Need for Multicultural HIPPY
Canada has one of the highest ratios of immigrants to total population of any country in the world, with both newcomers and visible minorities comprising more than half the population of our largest cities (Laidlaw Foundation, 2003). Between 2001 and 2006, Canada’s population increased more than any other G8 country (+5.4%), primarily due to international migration (Statistics Canada, 2007). Moreover, Statistics Canada predicts that by 2017, Canada’s immigrant population could reach between 7 million and 9.3 million, with an estimated 95 per cent of visible minorities living in metropolitan areas such as Toronto and Vancouver (Statistics Canada, 2005).
These rather significant rates of immigration have far-reaching implications for our Canadian society, which embraces democratic political, social, and economic practice. More specifically, just, secure and democratic societies depend on the meaningful participation of all its members, new and existing citizens alike. In contrast, “for society as a whole, the social exclusion of individuals and groups can become a major threat to social cohesion and economic prosperity” (Laidlaw Foundation, 2003.)
It has been well documented that the world’s most vulnerable and socially excluded children and their families “tend to have similar socio-economic and demographic profiles … such as [those of] racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees” (OEDC, 2005). The inclusion of Canada’s immigrants is crucial, not only to the quality of life for newcomers, but also to meaningful development of Canadian civil society as a whole.
Many newcomers arrive not only with a distrust of state apparatuses, but also with little knowledge of and experience with Canadian democratic political, social, and economic practices. In addition to the difficult life experiences brought to a foreign country, there are other major challenges in the settlement process for both newcomers and Canada. Many immigrants face several structural obstacles including language and cultural barriers, low levels of literacy, racism, professional accreditation issues, and limited awareness of various democratic processes and societal practices. For example, knowledge and skills necessary for democratic political involvement and processes such as voting, home and school relationships, workplace norms, and community engagement may be limited or absent.
Canada would benefit from fully utilizing the skills and capacity of newcomers in both the socio-economic and public spheres. At the same time, newcomers and other visible minorities are becoming increasingly concerned and frustrated with the systemic barriers to full and active participation in Canadian society (Laidlaw Foundation, 2003).
Additionally, for a deeper understanding of the multiple dimensions of cultural, economic, and social exclusion for Canada’s newcomers, it is important to consider the gendered experiences of immigrant and refugee women (Chard et al. 2000; James et al. 1999; Mohab 1999; Preston and Man 1999 in Laidlaw Foundation, 2003). For example, many women arrive as lone parents with several children to support on their own. This creates additional hardships and barriers such as poverty and the need to work more than one job or irregular and long hours. Other factors affecting women’s participation in Canadian society include women’s heavy domestic responsibilities such as housework, family maintenance, and socialization of children.
As well, behavioral and/or psychological factors such as socio-cultural traditions in their home country may play an important role in many newcomer women’s diminished capacity to participate in public life. Learned powerlessness often leads to low self-esteem and limited sense of agency, which in turn contribute to social isolation and reduced public engagement. Systemic barriers and a lack of awareness and experience with available resources and municipal services, such as health, housing, the labour market, educational opportunities, and technology (e.g. computers) can make the immigrant experience overwhelmingly difficult, even traumatic. Such challenges, combined with lack of experience, discourage newcomers from establishing and maintaining social and political involvement and from learning the skills necessary for public participation and successful resettlement.
Settlement and resettlement challenges not only affect parents, but children and youth as well (Laidlaw Foundation, 2003). Parents experiencing immigration difficulties such as language barriers, isolation, poverty, and heavy workloads have less time for involvement in family activities (Kilbride et al, 2000). Such overwhelming challenges and responsibilities can result in social isolation and despair.
Yet, despite such overwhelming obstacles, “…newcomers want to be included as full and equal participants in the economic, social, politician and cultural life of their new homeland” (Laidlaw Foundation, 2003). Not surprisingly, Kilbride (2000) finds that support from friends, family, and institutions is crucial to assisting newcomers with civil participation and overcoming the challenges of settlement.
Given this context, it is becoming increasingly apparent that flexible, responsive, and proactive strategies are required to ensure newcomers’ understanding of and the skills required for participation in Canadian public life. Participatory citizenship is necessary for Canada to fulfill its promise of multiculturalism, while striving to become a healthy, strong and inclusive society.