Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in Canada. Many Canadians are worried immigration is straining our public infrastructure and changing Canada for the worse. Six in 10 Canadians believe the government is hiding the true cost of immigration to taxpayers and society, while four in ten feel there are too many immigrants in Canada, according to an Ipsos poll conducted for Global News. Meanwhile, right-wing columnists, as well as influential media outlets south of the border, promote stereotypes of immigrants as job-stealers and welfare-drains.
Yet, immigration is essential for the Canadian economy. In the face of Canada’s aging population and low birth rate, immigrants keep our workforce from shrinking and ensure our government has a healthy tax base, according to research by the Conference Board of Canada. An estimated 250,000 Canadians are expected to retire each year in the coming decade, leaving enormous gaps in the labour market that could be at least partially filled by the 300,000-odd newcomers that arrive in Canada every year. And those numbers don’t even account for the multifaceted ways in which immigrants enrich our public and cultural life.
So, what accounts for the disconnect between the contributions of immigrants and Canadians’ perceptions? Part of the problem is our current model of immigration is focused on deficiencies. Often, the public is exposed to information about what newcomers are lacking, rather than the hope, education, expertise or entrepreneurial instincts newcomers bring with them to Canada.
We, in the immigrant- and refugee-serving sector, can play an important role in shifting this conversation. In fact, it is critical for moving towards Settlement 2.0 — that is, a more effective settlement sector that embraces innovation and empowers newcomers to be agents in their own settlement journey. In order to improve, we need a broader societal approach to settlement, according to research by PeaceGeeks that engaged over 80 stakeholders through consultations and interviews across Canada. That means, shifting our vocabulary and helping Canadians understand the contributions newcomers make.
To begin with, the settlement sector should reassess how we communicate among ourselves. One critical way we can do this is by moving towards asset-based language, rather than needs-based language, across our programming. This can help emphasize the value immigrants bring to Canada. Many employment and mentorship programs have already taken this approach to heart. Rather than focusing on newcomers’ lack of Canadian experience, for example, they focus on how newcomers can fill labour market gaps or create new businesses with their skills, education and lived experiences.
Settlement agencies can also engage their local community in a conversation about how immigration helps their locality. In Windsor, the YMCA of Southwestern Ontario’s We Value Partnership is working on improving immigrant integration by focusing on the assets newcomers bring to the region. Rather than putting new clients through a needs-based assessment, the program uses a capacity-focused settlement assessment that evaluates their strengths, talents and skills alongside areas where they need support. Then, it connects them with services in a way that emphasizes their assets, while using the data to talk about the value of newcomers for the region.
An asset-based approach can also empower immigrants to improve the settlement process. For example, the Refugee Livelihoods Lab at at RADIUS SFU, a social innovation hub at Simon Fraser University, brings together racialized newcomers to find solutions to barriers and discrimination they face by tapping into their own skills and experiences. Participants work together to develop solutions to system problems, including products, businesses and initiatives. Their outputs range from a pop-up market for newcomer women with small businesses to a story-telling app that addresses social isolation among newcomers. So far, they’ve engaged over 900 community members. In addition, 76% of the program’s first cohort had improved employment outcomes, such as finding work more closely related to their skill-set or launching their own business.
The whole settlement sector stands to benefit from widely adopting an approach that recognizes newcomers as assets. In addition to improving programming, this would help us engage our broader community in a positive settlement conversation and promote a whole-of-society approach to integrating newcomers. Shifting the discourse and helping Canadians understand the value of immigration can start with us.