Todd: The tough work of fitting in

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Assimilation? Integration? Absorption?

There’s nothing like a dispute over words to get Canadians to pay attention — and in this case that might not be a bad thing.

“Assimilation” has been used to describe the process by which Indigenous People and immigrants could mix into the larger culture. Some Canadians consider it offensive, arguing it doesn’t allow room for cultural differences.

Assimilation has been largely superseded by the word “integration.” And now Canadian government immigration officials are talking about a new concept: “absorptive capacity.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada officials are digesting a significant report that defines absorptive capacity as “a two-way process that encourages adjustment on the part of both the newcomer and the receiving society.”

Indeed, the internal report, obtained under an access to information request, shows immigration analysts are worried the “absorptive capacity” of Canada is going down.

“Declining outcomes of recent immigrants have shown that integration is not automatic,” says the report, which surveys emerging problems with immigration flows and the pressure it’s putting on Canadian sectors.

While some Canadians behave as if it’s xenophobic to question immigration policy and rates and their results, the sweeping in-house government report, titled Evidence-Based Levels and Mix: Absorptive Capacity, does exactly that.

The report, obtained by Vancouver lawyer Richard Kurland, shows integration of immigrants into Canada, despite relative success compared to most countries, is faltering in regards to housing, jobs, health care, education, religious tensions, ethnic enclaves and transit.

With Canada accepting 300,000 immigrants a year, in addition to accommodating 700,000 international students and temporary foreign workers, the 2014 report, which has no listed author, recognizes real problems.

Some pivotal points:

• Like millions of Canadian-born residents, immigrants are battling to afford adequate housing, especially in major cities. They face particular barriers because of their larger household sizes.

The report has good news and bad. “(Immigrant) home ownership rates rise significantly with time spent in Canada and surpass that of the native-born after 10 years in Canada, (but) newcomers tend to risk more capital and spend more of their income on housing costs, making them more vulnerable to market fluctuations.”

• Despite language requirements for immigrants and the availability of free language classes in Canada, many may not be learning English or French nor passing it onto their young children.

The study found in one large school district in Metro Toronto, three out of 10 children needing ESL training were born in Canada.

Language limitations also create obstacles in Canadian workplaces. “Skilled immigrants face labour market integration challenges such as limited language proficiency.”

• Immigrants have difficulties getting health care. “Waiting for care is the No. 1 barrier to access, although this problem is not specific to the immigrant community, as Canadians also mention long wait times as a critical problem,” says the report.

• Two out of three immigrants move to Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. That means immigrants are almost 2.5 times more concentrated in Canada’s three largest cities than is the total population, of which only 27 per cent live in these cities.

• There is a strong tendency for newcomers to settle with members of their own ethnicity in the core of cities and, more recently, their suburbs.

“Residential concentrations of newcomers is a growing concern,” the report says, suggesting self-chosen ethnic isolation can create further barriers to full integration.

• “Religious and cultural accommodation continues to be an issue regarding practices that are deemed in conflict with Canada’s institutions,” the report says, naming “forced marriages” and “family violence issues.”

• Transit hassles abound for immigrants. Although transit hassles are significant for all residents of cities, they’re worse in the suburbs, where many immigrants are moving.

“Recent immigrants are twice as likely to use public transit as their Canadian-born counterparts.”

What’s the way forward?

Despite trying to be frank about Canada’s immigration difficulties, the report notes the country is recognized as “a world leader in creating an environment than enables newcomers to settle and become active, productive and connected citizens.” Canada is ranked third out of the 31 countries that welcome immigrants. The Migration Integration Policy Index rates only Sweden and Portugal as doing better at absorbing newcomers.

Despite Canada’s strong ranking, the Immigration department’s report notes another disturbing finding, which could have long-term repercussions.

Second-generation visible minority immigrants, compared to first-generation immigrants, are more likely to “perceive” they’ve been subject to discrimination.

Poll results suggesting 43 per cent of Canada’s second-generation visible minority citizens are convinced they’re being treated unfairly may point to an expanding crack in the dream of cultural integration.

As for coming up with better policies, the report makes it clear immigration officials are often in a fog about the overall effects of large-scale immigration on Canada, not to mention the impact of international students and temporary foreign workers.

There is “no comprehensive stock-taking on how Canadian institutions and cities are adapting” to immigrants and other foreign nationals, says the report. The knowledge vacuum exists across housing, health care, the regional job market, transit and more.

The internal departmental report is, in effect, a muted cry for help, so those who make immigration policy can stop flying mostly in the dark.  

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