Does arrival in Canada doom newcomers to poverty?

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Published in the Catalyst, Vol. 32, No. 3 - Summer/Fall 2009

You shall bring out your produce…the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake. (Deuteronomy 14:28-29)

A sign of faithfulness to God was always understood by the people of Israel and later by Christians as compliance with the Biblical injunction to care for the widows, orphans and aliens. Today, this Biblical reference can refer to the approximately 250,000 immigrants who come to our shores each year, plus refugee claimants, and over 200,000 temporary and seasonal workers.

Newcomers arrive to improve the lives of themselves and their children, but increasingly find themselves in poverty despite their best efforts. While earlier generations of newcomers could work hard and flourish, over the last 25 years the economic position of newcomers has steadily declined relative to native Canadians.

Issues behind the rising numbers

Why is poverty among newcomers rising? How are Canadians and their governments failing to adequately respond?

When these questions are asked of newcomers in our communities, common responses quickly emerge. A key structural problem lies in the nature and functioning of the labour market in most immigrant-receiving regions. New immigrants today are better educated than earlier arrivals and at times better educated than some native born Canadians. Yet they are not able to obtain good jobs to allow their families to adapt to their new land and emerge from poverty.

In 2004, Statistics Canada used census data compiled in Canada’s 27 largest cities from 1980 to 2000, and discovered:
-    35% of recent immigrants live under the poverty line.
-    This is more than three times the poverty rate of the general population.
-    According to StatsCan, immigrant poverty has risen by as much as 60% over the last 20 years.
Newcomer advocates suggest that newcomer poverty would actually be closer to 50% if temporary workers, refugee claimants and non-status persons are included in the statistics.

Canadian cities are currently filled with immigrants who managed to amass enough points to be accepted by Canada’s selection system, but who then must resign themselves to the disappointment of lower-skilled and lower-paid professions upon their arrival.

Additionally, it is extremely difficult for newcomers to receive recognition for the value of their non-Canadian work experience. This is compounded by the fact that Canadian work experience opportunities are difficult to attain.

Although it is hard to measure and quantify racism by means of scientific studies, it cannot be ignored. Poverty among racialized communities (referring to both immigrant and Canadian-born peoples of colour) is now a growing and complex challenge, and racism in the labour market has become a structural problem in Canada. Michael Kerr, Coordinator of the Colour of Poverty Campaign, writes that, “People from communities of colour are more likely than those from Caucasian or European backgrounds to fall below the low income cut-off level and to have related problems such as poor health, lower education and fewer job opportunities.”

Language skills have also become a key issue in the search for good employment in the emerging knowledge economy. Before the 1960s when immigration rules favoured those from Europe (and especially the United Kingdom), immigrants were likely to speak one of Canada’s two official languages. In 1981, immigration from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia was only 35% of the Canadian total, but this rose to 72% by 2001.

Weak language skills in English and French can keep newcomers from the jobs they covet and even are trained to perform. The solution is not to limit immigration to speakers of Canada’s official languages as much as to ensure increased access to appropriate language training.

What can be done?

It has been said that poverty is not equal – it displays different impacts on different groups of people. Therefore, comprehensive solutions to poverty need to recognize these different impacts.

In the case of newcomers to Canada, specific changes need to be implemented. With regards to the issues mentioned above (which are but a few of the root causes of newcomer poverty), adequate recognition of overseas education and professional credentials including trades is a major issue. Addressing racism in the workplace and providing work experience opportunities for all newcomers is also essential. Providing increased language training could reduce workplace barriers for immigrants.

Further, easing or ending processing fees for newcomer families is important in giving them a good start. The federal government could also absorb fees now charged to refugees for medical tests and transportation to Canada as a way to avoid huge debt loads of up to $10,000 that now burden many families upon arrival. Extending and increasing federal government income supports to targeted groups such as lone mothers and immigrant seniors would also make a difference.

Understanding the big picture

Uzma Shakir, who works in Toronto with South Asian newcomers, has stated, “If we understand the causes of poverty, our solutions will be appropriately systemic.” In terms of this bigger analysis, we know from a long history that our market economy creates inequality. That means it will always create poverty as well, unless mediating influences of the community and governments are applied.

Poverty among newcomers has become a structural problem in Canada. This is precisely why Citizens for Public Justice has initiated the Dignity for All campaign, designed to focus public attention on the federal government’s role in designing and implementing a poverty elimination strategy for Canada. In order for the solutions we have proposed to be authentic, newcomers with lived experience of poverty need to be involved in their specific design and implementation. In this way, as the writer of Deuteronomy states, “the Lord your God may bless (us) in all the work that (we) undertake.”

Joe Gunn is CPJ’s executive director.

Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director at CPJ.

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