Newcomer program preps for post-pandemic realities

Paul Mayne//Western News

Psychology professor Victoria Esses has received a $2.196-million grant from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to further her research aimed at promoting welcoming communities for newcomers to Canada through the Pathways to Prosperity project.

New federal funding will help a Western-led program continue exploring welcoming environments for newcomers, even as Canada’s attitudes toward new immigrants will surely be tested by the economic and social uncertainty of a post-pandemic world.

“I expect the poor economic situation in Canada will lead to some reluctance to accept large numbers of immigrants, as we have been doing in the last few years,” Psychology professor Victoria Esses explained.

“Socially, we have also seen some evidence of Canadians pulling inward and, not surprisingly, fearing others coming into the country. I expect this may extend post COVID-19 to greater feelings of threat from immigrants, leading to possible increases in prejudice and discrimination.”

That environment increases the importance of Pathways to Prosperity (P2P), a national alliance of university, community and government partners dedicated to fostering welcoming communities and promoting the integration of migrants and minorities across Canada.

The Western-led program will continue and expand thanks to a $2.196-million grant from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, program officials announced this week.

“We want to continue to maintain the collaboration among academic researchers, policy-makers and the settlement sector in promoting and supporting the integration of newcomers in Canada,” said Esses, Director of the Network for Economic and Social Trends and Western’s Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Relations.

While Canada has been encouragingly open in their promotion and support of immigration, Esses said favourable attitudes toward immigrants and immigration are expected to change as we slowly exit the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overcoming these potential hurdles won’t be easy. But Esses points to 2015 when Canadians changed their attitudes toward Syrian refugees in response to the government’s campaign to accept 25,000-plus refugees in a short period of time.

“I believe the government can similarly work to promote positive attitudes toward immigrants and immigration post-COVID-19 by appealing to the long-term benefits of immigration for our country,” Esses said.

Some of the recent funding has been earmarked for new projects, including a study examining the settlement needs of different groups of newcomers, particularly the vulnerable and under-served.

“There are individuals who may need settlement services but are not necessarily accessing these services,” Esses said. “There are so many great settlement services and practices being implemented across the country but, historically, they have not been widely shared. As a result, each organization has had to reinvent the wheel and come up with new practices to address particular needs in their community.”

Esses also recognized the fact most immigrants tend to settle in the larger urban centres, with few choosing to settle in smaller, rural, and northern communities.

“This is a challenge. In some ways, immigrants are most needed in smaller communities to fill labour needs and help prevent shrinking populations,” she said. “We will also be addressing the barriers immigrants face in settling in these smaller communities including, at times, the lack of a welcoming community.”

Immigration accounts for three quarters of Canada’s population growth. New Canadians remain a key to economic development and meeting demographic needs in the face of an aging population and slowing labour force growth.

Jean McRae, CEO of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, joins Esses as co-lead on the Pathways to Prosperity project.