Are social workers ready to work with newcomers1?
Miu Chung Yan, Ph.D.
School of Social Work
University of British Columbia
2080 West Mall
Vancouver, British Columbia
Sherman Chan, MSc, RSW, CQSW
Director, Settlement Services
1720 Grant St., 2nd floor
Title: Are social workers in BC ready to work with newcomers?
Abstract: Newcomers, who constitute a major driving force of Canadian population growth, face numerous challenges both before and after they reach the country. The unique status of “being new to Canada” of immigrants and refugees has received insufficient attention in the social work profession; the racial and cultural backgrounds of those who arrive in the country have not been adequately explored. This article reports the findings of an exploratory survey conducted on a group of self-selected members of the British Columbia Association of Social Workers about their perception of their state of readiness to serve newcomers. The findings signal that the social work profession may be less than fully prepared to serve newcomers effectively. Implications for social work education are drawn out and suggestions are made about the practice of the profession.
Keywords:Immigrant, Refugee, Newcomers, Competence
Since the early 90s Canada has absorbed on average 250,000 newcomers a year. By 2017 a projected 22% of the population will consist of immigrants, most of whom will reside in major urban centres—particularly Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver (Statistics Canada, 2005b). The 2006 Census (Statistics Canada, 2007b) confirms that the acceleration of Canadian’s growth rate from 2001 to 2006 was largely a function of international immigration, and that such immigration will remain the key force driving the country’s future population growth. In 1967 Canada’s history of immigration shifted when a new “points system” resulted in a diversification of the countries of origin from which immigrants come (Christensen, 2008; Fleras & Elliott, 2003). The system changed the demographic profile of immigrants to Canada. Under what might be referred to as the “White Canada” ideology (Christensen, 2003), Canada had long pursued a racially biased immigration policy favouring applicants from a selected Western European countries. Today, East and South Asian countries have become dominant. At least since the late 1970s, non-European immigration has not only diversified Canada’s cultural mosaic but has also significantly increased the number of resident visible minorities. According to Statistics Canada (Statistics Canada, 2005b), in 2017 visible minority groups will account for about 85% of overall population growth.
The increase in the numbers of culturally and racially diverse immigrants from non-European countries has significantly affected public policy in Canada. The evolution of a policy of Multiculturalism and quite a few other aspects of Canadian legislation governing human rights and equity issues correlate with the demographic change. Their cultures may be celebrated and respected in selected social events and venues. For all that, racial discrimination (and the increasing magnitude of religious discrimination since 9/11) continues to obstruct newcomers’ capacity equitably to access social resource and opportunities.
In the last few decades the social work profession has taken the initiative in improving its members’ ability to deal with culturally and racially diverse clients. This is reflected in the Education and Accreditation policies of the Canadian Association of Social Work Education (formerly known as the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work) and in the code of ethics adopted by the Canadian Association of Social Workers. The profession has worked hard to ensure that all social workers show cultural sensitivity in serving clients from minority groups. Recently anti-racism and anti-oppression practice has gained momentum in many social work curricula across Canada. The cultural and racial differences of newcomers are an undeniable fact and have significant negative impacts on newcomers. Unfortunately, the existing cultural sensitive and anti-racist approaches tend to neglect the very fact of the newcomers status of this culturally and racially different immigrants and refugees, which itself constitutes a basis unique form of social exclusion.
Newcomers: A Unique Marker to Exclude
Apart from travelling the point system channel, there are many routes for potential migrants to Canada to follow. Through the years, Canada has developed different immigration categories—economic, family union, and compassionate—to absorb immigrants.2 However, the Canadian immigration policy (and system) is driven with problems. People who want to migrate have to jump through a variety of bureaucratic hoops before they can enter Canada’s borders. A few of these are: a high application fee ($550 per adult family member and $150 per child, plus a medical checkup fee); a huge backlog of immigrant applications, particularly those in the family union category; and a virtually endless series of interrogative hearings for conventional refugee applicants.
Due to the different purposes and specific parameters of each category, the processing of newcomers to Canada varies from case to case. Newcomers attempting to enter as Skilled Workers must, for instance, be able to master at least one of the official languages, and they must have substantial education or professional qualification and also a certain amount of assets. The migration process follows fairly set and systematic procedures. Relatively speaking, migrants in this category are better prepared for the relocation than migrants of other sorts. That being so, their settlement needs and challenges are also very often different from, for instance, those of convention refugees, who usually have fled their countries without any preparation, have been constantly on the move before coming to Canada, and are accepted into the country on humanistic and compassionate grounds.
Getting to Canada is only half the battle. Studies show that numerous challenges that newcomers face result in a variety of personal and familial hardships (e.g., Ataca & Barry, 2002; Dunn & Dyck, 2000; George & Tsang, 2000; Khan & Watson, 2005; Noh & Avison, 1996). Once settled in a host country, most newcomers adapt to the new way of life, the new set of social values, and, in many cases, the new language while struggling with dismantled support systems and heightened feelings of anxiety and stress (van Ecke, 2005). This process is particularly challenging to refugees who depart their countries of origin as a result of adverse political conditions, religious oppression, and/or natural disasters.
Other structural barriers also affect newcomers’ psychological acclimatization and cultural adaptation. Of these, the problem of employment is the most salient. As reported in the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada (LSIC), “finding an adequate job” is the immigrants’ number one difficulty (Statistics Canada, 2005a). Studies show that compared to the general population or to earlier waves of immigrants, today’s immigrant has a higher unemployment rate and lower income and job security (Statistics Canada, 2007a). Language skill is generally seen as the major obstacle to securing a decent job. However, the language obstacle is not only a matter of proficiency. In the period from 1997 to 2006, on average 49% of newcomers came to Canada through the Skilled Workers category, which by default requires applicants to have a high level of competence in the use of at least one of the official languages.3 To this group of newcomer, language barrier is due to discrimination based on their accents (Creese & Kambere, 2003) which is a challenge not only to the visible minority newcomers but also newcomers from the former communist Eastern European bloc.
In addition, statistics show clearly that immigrants tend to have a higher level of education than the general population (Statistics Canada, 2007a). Very often, discrimination against newcomers is disguised as a credential issue or in the form of the claim that they lack the so-called Canadian experience (Boyd & Thomas, 2001). As reflected in the LSIC (Statistics Canada, 2005a), newcomers of different immigration categories have rated their experiences in Canada differently. Compared to immigrants from other categories, more immigrants in the skilled worker group felt that their Canadian experience turned out to be worse than they expected.
In sum, it is important to understand that newcomers are a heterogeneous group with diverse backgrounds and needs, and that they do not all go through the same process. Their settlement experiences and structural barriers are therefore different both as individuals and also with respect to the category into which they fall. The internal diversity of newcomers often goes unrecognized in public discourse (the media), and in street-level conversation. Newcomers are lumped together despite the significant differences among them. The specifics of their newcomer status are often overshadowed by the cultural/racial outlook.
Understanding the racial and cultural locations of the newcomers is deemed important by most. But unless a critical analysis of the unique structural barriers of their social location of “being newcomers under a particular immigration category” is included, the understanding will be faulty. Being newcomers is itself a unique structural barrier that deserves attention from the social work profession. We will even argue that given the fact that not all newcomers are cultural and visible minorities and given the many excuses used to exclude them from the job market, e.g., the lack of experience in Canada and/or a Canadian accent, and non-recognition of foreign credentials, social workers need to be equipped with specific knowledge and skills in order to service people new to this country.
While Canadian schools of social work are required in their curricula to prepare graduates to deal with cultural and racial diversity, immigrant and refugee issues are rarely included specifically among the requirements of study. Surveying the information that is available online, we find that only a handful of social work programs offer courses devoted to working with immigrants and refugees. Implicitly the social work profession seems to focus on cultural and racial aspects. Recognizing the fact that the rapid growth of immigrant population in Canada will have important implications for the social work profession, the British Columbia Association of Social Workers (BCASW) felt it important to explore from its members’ perspective whether they are equipped to serve newcomers and what kinds of preparation they have had in school and in the workplace. This question is particularly important to social workers in British Columbia—one of the three major provinces in which newcomers tend to choose to settle, particularly in the Metropolitan Vancouver area. According to the 2006 Census (Statistics Canada, 2007b), almost 36.4% of the BC residents are immigrants. From 2001 to 2006, 177,840 newcomers decided to reside in this province.
This exploratory study was organized by the BCASW. Authors of the paper were volunteer researchers.4 The intention was only to provide a preliminary understanding among the members of BCASW. It was not the purpose to reach fully general conclusions. A survey method was adopted which can, in an economical and efficient way, generate a substantial amount of information covering a large constituency across the province (Fowler, 2002).
In consultation with members of the Multiculturalism, Antiracism Committee (MARC), a standing committee of the BCASW with a specific mandate on advising the BCASW on cultural and racial issues related to the social work profession, the authors conceptualized and organized the questionnaire into four major sections:
whether newcomers and their issues are included as a mandate or as routine concerns in respondents’ service and employing organization
respondents’ perception of readiness and how much they know about the basic immigration policies and barriers challenging newcomers
the kinds of training on working with newcomers respondents have received in school and at work and their suggestions of social work training needed to prepare social workers to deal with newcomers
respondents demographic data
Members of MARC pilot-tested both, the textual and online, versions of the survey.
The survey was conducted via Survey Monkey, an online program which the BCASW had used to conduct a few studies among its members in the past. The survey was administered in April 2006 for a period of four weeks. We invited all BCASW members to participate through two e-mails and a notice with a link to the survey on the home page of BCASW website. Of its 1,150 members, 218 (19%) took part in the survey, though some chose only to complete a few sections. Table 1 shows the number of respondents to each survey section.
[Insert Table 1 here]
Since, as an exploratory study, the intention was to provide just a preliminary picture of how members of BCASW perceived their readiness to deal with newcomers, only descriptive level of statistical analysis was conducted and is reported in this paper. Out of the 218 respondents who visited the survey, 186 completed the survey and supplied demographic information. Table 2 is the detailed demographic breakdown of these 186.
[Insert Table 2 here]
In terms of gender, age group and nature of work, the profile resembles the general profile of the BCASW membership. Among them, only 5 reported that they are working in immigrant settlement related services. In other words, at least reflected from this group of respondents, social workers are not at the frontline of immigrant settlement process.
Mandate of Serving Newcomers
A total of 217 responded to the questions regarding the mandate of serving newcomers in the program and/or employing organizations with which they are working. Most said that serving newcomers is not a specific mandate of the organization that employs them (66.4%, n=144) or the program in which they work (74.2%, n=161). In their current job, only 43% (n=93) are notified of their clients’ newcomer status; 37% (n=79) are required to know their clients’ newcomer status. Most respondents report that issues of newcomers are seldom (34.6%, n=75) or never (28.1%, n=61) discussed in organizational meetings. These findings indicate that newcomer issues have not been a major concern of most respondents at least in the organization and program that they serve.
Knowledge and Readiness
In terms of how ready they feel to serve newcomers (See Table 3), out of the 195 respondents who answered this question a large proportion agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements:
I always pay close attention to news about newcomers (60%, n=117).
I am quite familiar with the difficulties that newcomers to Canada face (75%, n=146).
Meanwhile, a majority disagreed or strongly disagreed with the following statements:
I am quite familiar with policies that affect newcomers (71%, n=138).
I am well prepared to work with immigrants (57%, n=111).
I am well prepared to work with refugees (71%, n=139).
[Insert Table 3 here]
Respondents’ knowledge of newcomers’ difficulties is also reflected in their answers to questions about the challenges newcomers face within the labour market. 83% (n=161) and 63% (n=122) of them thought that the lack of recognition of foreign credentials/qualifications and language proficiency are major challenges to newcomers.
When it comes to policy issues, respondents’ familiarity with immigration policies was challenged. In terms of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the major piece of legislation governing Canada immigration policy, 22% (n=43) of respondents never heard of it and 52% (n=101) heard of it but knew nothing of its details. The situation is even worse with respect to the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement which was formulated after 9/11 and highly criticized by refugee advocates for blocking legitimate refugees coming from the US border. 55% (n=107) of respondents never heard of this Agreement. These results reflect that although the respondents have taken the initiative to understand the issues facing newcomers, they lack understanding of the policies and their possible impacts. Also, a high proportion feel that they are not prepared to work with newcomers, especially the refugees among them. In what respects, then, did they feel prepared or unprepared?
Respondents were asked to name three issues of newcomers that they a) frequently come across, b) feel to require urgent social work intervention and c) feel less prepared to intervene in. Table 4 summarizes the results. It indicates that taking into consideration what they frequently come across and what they feel requires urgent social work intervention, most respondents feel that they are relatively well prepared to help newcomers in terms of economic security and emotional and mental health issues. By contrast, they feel that they are least prepared in helping newcomers in language (33%, n=65), cultural adaptation (37%, n=73), and immigration matters (44%, n=86).
[Insert Table 4 here]
Training Received and Suggested
When it comes to training, out of the 187 respondents who answered questions in this section only 19% (n=36) have taken courses specific to working with newcomers while a relatively larger percentage have taken courses on working with cultural sensitivity (65.8%, n=124) and antiracist practice (39.8%, n=75). Similarly, many respondents’ employing organizations have offered training in working with culturally different clients (64.7%, n=121) and visible minority clients (43.3%, n=81). However, only 21% (n=40) and 12% (n=23) of respondents’ employing organizations provide in-service training on working with immigrants and refugees. During their academic studies, just 27% (n=50) of respondents took a course related to newcomer issues, 10% (n=19) said none of their courses covered any such material, and 47% (n=88) and 24% (n=45) respectively reported the topic of immigrants was rarely covered in any courses or only in a small number of courses.
We also wanted to ascertain whether respondents feel that cross-cultural and anti-oppressive training is sufficient preparation for them to work with newcomers. A surprisingly high percentage of respondents thought that a general cross-cultural (76.5%, n=144) and/or anti-oppressive (73.8%, n=139) class is a necessary but not a sufficient preparation, and overwhelmingly cited in their remarks that these courses lack specificity in terms of explaining the policies, programs, difficulties, needs and issues unique to newcomers. These are topics that they wanted included in both formal social work and in-service training courses.
When asked if courses on working with newcomers are needed, a large majority of respondents expressed the view that a required or selective course is needed at the BSW level (95%, n=178) and MSW level (90%, n=169). While 55% (n=103) agreed that such a course should be required at the BSW level, only 44% (n=83) think the same when it comes to MSW studies. Respondents also hold the view that the professional association, in this case the BCASW, has a role to play in providing workshops (81%, n=152), a continuing education certificate (57%, n=107), or an online course (51%, n=96) on how to work with newcomers.
In sum, we found that many respondents do deal with newcomer clients at work, although newcomer issues are not usually discussed in their routine meeting or even included in their service mandate. A majority of respondents agree that newcomers face unique structural and personal challenges imposed by Canadian immigration policies, by a discriminatory social system, and by the difficulties inhering in the process of migration itself. For all that, most respondents do not feel that they have been prepared, academically or professionally, to work with newcomers. They feel that social workers need specialized training better to serve newcomers.
Discussions and Implications
As an exploratory study without a probability sampling process, results from this survey do not provide generalizable information to the Canadian social work profession. Still, these findings may shed light on the basic question that the study poses: are social workers ready to serve newcomers? Apparently the answer from a portion of BCASW members is “we are not quite ready yet!”
The survey’s findings lead to at least four observations. First, though the social work profession seems to have paid proper attention to the cultural and racial conditions of newcomers, the very fact of their being newcomers has not been adequately considered. The findings indicated that both programmatically and organizationally, newcomer issues have not been included in routine social work practice and settings. As Herberg (1993) states, the migration process is a continuous process cutting through multiple temporal as well as geographical horizons. In each specific horizon migrants have to deal with different challenges caused by uprooting, settling and re-rooting. Accumulated through this process is a psycho-social history that is critical to social work intervention (van Ecke, 2005). The programmatic and organizational lapses in dealing with newcomer issues put professional competence in doubt. Judging from the respondents’ field of practice, most social workers are not working directly in immigrant settlement related services. We wonder if the programmatic and organizational oversight is a reflection of the bureaucratic division of labour in social services and/or a result of (over)professionalization which tends to favour a certain form of social work practice in a selected set of highly-paid fields of practice. Either of these may lead to a tunnel vision of professional concern that fragments the mandate of social workers and our clients’ needs and runs counter to the holistic social work perspective.
Second, we are cognizant that since participation in the survey was voluntary, those who responded might represent those among BCASW members who feel that this topic is important and who have already given it their attention. If so, the findings may simply raise more sharply the question of professional competence of social workers. According to the respondents, their own knowledge of the newcomers, particularly in terms of immigration policies and process, is limited. Very often, what they know is based on the digested and slanted information presented in the public media, information that tends to run together the nature and challenges facing a multi-million dollar entrepreneur, a highly skilled engineer, a housewife, a live-in care-giver and a traumatized refugee. We are keenly aware that social workers need to have knowledge not only of the relevant policies and laws which tell us what to do and not to do, but also of the rights of their clients and the challenges that they must confront. Canadian policies and laws on immigration certainly have an impact on the newcomers who will become a major component of the Canadian population. Should this not then be part of the knowledge of a competent social worker?
Third, it is certainly unfair to say that the social work profession has not taken steps to address the increasing numbers of culturally and racially diverse clients. Still, the question that we would pose is this: Are the measures taken through cultural sensitive and anti-oppressive training effective? Like all Canadians, newcomers have multiple identities: culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, age, religion, etc. As Berry (2007) suggests, to understand one’s social location it is necessary to crisscross the grand narratives of one’s multiple identity with the shifting contexts. In other words, the different dimensions of the multiplicity of one’s identity will have different impacts on an individual’s life in different contexts at different times. If so, an intersectional analysis must take into consideration such different identities in different contexts (Dei, 1999). We argue that in the early phase of settling in Canada, newcomer status is itself the most salient identity with which most newcomers have to struggle.
As statistics indicate (Statistics Canada, 2007a), compared to non-newcomer cultural and racial minorities, at least in terms of employment and economic security, the number of year in Canada is an important indicator of the degree of difference between newcomers and other Canadians. The findings of this survey certainly reflect the fact that respondents also felt a pressing need to understand each of the following: the unique situation of newcomers in terms of Canadian immigration policy; the migration process of individuals; the personal and structural challenges and conditions of migrants; existing settlement programs and services and their limitations. Without directly addressing the specific social location and predicaments of being a newcomer to Canada, those who undergo culturally sensitive or even anti-oppressive training may suffer from what Sheren Razack (1998) articulates as a “culturalization of differences” which positions (or even essentializes) newcomers as cultural (or racialized) subjects.
Taking these three observations into consideration, we would draw attention to the existing focus of Canadian social work education. To judge from the survey input, the respondents have not been prepared well in their formal social work training. Newcomer issues are inadequately covered in existing social work curricula. Although a handful of courses on working with immigrants and/or refugees are offered in social work programs across Canada, almost all of them are elective rather than required. The CASWE accreditation standard has not directly pinpointed the necessity of covering relevant information and materials related to newcomers. It is not our intention to dispute that given the structure of existing social work education programs no more than a limited number of issues can be treated in BSW and MSW curricula. Nonetheless, the question stands: given the demographic change in Canada, the numbers of newcomers, and the unique challenges that they face, should newcomer issues not be a major component of the courses of study?
As a profession with a mandate to upholding social justice and to engage in advocacy, we may need to review and better strategize our roles and sharpen our voices in order to ensure just and equitable immigration and settlement policies. Our practitioners need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to work with newcomers at different levels. As our respondents suggest, we need to review our social work curricula. The CASWE should initiate discussion to revisit social work education programs and to modify and revise them in order to ensure that they are adapted to the changing Canadian demography. Frontline social work practitioners and the organizations that employ them should review their policies and procedures to make sure that they are knowledgeable in newcomer clients’ situations and needs, and knowledgeable about how being a newcomer affects clients at least within their particular service setting and mandate.
Conclusion The survey findings reported in this paper indicate that the social work profession may not be ready to service the increasing volume of newcomers in the Canadian society. Our attempt was to explore a preliminary understanding of how ready social workers are in serving newcomers. More research is needed to ascertain whether this is a phenomenon exclusive to BC. We also need to know what has been done among Canadian social work education programs to prepare future social workers to deal with newcomers. Are the programs adequate and effective? In terms of practice, we need to ask ourselves how a newcomer’s identity intersects with his or her cultural and/or racialized identities in the early phase of settlement particularly, and how these intersections influence the work in different social work intervention contexts. We also need to know not only the common but also the different challenges and needs of newcomers who fall into different immigration categories.
*Thirty respondents hold a Master’s degree in a field other than social work, or are in the process of completing a social-work related degree.
Table 3 Respondents’ Self Perception of Readiness (Total 195 Answered)
I always pay close attention to news about newcomers.
I am quite familiar with policies that affect newcomers.
I am quite familiar with the difficulties that newcomers in Canada face.
I am well prepared to work with immigrants.
I am well prepared to work with refugees
Table 4: Perceived Issues of Newcomers (n=195)
Emotional and mental health issues
Immigration matters such as immigrant status and sponsorship
* Respondents could choose up to three issues in each column.
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1 “Newcomer” is commonly used in government policy and in discussions in the literature as an inclusive term for both immigrants and refugees. Recognizing the diversity among newcomers and the different life prospects of immigrants and refugees, we employ the term only as a convenient shorthand. In cases where the term is in our judgement apt to blur important differences, we use “immigrant” and “refugee” for the sake of precision.
2 This paper is not directly about the immigration policy of Canada. For details of the classification please refer to Canada Immigration and Citizenship website: http://www.cic.gc.ca. Christensen (2008) has also provided a detailed description of the Canadian immigration policy within a social policy context.
3 The average is based on the information of the Facts of Figures 2006 published by the Citizenship and Immigration Canada, http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/pdf/pub/facts2006.pdf.
4 We would like to thank BCASW for allowing us to publish the study’s results.