When people have difficulty communicating, they have difficulty accessing justice. This is the theme for the recently-established Connecting Ottawa/Connexion Ottawa network.
Spearheaded by South Ottawa Community Legal Services (SOCLS), Connecting Ottawa/Connexion Ottawa is comprised of over 42 community agencies across the city. Its goal is to better link agency clients with a communication-related impairment with legal information and services.
How it all began
SOCLS executive director Gary Stein and SOCLS office manager Chris Killoran recall that the network’s inception was about four years ago, with a Law Foundation of Ontario (LFO) request for proposal. The LFO was seeking an Ontario entity to design a local planning network that would connect agencies and LFO resources. The LFO selected three projects for basic funding, one of which was OCLS’s Connecting Ottawa proposal. In 2010, the LFO chose SOCLS to receive operational funding to implement their plans.
The new organization based its next steps on Ottawa’s unique demographics. Ottawa is linguistically diverse – more than 89,000 residents speak a non-official language at home, and the city is home to 69 mother tongues (the most common are Chinese, Arabic, Somali, Spanish, and Farsi).
Over 25,000 immigrants in the city are people with a vision impairment, and 15,000 have a speech-related disability. Furthermore, 37 per cent of Ottawa’s recent immigrants and 17 per cent of persons with disabilities have low incomes.
SOCLS and its partners recognized the need to increase access to justice for clients with communication-related impairments, such as language barriers, or hearing, vision, or speaking impairments. It also recognized the need to help agencies connect and locate resources.
“We don’t need new organizations to fill this gap – we just need to better connect the ones that already exist,” explains Gary.
How it comes together
Two years ago, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) provided additional funding to the project. SOCLS used it to hire a full-time coordinator, who created a Welcome to Connecting Ottawa website. The site links front-line community agency staff with connections and resources in the legal world, including assessment, information, and referrals for intake workers and counselors at the project’s partner agencies.
The project’s full-time lawyer and a social worker are available to consult with front-line community agency staff. They are only a phone call away from agencies across the city, and can keep regular office hours at different organizations when required.
In addition, Connecting Ottawa organized and trained a group of volunteer facilitators to support those clients who cannot physically get to another referral or intake point. These volunteers speak a huge number of languages – most are foreign-trained professionals who want to contribute and give back to their community. They assist the client in any way possible to get them to where they need to be.
The project has certainly made a splash across the city of Ottawa, and across Canada as a whole. Project delegates have already been invited to the Canadian Public Education conference in Toronto and the 2013 Metropolis conference in Ottawa.
As a one-of-a-kind project in Ontario, SOCLS hopes that Connecting Ottawa can serve as a model for other communities. As Chris puts it, “we’ve made the commitment to educate communities and organizations that want to know more, and help others develop their own model.”