Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The lunchbag letdown.

Just before going on vacation, I wrote this entry, wanting to talk about the issues facing "New Canadians" (a term I like more and more). I had intended to post while on vacation but wisely left the laptop at home. I'm now picking-up where I left off.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not an expert on anything I write about. I am writing to try and create a discussion around the issues facing New Canadians and a rationale as to why more of us ought to try to do something. I am hoping that people much smarter than I am will contribute comments and feedback that will set right my mistaken assumptions and inform us all. Disclaimer made.

In this post, I want to compare a donor dollar spent on Darfur emergency relief and a dollar spent on providing free after-school tutoring to Sudanese kids who have landed here in Vancouver as refugees. I hate these types of comparisons because - in an ideal world - we ought to fund both, but it's unlikely that the same donor will fund both programs.

The "on the ground" effort is urgent, extreme and well-reported in the media. The "here at home" situation is certainly not urgent nor extreme (in the same context) and thus not well-reported. Of course, if a family of Sudanese refugees have found their way to Canada, they are certainly much luckier/wealthier than their friends and family back home, right? Right. Well kinda.

I can't fault any refugee if they lose perspective eventually. (I know I would lose it quite quickly) Meaning that eventually, I stop comparing my current situation today, here in Canada, with my past situation back in Sudan. Eventually, I have to look at the fact that I am here now and I must survive and ultimately try to move up the economic ladder here in Canada.

So back to what to fund. The crisis is on and somehow this one refugee has landed in Toronto along with his two children. The children are placed in school in the grades corresponding with their age. Problem is that their education is at a much lower level than their ages. They've been in and out of school. Stop start for the past several years before coming to Canada. The school gives a bit of extra help, an hour a week but there's one tutor to 10 kids, all of whom are at various learning levels and english competency.

The two kids are falling behind in school and yet despite this, they are already more educated than their father. He can't help them. So eventually, they stop trying. They spend less time at school, hanging-out with other kids who have slipped through the cracks. Meanwhile, the father whose English is passable but by no means strong, finds himself unable to get work other than as a less than minimum wage laborer.

An entire post deserves to be written on the exploitation of New Canadians on farms, in nannying and other industries but let's keep talking about the father and his kids.

The kids drop out-of school and then walk down one of two paths: A life not unlike their father, working below the poverty line, their labor exploited or they find easier money selling drugs, find support and a sense of family in a gang, and then end-up incarcerated or dead.

Obviously the story I portray is one of extremes but the story I'm telling above is a composite of many people I've met here in Canada whose personal stories are far more sensational than this composite.

Now maybe your attitude is that they (the New Canadians) should be "lucky to be here" and "to each his own" and if they're unable to make it up the economic ladder, that's their problem. And at least on the last point, I might be willing to accommodate that view, if only it were a fair fight. But my Sudanese friend is "bringing a knife to a gunfight."

So then, if it's not a fair fight, and we're not investing in adequate resources to ensure that those that we purposefully annoint as one of us, as a Canadian, if they are not given the resources, then in a way, we are actually contributing to a new form of slavery.

Bear with me.

We know the basic requirements to move up the ladder. It starts with education and skills development. If these resources (which are inalienable rights of any Canadian) are not afforded to New Canadians, specifically recognizing that they can't just be "slotted" into society with a citizenship card and a rousing singing of O'Canada and God Save The Queen, that they need some form of "starter kit" that specifically addresses how to place them onto a level playing field, then we are in many cases signing-off on their enslavement.

Now if that isn't a compelling enough argument for us to do MORE, let me make a pure dollars and sense argument. I've seen some of the most generous giving for international development come from New Canadians who have managed to move-up the economic ladder, and who have contributed disproportionate amounts of their wealth (as a percentage of their income compared to "averages" of annual giving) back into the communities where they grew-up and in the surrounding communities. I've seen a lot of this giving done quietly and even without tax-relief and I'm proud to say that at GiveMeaning, we provide an infrastructure by which many of these grass-roots projects are being facilitated.

So here's a couple of solutions:

The biggest issue is not a lack of resources, but a lack of access to these resources. Back to my analogy of the starter-kit, if there was someone during the citizenship process who worked as a "case officer" for a New Canadian, who took the time to understand the specific needs of that family, and then accessed a central database of all service providers offering relevant and applicable services, this would make a MAJOR difference.

As I say often, there are 80,000 charities in Canada and more than 100,000 non-profit societies. In addition, there are countless grass-roots volunteer groups offering a myriad services but most of these organizations have zero budget for outreach or awareness.

Heck, someone should create a community portal aimed at New Canadians arriving from the same countries. Share resources, anonymously articulate problem employers, coordinate meet-ups, etc. Do it as a non-profit endeavor. I'm sure there would be lots of government grants and community grants available for such a site, and potentially even some corporate sponsorship.

So there's a start. Second, we need stricter laws protecting "migrant workers" and a review of temporary worker visas and the employers who bring in workers under this visa, and a better process by which workers can articulate grievances without fear of retribution.

So there it is. Not without hyperbole but not without merit.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

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I've got my own New Canadian story to share. As a 'Friendship Host' with the Immigrant Services Society of BC, I have been helping out a Congolese family of 8 that arrived in Canada two years ago after 5 years in a Ugandan refugee camp. The father was a highly educated and accomplished veterinarian in his home city, but had to flee with his family due to the conflict in Eastern DR Congo.

With only a very limited knowledge of English (fluent in French, it always confuses me why Montreal or Quebec City wouldn't have been a better starting point!), he and his family were quite literally dropped into a new country, a new language, a new school and a new workforce.

Living on a very meagre (but life-saving) monthly stipend from the Canadian government, the father spent a year learning English, then began to look for a job. This hard-working, extremely intelligent man could do nothing more than volunteer at a local veterinary clinic, despite his background, because his university education couldn't be recognized.

Barely able to keep his family of 8 afloat in a 3-bedroom apartment in North Surrey, he can't afford to take even a Veterinary Assistant program at a community college, and must work for minimum wage at a recycling depot. Optimistic to the core, this man is grateful for the chance to make a new life for his family in Canada.

Ironically, in relative economic terms, he is in worse shape now than he was before he had to flee the DRC, but he hopes that his kids will have opportunities to pull themselves out of a life of poverty in Canada. Education is key to this, and I know that at least one of his kids is struggling at his French immersion school, while the other three school-age kids are doing quite well.

If anyone reads Tom's entry and wants to do something very practical, I highly recommend volunteering a few hours a week with ISS (http://www.issbc.org). You can make a HUGE difference helping New Canadian families find their way around in a very confusing and foreign environment, and be enriched with the blessings of unique friendships at the same time.
For those of you not from Vancouver that are interested in working with New Canadians, almost every major city has its own agency with similar programs. With a little help from Google, I'm sure it won't be long before you find an opportunity in your own community!
Thanks Nate. Providing volunteer hours to help a person or family locally is a great way to be of service!

Also, my friend Kelly Seagram emailed me after reading the post and brought up the incredibly important issue (also touched on by Nate) of how to better determine educational/professional equivalencies for New Canadians.

I'm sure we all have met someone working as a taxi-driver or medical assistant who was a Doctor in their country of origin.
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