Sounding the Alarm Over Canada's Language Gaps in Pandemic Information - New Canadian Media

Sounding the Alarm Over Canada’s Language Gaps in Pandemic Information

Public health and safety guidelines change on a daily basis as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across Canada. Information is conveyed in English, French and sign language, but there’s concern that important and even life-saving information is not being translated for newcomers who don’t comprehensively understand either of Canada’s official languages.

The uncertainty and anxiety brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating national and global impact on our daily lives. This confusion and angst is even more magnified for individuals and families who have just arrived to start their new lives in Canada and may not read complex English or French or use typical media channels.

Louisa Taylor of Refugee613, an Ottawa organization that advocates for newcomers, has been monitoring national coverage of COVID-19 from the perspective of newcomers. Taylor is concerned that vital information is not being communicated to the country’s newest residents.

“We are alarmed by what we see as a major gap in public health communications to newcomer communities,” says Taylor, who has seen information about stopping the spread of the deadly virus in primarily English and French, but little else. “These communities need specific information, translated into specific languages and shared in specific ways.”

Twitter, Screenshot

Taylor says public health messages at both federal and provincial levels are being mass communicated through websites and social media such as Twitter and Facebook, but most refugees and immigrants don’t usually get their information from these channels. Taylor says she’s concerned wrong and even false information are being shared through other cell phone apps, such as WhatsApp and it’s leading to rising anxiety among newcomers struggling to get their footing. 

“We urge all levels of government to make sure their communications strategies account for these differences and tailor their communications accordingly,” said Taylor. “It is not complicated, it’s not expensive, but it is essential.”

What is translated in Ontario?

On March 30 the Ontario government rolled out a new COVID-19 site which linked to pandemic information in 30 different languages from Arabic to Polish to Vietnamese. The essential health information was posted 19 days after the World Health Organiztion declared a pandemic. The downloadable PDF’s convey information such as symptoms and how to care for yourself when you’re sick, but don’t explain what social distancing is, or where to go to apply for employment insurance if you suddenly lose your job.

That’s why Taylor recommends reaching out directly to community leaders and cultural organizations that already have existing networks to spread the word. Community organizations and leaders are able to target specific immigrant communities through unique channels such as mosques and ethnic radio and television. 

How Saskatchewan is helping newcomers

A quiet day in Moose Jaw, SK. Nearly 14,000 new immigrants arrived in Saskatchewan in the last year from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. But the Province’s COVID-19 information is only available in English and French.  Photo: [Canada Good SK]
Saskatchewan has a growing immigrant and refugee population with 13,910 new immigrants arriving in the province between 2018 and 2019. The immigrant population in Saskatchewan mostly hails from Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa. While economic class immigrants are required to pass English or French tests before they immigrate, the COVID19 information includes more complex and technical terms that are not covered in basic language learning. But refugees are also among the newcomers, and some do not speak either language. While Ontario’s COVID-19 website provides health tips in dozens of languages, the Saskatchewan website is limited to English and French. 

Credit: [Respond: Crisis Translators Network]
Just when their help is needed the most, agencies and organizations dedicated to supporting newcomers are closing their doors to comply with social distancing guidelines. This means that much needed services such as language learning and resume assistance for job seekers are not available.

The Saskatchewan Government has declared a provincial state of emergency that effectively gives the government broad powers to minimize health risks. The government has placed a limit of ten people on private and public gatherings and limited travel. On March 23, Saskatchewan also announced that all ministries, agencies and Crown corporations will implement a phased-in work from home policy for non-essential employees. 

New immigrants have to navigate the restrictions in order to set up basics such as housing and transportation to start their new life in the province. To help newcomer drivers, Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) has extended the grace period for driving with a foreign license from 90 days to 210 days. 

Information Centre doors close, cracks open

The Saskatoon Newcomer Information Centre temporarily closed its doors on March 23 to comply with the province’s social distancing guidelines. The Centre placed an English ad on C95 Radio, a local station, to inform the public.

“The closure of our drop-in centre is frustrating for people looking for work,” acknowledges manager Stephanie Shyluk. She says many clients want help editing and printing their resume. Others are “scrambling” to meet landlords, and set up utilities and buy essentials. The centre’s staff is trying to help as many as possible through phone calls and emails.

“We are being as helpful as we can during this difficult time,” said Shyluk. 

Many people choose to immigrate to Canada because of the promise of better financial security, but the pandemic is threatening their goal of economic stability.

That is the cold reality faced by Indian newcomer Anna Khatri. She arrived in Regina in early March and was laid off from her job just two days after she started work.

 “It is bittersweet because I was waiting a very long time to come here, but now I am very worried about my finances,” said Khatri. “It’s impossible to find a new job now, I just hope and pray I will qualify for the government emergency benefits.”

Online Learning Creates Anxiety in Newcomers

The Saskatoon Open Door Society offers online language learning services for newcomers. Jean-Philippe Deneault, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, said staff are trying to provide educational materials in different languages to their clients as in-person meetings are phased out. 

“We will continue to regularly assist our clients via phone and online, in various formats, including virtual classrooms, in order to continue to be available and assist them,” says Deneault. 

These virtual classrooms are a point of anxiety for low-income immigrants who do not have access to computers or Wifi.  

Photo: [Guy Quenneville]
The Saskatchewan Association of Immigrant Settlement Integration Agencies (SAISIA) is facilitating collaboration between larger agencies who are able to provide translation services and smaller organizations who do not have the capacity to do so. Information on health tips and social distancing protocols is being translated into Urdu, Chinese and Ukranian. 

Ahmad Majid, SAISIA Executive Director, says they are “working to connect agencies in order to share information and resources.” Majid adds, “it has been great to see people coming together under tough circumstances” 

Until COVID-19 is under control, both government agencies and non-profit organizations will struggle to provide the same level of assistance  they offered prior to the pandemic. That means even more pressure will be placed on friends, family and neighbours to assist newcomers as they settle in the province. 

This story has been produced under NCM’s mentoring program. Mentor: Joyeeta Ray

Lindiwe Mpofu is a freelance writer and content creator from Zimbabwe. She is currently based in Saskatoon.

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