Like many others, I was shocked, saddened, and at a loss for words when I heard of Stephen’s tragic and sudden passing. Alongside my former colleagues at Citizens for Public Justice, I continue to grieve this loss of life amongst the ongoing inequities and injustices of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While working together at CPJ, Stephen and I collaborated on a few projects, bringing him up to speed on our work surrounding eliminating the repayment of travel loans for refugees, identifying discrimination in both policies and practices towards racialized refugees in particular, and continued work advocating for the end of the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement. I remember Stephen as a devoted advocate, a proud family man, and an accomplished academic. I cherish memories of our staff gatherings at lunch, bonding as peoples of the African diasporas, and recall how beneath his quiet demeanour stood a great sense of humour. As we continue to grieve this loss collectively, there is much of Stephen‘s work on refugee rights that must be continued.
I first met Stephen when he joined CPJ as the inaugural, full-time Refugee Rights policy analyst. He had started this position during my tenure as the Public Justice Intern working on the same portfolio, so we had the opportunity to collaborate on projects and work together closely, even if for a short period of time. Our alignment centred largely on a shared passion for addressing systemic barriers, racism and other forms of discrimination within immigration policies as they affected refugees and refugee claimants while highlighting areas where churches and faith groups could have an impact in supporting positive changes to said policies. Stephen was additionally, particularly supportive of my work providing intersectional analysis to refugee rights policymaking while focusing on anti-oppressive ways of conducting advocacy. I also had the opportunity to travel and work with Stephen in Montreal during CPJ’s Fall Tour, witnessing firsthand his calming presence in a room and how well he was able to engage with CPJ members, the public and guests, and get them excited about the work that we were doing.
I remember Stephen as a devoted advocate, a proud family man, and an accomplished academic.
Over the course of his two years at CItizens for Public Justice, Stephen was able to build relationships with coalition members, government officials and fellow advocates that had and will continue to have a lasting impact within refugee rights advocacy. Stephen often recognized that there was not enough being done to support refugees and more generally, newcomers in Canada. However, he believed that we hold the capacity as a country, through governments, and for those of us with the privilege of citizenship, to be able to do more!
From creating care structures and support systems centred on lived experiences, speeding up processing times, to reducing financial burdens and overall, providing a more fulsome welcome to those fleeing persecution, upholding refugee rights can and should be more than just the bare minimum of what Canada can offer.
Stephen highlighted this in his work by furthering the findings of CPJ’s 2017 report A Half Welcome in its 2020 progress report, Continuing Welcome. A Half Welcome looked at concerns raised by sponsorship agreement holders and the issues they were running into while supporting the resettlement of refugees during a time when Canada was increasing refugee entries into the country. This new report allowed for further analysis of these concerns and the inequalities that exist within the immigration system by looking at whether or not things had changed in a meaningful manner.
Continuing Welcome reiterated that there is still so much more work to be done to create accessible, supportive, and efficient processes for sponsors, refugees and refugee claimants. Some of these recommendations included highlighting, again, the need for further elimination of backlogs, continuing the call for the full elimination of travel loan repayment for refugees, developing more accessible processes for sponsorship agreement holders, and calling for further analysis of current processes and their shortfalls. Additionally, he pointed to how the implementation of various new processes would better serve these communities by improving refugee integration.
Additional work that Stephen took on included coalition building to release reports like Slamming the Door with STAND Canada and STAND USA. This report focused on the Safe Third Country Agreement, contained a pressing recommendation for Canada to declare the United States a threat to refugee claimants and an unsafe country for them to be in. It also highlighted that changes needed to be made to prevent the continued use of discriminatory language against refugee claimants, alongside changes to inhumane operations based on this policy.
These inequities that Stephen saw and brought to light in CPJ’s work continue through the COVID-19 pandemic, with the closure of the land border between Canada and the US and the full restriction of refugee claimants; their travel deemed “non-essential,” despite the fact that many others have been given exemptions to cross the border.
Stephen also saw opportunities to draw attention to the overlap between CPJ’s two other key policy areas by examining how refugees are impacted disproportionately by both poverty and climate change. In doing so, he recognized that Canada plays a significant role in creating the circumstances that lead to climate-based migration and thus, the creation of displaced peoples and refugees. Moreover, that refugees face both logistical barriers to economic prosperity but also systemic discrimination, preventing them from receiving safe and stable employment opportunities and continuing to exacerbate situations of precarity that result in poverty.
Stephen’s legacy as an advocate incorporates a commitment to addressing inequities alongside his passion and dedication to upholding refugee rights in what is currently Canada, Uganda and beyond. His work serves as a reminder and an example that we should continue to strive for the protection of refugee rights. His work shows us that we should do all that we can in our power to advocate for positive changes in policy from our governments, in order to accomplish this goal. I remain grateful for the short time that I was able to spend learning from and working with Stephen. As CPJ looks to the future of its refugee rights work, the foundation Stephen built as the first policy analyst will set the bar for the advocacy to come. CPJ will, undoubtedly, continue to honour his legacy in shaping the way we approach refugee rights advocacy and policymaking.