New immigrants face new barriers

Federal budget cuts impact services for new immigrants at Citizenship and Immigration offices

As of June 1 the federal government closed 19 Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices. The closures came with the government-wide budget cuts, with CIC ministry expected to reduce it’s budget by $179 million over three years. These closures, as well as a move toward electronic initial contact points with CIC, are meant to decrease the number of personnel and create a paperless system. It’s part of a modernization agenda according to the CIC, but it’s a process that will remove the first points of one-on-one contact for new immigrants.

“A visa wizard, how-to video tutorials, FAQs, and proactive messaging are making it more simple for applicants to get the help they need either online or through the call centre,” says CIC spokesperson Mylene Estrada del Rosario of the website. “CIC regularly consults in person and on-line with stakeholders, partners and all Canadians on its policies, programs and services.”

But these new points of contact present new barriers. They are currently offered exclusively in English and French, and reliance on telephone or web contact points can create a technological barrier. In Alberta, Lethbridge has the highest number of Bhutanese refugees in Canada: over one tenth of those who have settled in Canada. This exemplifies why new reliance on technology can create barriers outside of language skills. “These are people who have been living in Nepal for over 20 years. Some will have had a radio, some will have had a computer. Others will not,” explains Sarah Amies, the Program Director of Lethbridge Family Services Immigrant Services. Even with organizations that provide computer and Internet service it will fall to staff at settlement service agencies to work with individuals to overcome language and technology barriers.

The concerns raised by non-profit organizations for settlement in Alberta go beyond the new technologies expected to replace current CIC services. Agencies in Lethbridge, Calgary and Edmonton consider the impact on their own organizations and what it means for newcomers to Canada. Edmonton’s Immigrant Services Association executive director Christina Nasliywa identifies this as a major cause of concern for her: “It is going to cause delays and frustrations, and it going to cause hardships on both sides, both the CIC offices and settlement agencies, as well as the new immigrants flocking to Alberta’s small cities.”

Southern Alberta has seen a substantive rise of settling by immigrants and refugees new to Canada. In 2007 Brooks had 92 new permanent and temporary residents move there, while Lethbridge welcomed 279 new residents. But in 2011 Brooks and Lethbridge settled 537 and 509 respectively. No other urban centre in Alberta saw such an increase.

Rosario reiterated the ongoing support for settlement services in Alberta’s urban centres. “CIC funds Local Immigration Partnerships in nine communities in Alberta. One of the roles of these LIPs is to identify newcomer needs and devise strategies to address them,” says Rosario. “In addition, service providers in communities are in touch with the evolving needs of newcomers.”

Settlement services in urban centres throughout Canada are also funded provincially, to provide an additional two years of support after the initial year the federal government funds. Support includes help with English language classes and financial support similar to what is currently offered by the province, these supports are only available for a year.

Through federal support, refugees are provided with the means to get from their country of asylum to Canada. However, that flight or transportation cost is invoiced to that individual or family. The bill is capped at $10 000 and the interest is stayed for the year. After a year it is assumed they will be able to find sufficient employment. If refugees need further support after the first year in Canada they may apply for provincial support.

Although CIC has increased allocations to settlement services to $75 million in 2012–2013—a $10.9 million increase from 2011–2012—agencies in Alberta do not currently have any indication if their federal funding will increase, despite increased demand on services and new pressures such as communicating with an office much further away.

“Most of the direct client service that was provided with CIC will no longer be provided by them,” notes Amies. “We will pick up the slack where the direct client services are concerned.”

Amies understands the position of the government. “I appreciate that the government is in financial difficulty and I appreciate that the status quo situation is important with planning and strategy,” Amies says before adding, “what the funders have to appreciate is that inflation continues to rise. As well, in our current environment not-for-profit services are devalued.”

Originally published in VUE Weekly, issue #873.

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