Carolyn Davis

Settlement agencies seek more government support

  • January 6, 2016

As thousands of Syrian refugees land in Toronto and Montreal, Catholic settlement agencies are asking governments for money and programs to help our newest neighbours build successful lives in Canada.

Catholic Cross-Cultural Services of Toronto has renewed calls for Ottawa to revive its abandoned Host program, which would pave the way for more volunteers to be involved in helping new arrivals navigate life in Canada.

“There are many, many people who are very interested in doing something to support the Syrian refugees. They may not have the time, energy or financial wherewithal to become a sponsor, but there may be other things that they could offer,” Catholic Cross-Cultural Services executive director Carolyn Davis told The Catholic Register.

The federal government funded Host programs from 1990 to 2008 that served over 18,000 new immigrants. The programs organized volunteers who would befriend new arrivals in Canada — both refugees and other types of immigrants. The idea was that through these friendships the new arrivals would form social networks that could help them improve their English and lead them to jobs, business opportunities, educational opportunities and political and social engagement.

How well and how quickly refugee arrivals are integrated into Canadian life has been highlighted by a recent report from the federal government showing government-sponsored refugees faring much worse than refugees who are sponsored by churches and other volunteer groups.

More than half of privately sponsored refugees reported employment income in their first year in Canada, compared to just 14 per cent for government-assisted refugees, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. By their second year in Canada, 70 per cent of the church-backed refugees are working, compared with 41.5 per cent for government-sponsored. It isn’t until year nine and 10 that things finally even-out.

Getting the Host programs back up and running, “would certainly assist refugees in settling more quickly and more successfully,” Davis said.

Citizenship and Immigration officials claim that merging the Host program into other programs in 2008 didn’t stop settlement agencies from organizing volunteers to befriend and help new arrivals.

“One of the key themes within the modernized settlement program is Community Connections, which recognizes the importance of social engagement to achieving settlement and eventual integration success,” said a CIC media officer in an email.

By the time it was discontinued in 2008, the federal Host program was budgeted for $14.9 million, but the government actually spent $15.6 million. The slight overspending in 2008-09 was an exception. For two years before that, Citizenship and Immigration underspent its Host program budget by $4.4 million.

Host was replaced by programs titled “Community Connections.” These programs “help to lessen feelings of isolation and marginalization among newcomers,” said Citizenship and Immigration.

As things now stand, Davis is certainly not surprised that privately-sponsored refugees do better.

“They settle more quickly and they do better because there’s a group of people who have a vested interest in helping them settle,” she said. “They have a built-in set of connections to potential jobs, to potential places to live — all those connections that help people settle.”

While Catholic Cross-Cultural Services lobbies for more federal funding, it also will vie for a slice of $8.5 million Queen’s Park will distribute to settlement agencies in Ontario. About 10,000 of the 25,000 refugees expected by the end of February will settle in Ontario — all of them needing housing, English classes, jobs and help with everything from child care to finding a doctor.

Just before Christmas, Davis was still awaiting word on how to apply for the new provincial funds.

Settlement agencies aren’t quite used to the kind of media attention they’ve been getting since the Syrians started arriving, Davis said.

“The world sure has discovered us recently,” she said. “All of a sudden we’ve become front-page news.”

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