Submission to the Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues

18 March 2002


The Canadian Council for Refugees, founded in 1977, is a non-profit umbrella organization committed to the rights and protection of refugees in Canada and around the world and to the settlement of refugees and immigrants in Canada.  The membership is made up of organizations involved in the sponsorship and protection of refugees and the settlement of refugees and immigrants.  The Council serves the networking, information-exchange and advocacy needs of its membership.

Currently the CCR has approximately 170 member organizations, comprised of community organizations, social service agencies, ethnocultural associations, research centres, church communities, lawyers' associations, unions and others concerned for refugees.  The CCR works collaboratively with its members and other organizations, both inside Canada and beyond.

To forward its mission to promote the settlement of refugees and immigrants in Canada, the CCR has a Working Group on Immigration and Settlement that meets four times a year to discuss matters of concern and take action.  The Working Group is led by a Core Group made up of representatives of the main provincial and regional umbrella groups of the refugee and immigrant serving sector.  The Working Group has undertaken two major projects recently on settlement services.  The first led to the publication by the Canadian Council for Refugees of the document, Best Settlement Practices: Settlement Services for Refugees and Immigrants in Canada, February 1998.  The second resulted in another document, Canadian National Settlement Service Standards Framework, May 2000.  Both documents are available on the CCR website.

A significant proportion of refugees and immigrants live in the urban centres.  We therefore welcome the opportunity to present an overview of urban issues as they are felt by newcomers to Canada.

Settlement is a two-way street: newcomers adapt to their new community, and communities must adapt to their new members.  It is our position that, while newcomers, as they always have done, do their share of the hard working of adapting, our cities are not doing as much as they could and should to adapt themselves to those refugees and immigrants who have become our neighbours.

The comments in this brief do no more than touch the surface of a vast range of subjects affecting refugees and immigrants in Canada's cities.  The issues raised by immigration should be of concern to all.  Despite being a country of immigration, these issues are not always given the attention they deserve.

The Canadian Council for Refugees therefore urges that:

1. A Pan-Canadian forum be established, engaging representatives from federal, provincial, and municipal governments, and from the academic, business and immigrant service sector in an ongoing dialogue on urban planning in relation to immigration, settlement and social and economic development.

2. The forum will address issues such as settlement services, access to services, housing and homelessness, employment, racism and xenophobia, refugee and immigrant women, community organization and leadership, and immigration policy and program.

Refugees and immigrants face particular challenges as they orient themselves to life in Canada, make a home in a new country, learn a new language, seek to transfer their previously acquired work training and experience, negotiate immigration processes and make all the social and emotional adjustments involved in settling in a new country.  Settlement services, provided by community-based organizations, play a vital role in assisting refugees and immigrants in these challenges, as well as in sensitizing the wider society to the adjustments it needs to make in order to welcome newcomers.

Unfortunately, settlement services are often poorly understood outside the sector and are in some ways marginalized in the same way that newcomers often find themselves marginalized.  There is inadequate funding to respond to the needs, the nature and limits of the services mean that some newcomers' needs cannot be met, and organizations often lack the resources to ensure that the services provided are of the quality that newcomers and Canada deserve.

The Canadian Council for Refugees therefore urges that:

3. The level of investment in settlement services be raised with a view to achieving a level comparable to other support services.

4. The settlement service programs be reviewed, in consultation with service providers, other experts and stakeholders, with a view to achieving a better definition of settlement services to meet needs of newcomers.

5. Eligibility for settlement services be broadened to include all those in need of these services, including immigrants and refugees who have been more than three years in Canada and refugee claimants.

6. The investment in language instruction for newcomers be increased to ensure they have access to sufficient training to enable them to participate fully in Canadian society.

7. Governments commit to national standards for settlement services and provide the support and resources to enable those standards to be maintained, including through provision of adequate training to settlement workers.

8. Working conditions in the settlement sector be brought up to the same levels as in other social service sectors.

One of the barriers often faced by newcomers is that services designed for the general population are not accessible to them.  In some cases this is because of restrictive eligibility criteria that exclude some refugees and immigrants.  For example, some provincial health care programs impose a waiting period on newcomers so that for their first months in Canada they are not eligible for health care coverage.  There have also been problems for children born in Canada of parents without permanent status: even though they are Canadian citizens, they have in some cases been treated as non-residents and denied provincial coverage.  Refugees and refugee claimants that are not eligible for provincial health care may be covered by the Interim Federal Health Program (IFH).  However, some health care providers hesitate or refuse to give services under IFH because they are insufficiently familiar with the program or because they find it inconvenient.

In some cases, access is limited because the services are not adapted to the realities of newcomers.  For example, refugees and immigrants who don't yet speak English or French need interpreters or services in their own language.  Similarly, in order to respond to newcomers, service-providers need to be sensitive to diverse cultural backgrounds and programs should reflect the diversity of the population.  As a result of their experiences of persecution, refugees may have particular service needs, such as mental health care for survivors of torture and other serious trauma.

Access to the basic right of education has been problematic for some newcomer children, because some schools have been requiring children to show an authorization to study, even though this is not a requirement under the Immigration Act, and in some cases even though provincial law may in fact prohibit a school from refusing admittance to a child on the basis of their immigration status or their parents' immigration status.

The Canadian Council for Refugees therefore urges that:

9. Eligibility to provincial health care coverage be expanded, notably to drop the waiting period for newcomers.

10. Measures be taken to ensure that children born in Canada of parents without permanent status have access to provincial health care coverage.

11. Measures be taken to ensure that the Interim Federal Health Program (IFH) is well-understood throughout the health care system and that those entitled to services under IFH receive them in a timely manner.

12. Adequate interpretation services be provided for those newcomers accessing services.

13. Health care services be adapted to the needs of newcomers, including through the promotion of cross-cultural sensitivity and the provision of appropriate mental health care (including for survivors of torture).

14. Measures be taken to ensure that schools never refuse access to children on the basis of their immigration status or that of their parents.

In the context of national crisis of homelessness and lack of affordable housing, immigrants and refugees face significant challenges in finding somewhere to live.  Their situation as newcomers, unfamiliar with their new community, makes them particularly vulnerable to housing pressures.  As vacancy rates go down, landlords become more demanding, imposing conditions, such as requiring references, that are particularly problematic for newcomers.  Furthermore, visible minorities face significant racism in the private housing market.

In some large cities in Canada, newcomers make up a large portion of the shelter population.  This involves significant hardship for the newcomers, delaying their integration into Canadian society.  Worse, the problem has on occasion been publicly highlighted in a manner that feeds into xenophobic prejudices, suggesting that newcomers are the cause, rather than victims, of Canada's housing shortage.

The Canadian Council for Refugees therefore urges that:

15. More funding be allocated for emergency and transitional housing, and that a portion of the funding be identified for housing for newcomers.

16. More funding be allocated for increasing the availability of affordable rental housing.

Access to meaningful employment is and has long been a key challenge for newcomers.  The fact that many refugees and immigrants are seriously underemployed means not only a loss for the individuals, but a loss for the urban economy.  Too often economic class immigrants, selected for their professional skills, find that their skills are not recognized and used once in Canada.  Partly this is because Canadian employers have difficulty understanding what foreign-acquired diplomas and experience represent in Canadian terms.  Partly the problem is one of protectionist professional associations.

Newcomers arriving in Canada will often need "bridge" training to supplement the training they have received in their home country and prepare them for the specific requirements of the Canadian job market.  However, such training opportunities are often unavailable, or there is no funding available (often because they are not EI eligible).

The Canadian Council for Refugees therefore urges that:

17. Federal and provincial governments take decisive action to significantly improve newcomer access to employment.

18. Federal and provincial governments ensure that there is a fair process for newcomers to gain recognition of their skills.

19. Federal and provincial governments facilitate access for newcomers to training to meet Canadian standards.

Despite official policies favouring diversity and laws outlawing discrimination, racism and xenophobia continue to have wide-ranging impacts on newcomers in Canada's cities.  The impacts include the pain and alienation caused by racist comments and the barriers to full participation created by systemic racism.

Newcomers are also exposed to xenophobic prejudices which are given public expression where racist comments would presumably not be tolerated.  Refugees in particular are targetted for abuse, labelled as fraudsters, criminals and, most recently, terrorists.

We underline that the need to address racism and xenophobia has become significantly more acute since September 11.

The Canadian Council for Refugees therefore urges that:

20. All levels of government give a higher priority to combatting systemic racism.  This would include an obligation on the part of all departments and sectors to consider the needs of, and barriers faced by, newcomers.

21. All levels of government invest in public education about refugees and immigrants, with a view to making Canadians aware of the need for effective refugee protection and of the benefits of immigration.

22. Public leaders including politicians show leadership by combatting racism and xenophobia in their public discourse.

Refugee and immigrant women face multiple barriers as women, as newcomers and in many cases as women of colour.

The Canadian Council for Refugees therefore urges that:

23. Refugee and immigrant women be given more opportunities to exercise leadership.

Immigrants and refugees to Canada through history have drawn great strength from community organizations, whether formal and informal, that have assisted them in settling in their new home and in participating in society at large.  New communities beginning to arrive in Canada need support in creating the structures that will facilitate their integration.

The Canadian Council for Refugees therefore urges that:

24. Federal, provincial and municipal governments promote the development of community organizations by which newcomers can more effectively participate within society.

Elements of Canadian immigration policy and processing have a significant negative impact on Canada's cities.  Large numbers of people live in a kind of limbo, unable to get on with their lives or contribute fully to society.  Among these are Convention refugees who cannot get permanent residence status and people who cannot be removed because of the situation in their home countries, but who are given no formal status in Canada.  Even those who eventually get status in Canada face long waits because of delays in processing.

Many families are kept separated for years because of restrictions and delays in family reunification.  The narrow definition of family in Canadian legislation means many newcomers are unable to reunite with family members to whom they are close.

In recent years, Citizenship and Immigration Canada has significantly reduced services to clients, with the result that it is difficult or impossible to get direct access to immigration officials.  This has meant additional work for immigrant and refugee-serving organizations (without extra compensation).  It has also meant newcomers are more vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous consultants.

The Canadian Council for Refugees therefore urges that:

25. More attention be paid to the social effects of immigration policies and those with negative impacts be abandoned.

26. Increased priority be given to family reunification within Canada's immigration program.

27. Those recognized as Convention refugees be given automatic access to permanent residence.

28. People who cannot be removed be granted permanent residence after three years, subject to the standard security and criminality checks.

29. Clients be given direct access to immigration officials.

30. Priority be given to measures to protect newcomers from unscrupulous consultants.