40 years of OCISO: it all started in the 70s

Celebrate with a special 40th anniversary DONATION – Thank you!

Submitted, with thanks, by OCISO pioneers Betty Bergin and Pat Marshall

Let us go back in time to Ottawa in the early 1970s. People of Indian origin living in Uganda had fled from the horror of Idi Amin’s regime and 7000 had arrived in Canada, as well as an equal number of Latin Americans, principally from Chile. Some of these refugees came to Ottawa. Where could they go for help?

There was a drop-in centre located in the old registry office on Nicholas Street. It was staffed by Sister Thérèse Dallaire of the Catholic Immigration Service, a member of the Inter-Faith Committee. There were also organizations for the Jewish, the Chinese, the West Indians, and the Italians, which served immigrants from their communities. There was, however, no non-denominational or non-ethnic specific group.

At that time, the YM-YWCA ran the International Student Centre to help the many overseas students who had arrived in the 1960s and ‘70s. A group of volunteers with the Centre started an English as a Second Language (ESL) program for the parents of pre-schoolers.

This program was then expanded to include counseling and other orientation services for foreign students and other immigrants.

By the mid-1970s, the International Student Centre had been moved from the YM-YWCA to the High School of Commerce (now the Adult High School) and became the New Canadian Welcome Centre with part time staff and volunteers to served immigrants and refugees.

Members of various ethnocultural groups also became involved in helping new immigrants, though without benefit of staff and offices.

By 1974, the Ontario Government, seeing the need for an organized approach, established the Citizenship Bureau.

The Citizenship Bureau was responsible for developing programs to assist newcomers to Ontario “to adjust to their new environment and to take full advantage of all the opportunities available” and to “encourage cultural interaction for acceptance and understanding of the province’s social diversity.”

By 1975, the wars in Cambodia, Laos and Viêt Nam resulted in an outpouring of refugees. In 1978, 2,450 Vietnamese refugees were in a desperate situation aboard the boat, Hai Hong, moored off the coast of Malaysia which would not allow them to land.

The government of Canada announced that they would accept 600 of these boat people for resettlement. Flexible new regulations to the new Immigration Act were introduced, creating a special ‘designated class’ of immigrants.

The ‘designated class’ of immigrants were persons oppressed in their own country or displaced by emergency situations such as war or revolution who could be sponsored either by the government or through a new private sponsorship program.

In early 1976, a task force called the International Immigrant Services Committee was convened to respond to the expected influx of these Indochinese refugees into Ottawa. The task force recommended the establishment of an agency to play a central role in coordinating the services to newcomers in the Ottawa-Carleton area.

And so, in August 1977, under the direction of a group of volunteers known as the Ottawa-Carleton Immigrant Services Council, the counselling and orientation services provided by the Newcomer Welcome Centre were expanded and re-located to premises at 425 Gloucester Street. An application for incorporation was made to the province of Ontario and in 1978, OCISO (Ottawa-Carleton Immigrant Services Organization) came into being.

A year later, the Mayor of Ottawa, Marian Dewar, announced that for every Southeast Asian refugee sponsored by the government, Ottawa would match them with a private sponsorship and so, in 1979, Project 4000 was born.

By June 1979, the Government quota for Indo-Chinese refugees was 8000.This influx of government-sponsored refugees gave rise to the need for increased services for newcomers. As most of the Vietnamese refugees were referred to OCISO, three Vietnamese staff persons were hired, a Vietnamese office was established in 1979 and these services became the core programs and a model for services still offered at OCISO.