Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Systematic barriers give immigrants a raw deal

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Amid all the celebration that is Folklorama, a more in-depth look at immigration in Manitoba is more crucial then ever. Immigration patterns have changed dramatically over the last quarter century. While more immigrants arriving today are coming from non-traditional source countries, they are generally far more educated than newcomers a quarter of a century ago, and more than current born Canadians. Despite this, the earnings and income of recent immigrants have been on the decline and poverty rates have risen, according to Statistics Canada.

Economic class immigrants are recruited specifically for the needs of Manitoba's labour market through the province's aggressive Provincial Nominee Program. The program was developed largely in response to the business community's concern with the looming skilled labour shortage forecast for Manitoba. Provincial nominees now account for the majority of immigrants arriving in Manitoba.

Despite being chosen for their particular skills, these immigrants face significant barriers to inclusion, particularly if they are from non-traditional source countries and have visible-minority status. Highly educated and skilled immigrants are becoming trapped in underpaid jobs that require minimum qualifications. They come for a better life, only to be caught by the poverty trap in Canada.

Refugees are welcomed to Canada based on the grounds that Canada has a legal and moral commitment to resettlement. There is a dark side, however, as refugees must repay the costs of medical exams, processing, and transportation to Canada. "Transportation loans", paid back with interest, put a significant burden on refugee families.

Canada is one of few countries that require refugees to repay travel and medical costs as well as the interest accrued on loans. Saddling refugees with loans that complicate the difficult transition process is contrary to the principles set out in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

The needs of refugees are far more immediate and their experiences are greatly influenced by our tattered social safety net. Government-sponsored refugees are financially supported by the federal government according to provincial social assistance rates. In Manitoba, social assistance rates have been largely frozen since 1992, with small increases here and there. Manitoba's failure to take into account the dramatic increase in the cost of living since 1992 has meant that assistance today is truly insufficient and contributes to unnecessary hardships.

The lack of a proactive short- and long-term housing strategy on the part of the federal and provincial governments has had profound effects on both immigrant and Canadian-born populations, specifically those of low incomes. Despite the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. citing immigration as the greatest explanation for the current historically low vacancy rate in Winnipeg (one per cent), housing policy is disconnected from the government of Manitoba's official settlement strategy.

Inadequate funding for social services and school systems leave them ill-equipped to deal effectively with the needs of immigrant children, in particular refugees. The strains caused by the settlement process, low family incomes, and unmet social and emotional needs have legitimate consequences. Perhaps the most clear is the alarming situation of inner-city gangs targeting immigrant children for recruitment before they reach their teenage years.

Newcomers and their families are more likely to live in poverty than the Canadian-born. In order to reduce this poverty, a general strengthening of our social safety net and specific supports for newcomers are required. The federal government must eliminate fees charged to newcomers -- the right of permanent residence fee and transportation costs to refugees -- and increase family supports like the national child benefit supplement.

The provincial government can take action by: continuing to expand initiatives to recognize foreign credentials; increasing the minimum wage to a livable level indexed to the rising cost of living; increasing the employment and income assistance basic benefit rates and shelter allowances to 1992 levels and index them both to increases in the cost of living; and enhancing child care in the province by increasing the supply of child care spaces and ensuring that spaces are available at newcomer service points.

All levels of government must work together to increase the supply of affordable, high quality, and safe housing, eliminate the disconnect between housing and immigration policy, and ensure that recreation and transportation are accessible to newcomers.

While there is reason to be optimistic in the case of Manitoba -- our policies are among the most progressive in the country -- the long-term trend of the economic outcomes of recent immigrants over the past quarter century is one of decline. While historically those immigrating to Canada "catch up" to the Canadian-born after a number of years, those arriving today are starting at such profound disadvantage it raises some concern as to whether they will catch up at all.

Immigration is more crucial than ever to our province's social and economic health. However, systemic barriers which serve to prevent newcomers from realizing their full potential remain. In a country as wealthy as Canada, which espouses the values of diversity and equality, newcomers deserve a more equitable share of the wealth that is generated by their considerable talents and hard work.

Sid Frankel is vice-president of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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