Despite its goodwill towards refugees, Canada is failing them when it comes to education policies, according to a study by Valerie Schutte, a graduate from the University of Ottawa’s Masters in Education program and an intern at the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Denmark.
Schutte examined whether Canada’s education policies, which fall under the jurisdiction of provinces and territories, matched the recommendations of the UN agency’s global refugee education strategy. Her findings, presented last week at the annual Metropolis Canada Conference, Migrants, Migration and Mobility: COVID-19 Response and Recovery, paint a disappointing picture. Schutte declined a request for an interview by NCM.
Since taking power in 2015, the Liberals have had a friendly attitude toward refugees and immigration more broadly. This openness to refugees was one of the party’s election campaign pillars. Justin Trudeau promised to take in as many as 25,000 refugees after photos of the three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, went viral on social media.
Trudeau’s government has remained committed to that initial promise, even though its record on it has been checkered. Refugee protection claims kept rising from 13,459 in 2015 to 42,491 in 2019, before dropping to 25,866 in the pandemic year of 2020. Between 2015 and 2020, Canada received a total of 145,895 claims. With refugees coming into Canada, often with their children, existing policy frameworks need to account for the newcomers.
Education for refugee inclusion
The UN Refugee Education 2030 strategy has three main objectives, which have to do with inclusion, safe learning environments, and enabling learners to use their education toward sustainable futures.
Schutte examined 155 education policy documents from every province and territory through the lens of objective two, which seeks to “foster safe enabling environments that support learning for all students, regardless of legal status, gender or disability.” The result expected by the strategy’s framers is to prepare refugee children and youth “to learn and succeed in national education systems” by enabling them to make up for missed schooling, and providing them with adequate language training and mental health support, among others.
Refugee children are “more likely to be out of school than their non-refugee peers,” Schutte said during her presentation. “Majority of refugee children experience interruptions in formal education, inadequate quality of education and difference in curricula used in different jurisdictions.”
“Nearly all refugee children require accelerated education,” Schutte said. “Twenty-three per cent had no prior formal education before coming to Canada. Most had missed three to four years of schooling. Furthermore, “81 per cent were from countries where the United Nations institute for statistics notes that there are issues related to educational quality.”
But Canada’s education policies show a lack of “coherence” with the UN strategy in such categories as access to education, accelerated education (education that helps refugees catch up to their peers), language education in English and French, social and emotional learning, sensitization to refugees, mental health support, and special education.
Canada’s policy: “gaps and inconsistencies”
Canadian provinces did best in the category of access, but there is a lot of room for improvement there. Six provinces had policies that were coherent with the education strategy, but seven provinces either had no policies or the policies they had did not match the objective.
“While many Canadian educational jurisdictions have refugee education policies, they are characterized by significant gaps and inconsistencies,” Schutte said.
For the remaining categories, the majority of the policies don’t achieve parity with the report, if they exist at all. Canadian provinces appear to have no policies on mental health supports or special education, while the majority of them are incoherent.
When accounting for how many people live in jurisdictions whose policies reflect the UN Refugee Agency’s goals, once again access to education is the only one in which Canada scores good marks. About 65 per cent of refugees live in jurisdictions that make it easy to attain education for refugees. In the rest of the categories, the majority live in areas with large policy gaps.
“To be coherent with Refugee Education 2030, Canadian education policy should respond to the needs present [among] resettled refugees and refugee claimant children residing in these jurisdictions,” Schutte stressed.