[Part 1 of 3 of an in-depth investigative series.]
For over two decades, Canada has welcomed an average of 250,000 immigrants per year. These newcomers often settle into any one of the country’s major metropolitan centres, chiefly Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal or Calgary.
For countless new immigrants, uprooting their families and rebuilding their lives from scratch in Canada is made easier with the help of settlement agencies. But the future of some government-funded settlement agencies now hangs in limbo – including in Ontario, which boasts hundreds of agencies catering to newcomers.
Many of these organizations anxiously await the unveiling of Canada’s federal budget on April 21.
“Is there going to be another reduction? What is the scale of the reduction?” wonders Moy Wong-Tam, Executive Director of Toronto-based Centre for Immigrant and Community Services (CICS).
“Every year, you hold your breath not knowing what to expect for that year,” she says, adding that her organization is “falling behind inflation.”
“[The government says], ‘here’s the reduced budget, but you cannot cut the programs and services.’ So what do we cut? We’re bare bones. I can’t cut the rent. I can’t cut the heat or light.”
Wong-Tam says the CICS has been open for over 40 years, 25 years of which Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has funded.
“I think a lot of the agencies out there have been incredibly hard-hit because they’re so reliant on settlement for all their funding.” – Paulina Wyrzykowski, West Neighbourhood House
However, 2012 proved to be a challenging year for the industry, when at least 15 agencies were affected by the cuts to federal funding, though none of those agencies have yet closed. The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) says, “The province stepped in, in a big way and supported eight of the organizations with significant funds to continue services and to build their capacity.
For Wong-Tam, this has resulted in stagnated wages and poor talent retention.
“We just feel that maybe it’s not seen as a priority,” says Wong-Tam.
“It’s not good morale for the people who work in this sector,” she adds. “They work here because they’re not about money, they really want to help newcomers. The majority of our staff are, or have been, a newcomer at one point in their lives.”
“I think a lot of the agencies out there have been incredibly hard-hit because they’re so reliant on settlement for all their funding,” says Paulina Wyrzykowski, of the family & newcomer program at West Neighbourhood House, a non-profit social service agency in Toronto.
“I think that that kind of repeated cuts really lends itself to feeling targeted,” says Wyrzykowski.
The Waiting Game
Wyrzykowski says previous cuts to funding were part of the government’s “economic vision.”
“I do think the government is invested in immigration. The overall numbers of immigrants haven’t gone down. But I do believe they’re hoping to bring in people who will be more self-sufficient earlier,” she says.
According to the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), the provincial government funds about 97 agencies across Ontario with approximately $8 million. The federal government invests almost $296 million in over 200 organizations.
“That’s the scale, and yet, with that part of money, with the bulk of that money, the agencies can only serve those with permanent residency,” says OCASI Executive Director Debbie Douglas. “No students, no migrant workers, no citizens.”
The initial cuts were a result of what Wong-Tam calls “proportional geographic distribution,” in which tax dollars follow the immigrants. Ontario reportedly lost its lion’s share of funding to Alberta in 2012 when the government noticed more of a shift in immigration patterns, with more newcomers finding employment opportunities in the oil-rich province.
“We just feel that we need to have a certain level of stability and not have very drastic changes in a very short time… because once you’ve lost an organization, they’re gone. It takes a while to develop a new organization or for others to pick up the slack.” – Moy Wong-Tam, Centre for Immigrant and Community Services
Since then, there’s been a boomerang effect, and a spike in secondary migration, with more newcomers feeling isolated in Western Canada and moving to Ontario because of the province’s diverse communities.
“Now that Alberta may be losing its glow, we don’t know what will happen with the flow of immigration,” says Wong-Tam. “We just feel that we need to have a certain level of stability and not have very drastic changes in a very short time… because once you’ve lost an organization, they’re gone. It takes a while to develop a new organization or for others to pick up the slack.”
Meanwhile, Wyrzykowski insists there is a clear reason for why the federal government chooses to fund certain groups over others.
“All of the changes that I’ve seen in the last few years were basically designed to make sure that the people who get into Canada are ones that will contribute economically immediately, and in the government’s mind – require minimal settlement support,” she says.
In 2014, the federal government unveiled the International Education Strategy, outlining an ambitious goal of nearly doubling the number of international researchers and students it attracts at the post-secondary level.
The strategy aims to have at least 450,000 international students by the year 2022 – up from just over 239,000. The initiative is an effort to create jobs and stimulate the domestic economy.
“What we found was upwards of 30 per cent of international students didn’t even know there was such a thing as settlement services, which was a real concern for us. [It] means the sector isn’t doing a good job in terms of promoting it, but then you understand why promote it if the bulk of the services is not eligible for those students?” – Debbie Douglas, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants
Wong-Tam argues Canada has a “moral obligation” to help the influx of students who will be coming to the country, even though her own organization technically cannot.
“We were funded to help immigrants, but we were not funded to help international students,” she says. “But it’s very plain to us the needs are there.”
She says the organization is seeing a steady rise in the number of students from China, India and South Korea coming to Canada – many of whom are intent on acquiring permanent residency status after completing their studies.
Wong-Tam insists they make ideal candidates as they have invested the time and money to learn about the country and the language and have integrated into Canadian society from their time spent here during their studies.
Douglas says a 2012 OCASI research project, titled ‘Making Ontario Home’, revealed how little newcomers knew about support services available to them.
“What we found was upwards of 30 per cent of international students didn’t even know there was such a thing as settlement services, which was a real concern for us,” says Douglas.
“[It] means the sector isn’t doing a good job in terms of promoting it, but then you understand why promote it if the bulk of the services is not eligible for those students?”
Wong-Tam says international students need settlement agencies to inform them of things such as safety issues and fraud prevention as depriving them of that exposure could potentially compromise Canada’s reputation overseas. Recent tragedies involving foreign students from East Asia, including a high-profile murder case of a York University international student, highlight this point.
For now, Wong-Tam has launched a pilot project, working alongside universities and colleges to host basic orientation sessions, to inform foreign students of what they need to know in order to thrive in their newly adopted country.
A Roller Coaster Ride
“For the past three years, it seems every week there’s a new policy,” says Wong-Tam, who adds the situation did eventually stabilize in 2014.
“Hopefully things will be more stable because it’s like a roller coaster ride for agencies to keep coping with different changes,” says Wong-Tam, adding that it’s extra work for settlement staff who must spend more time keeping up with the news.
“I think the agencies in Ontario are feeling traumatized,” says Douglas, who adds that she’s anticipating further decreases in federal funding in Ontario, B.C. and the Atlantic region.
“We’re worried about the capacity of the community to sustain the services in the long haul,” says Wong-Tam. “If policies change very drastically, then we have to be prepared. You have to give enough time for planning and for implementation… It’s not an enviable position to be in.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this report erroneously reported that, “However, 2012 proved to be a challenging year for the industry, when at least 15 agencies reportedly lost all of their funding and had to shut down. Since then, there have been relentless cuts to the settlement service industry.” NCM is happy to provide more context and thus have a more informed discussion around these cuts. We regret the mistaken impression that the earlier report may have left with our readers.
In the next 360° installment, we turn our focus to the Atlantic region – a part of Canada that has historically struggled to attract and retain newcomers due to a lack of employment opportunities.