In October 1993, approximately 300 Portuguese-Canadians and Luso-Descendants, originating from nearly every major region of this country, met in Ottawa, for a conference, which was unprecedented in the Luso-Canadian community. After nearly 40 years of Portuguese immigration to Canada, the participants at that event, created for the first time in the history of this community, a national, political organization; one that could lobby for the interests of Portuguese-Canadians before the various local, provincial and national governments. Coming from the Atlantic Maritime provinces to the Pacific shores of British Columbia the delegates christened the nascent organization the Luso-Canadian National Congress, and entrusted it with the objectives of lobbying towards the quality of life, rights, and equality of opportunity of the Portuguese-Canadian community (see www.congresso.ca).
The Congress, as it is now known in the community, works towards these objectives through direct lobbying, information exchange, education and consultation to governments, public organizations and non-governmental organizations. Until the Ottawa conference, the Portuguese was one of the few major immigrant communities in Canada that had still not created a Congress. Fortunately, the occasion was marked by widespread enthusiasm, a strong presence on the part of the second generation, as well as by excellent regional representation.
Since its inception, the Congress has achieved a few successes, as well as struggled with a number of ongoing challenges.
In the formative years, the organization elected over 20 regional Directors, commissioned and published the first national study of the needs of the community (Portuguese-Canadians From Sea to Sea), successfully lobbied the Canadian government to withdraw the visa requirement for Portuguese visitors to Canada, organized a national youth conference and made presentations to numerous government commissions and Ministers. It also engaged in formal submissions that defended the teaching and use of the Portuguese language on radio, television and schools (e.g. through presentations to the CRTC – Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission – The body that regulates the airwaves, in this country).
In the mid 1990’s, the Congress entered a difficult transition phase. The challenge of coordinating a volunteer organization across the expanse of the world’s second largest country was made more onerous by the lack of a paid professional staff, as well as by the fact that most Congress Directors, at the time, were still not habitual Internet users. The election of a new Board of Directors, with little experience in coordinating a volunteer organization, resulted in the Congress becoming inactive for a number of years.
In early 2001, the organization was reactivated by a group of members in Toronto, who organized new elections and reopened the Toronto office. The new Executive also negotiated with the Canadian Federal Government’s Department of Multiculturalism for a community project, which would allow the organization to hire employees for the first time.
By abandoning its reliance on volunteer work, the organization grew and expanded the scope of its activities. By 2007, the Congress office had become home to six staff members, who coordinated and participated in several projects. These dealt with such issues as: community health; the coordination of roundtables on important regional problems; the political and civic involvement of youth; the creation of a website to promote the Portuguese language and culture (see www.Força.ca); the defense of undocumented immigrants; as well as helping educate parents on ways to better assist their children’s development.
The Congress also served as the catalyst for the creation to two national networks of professionals: The Portuguese-Canadian Lawyers’ Association (www.pclaonline.com) and the Portuguese-Canadian Educators’ Network. A group of Congress volunteers also initiated a biennial awards ceremony, the COPA’s (Celebrating Outstanding Portuguese-Canadian Achievement, see www.copaawards.com, which recognized those individuals of Portuguese descent who have distinguished themselves in Canadian life and culture.
At this time, the Congress also managed to overcome one of the gaps that had limited its voice through the years: The need for greater representation in the organization on the part of Luso-Canadians of Azorean origins. Despite the fact that, the Portuguese-Canadian community is composed of approximately 60% to 80% of Azoreans and their descendants, the Congress had historically achieved little participation on its Board of Directors, on the part of individuals from these origins. The result is that the organization was seen by some as a body whose Board did not fully reflect the diverse origins of the Luso-Canadian community.
This changed in 2006 with the election of four Directors of Azorean origins: Emanuel Linhares, National President; Marcie Ponte, National Vice-President; Terry Costa, Western Region Vice-President; and Melissa Arruda, Ontario Youth Vice-President. These individuals also brought to the Congress a vast range of experience in the running of nonprofit organizations, financial management, and community mobilizing.
Despite these developments, the Congress continues to face a number of challenges. Perhaps the greatest of these is the need to better define the focus of its future activities. With its projects in the early 2000s, the Congress expanded beyond its traditional role as watchdog of government legislation and policy, to engage in activities that are normally the responsibility of social service agencies (ex. Public Health). This step was necessary since the Canadian Federal Government does not sponsor projects that are predominantly political. So maintaining an involvement in social projects was one way for the Congress to hire and retain the needed staff to support its other activities. Unfortunately, these projects also take up the bulk of the time and energy of the organization and represent a movement away from its primary role, as a watchdog of government policy and practice. They also place the organization in competition for needed funds against local social service agencies.
Thus, one future challenge for the Congress will be to find a way to conciliate its active involvement in governmental social policy matters, with the need to secure the needed funding to help it retain qualified support staff. Another challenge is to promote a greater involvement on the part of those community members with the skills to contribute to non-governmental organizations (ex. non-profit administration, education, finances, research, law and public policy). In this regard, the Congress has been very successful, since the organization has tended to attract a greater proportion than other Luso-Canadian organizations of volunteers with post-secondary and professional degrees.
Unfortunately, this has also served to create a cultural distance between the community and the organization. One of the greatest ongoing challenges of the Congress is the fact that, a large segment of the community still does not fully understand the nature of the work in which it is engaged. Another hurdle has been the inability to effectively communicate its activities to the wider Luso-Canadian population. This has sometimes made the task of mobilizing the community more difficult.
Thus, the current and future challenges for the Congress will be to continue to attract greater numbers of qualified volunteers to its ranks, to secure ongoing funding for its activities, to take on a greater leadership role and to do a better job of explaining its work to all Portuguese-Canadians. As it currently undertakes an organizational review, nearly 20 years after its inception, it’s hoped that this association will finally be able to fully realize the hopes and aspirations of its founders, at the 1993 Ottawa conference.
Fernando Nunes, Ph.D.
Department of Child & Youth Study
Mount Saint Vincent University
Halifax, Nova Scotia
September 21, 2010