrian Canadian Foundation.
A total of 127 immigrants have been bestowed with the awards since 1993.