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Crossroads of Culture: Understanding an Integrated Approach to Building Community with & led by Newcomers to Canada

October 3, 2022

Globally, Canada comes in 8th for the total number of foreign born residents (immigrants) residing in a country. However, accepting immigrants into a country does not guarantee a sense of belonging, or even citizenship. Entry into Canada on work or student visas does not guarantee social connections or even social security. According to Statistics Canada, Immigrants to Canada report high levels of loneliness and social isolation, significantly higher than Canadian-born citizens. 

Canada is advertised as a land of opportunities – equitable, diverse and inclusive. With this assurance, I packed my suitcase and made a 22 hour journey to a country where a better future was promised. Just like myself, around 600,00 international students make their way to Canada for a better future every year. 22% of Canada’s population are registered immigrants, a number that is likely an underrepresentation of Canada’s total immigrant population, as the most recent census is from 2016. In addition, the 2016 census didn’t account for second generation immigrants who often live between both cultures, particularly racialized children of immigrants. Canada has a rich diversity and high population of immigrants, yet many immigrants are socially isolated. The barriers to belonging, especially social isolation, can keep immigrants, international students, newcomers, refugees and permanent residents from fulfillment, finding a home in Canada, and even from self-actualization as none of this is possible without social connections. 

Patterns of immigrant settlement in Canada show us important trends. While many believe fear of isolation and lack of access to community leads many newcomers to Canada to consider settling in ethnic enclaves, the reality is different. These ethnic enclaves serve as areas where immigrants are able to connect with people of the same race and ethnicity, as well as based on common threads of language and culture. Moreover, housing costs, a sense of familiarity and access to leadership within the community are the real reasons immigrants thrive in ethnic enclaves. 

While this may seem like a viable solution to the problem of newcomer social isolation, and help build a sense of belonging, many argue that this may not be the case. Researchers at the University of Victoria have found that immigrants settling in ethnic enclaves upon their arrival to Canada feel a weaker sense of connection to the Canadian social fabric and values. This happens due to a variety of reasons such as over policing, less access to socio-economic resources [including community programs, institutions and support structures, including welfare measures], and lack of interracial communication and diversity. The lack of interracial communication and diverse community development becomes a bigger problem when immigrants in these areas feel othered, or excluded due to little, or even negative, interactions with people outside their enclave. 

The lack of community building initiatives and access to resources by the Federal, Provincial and municipal governments is evident in cases such as Brampton. The city of Brampton (population 600,00), with an immigrant population exceeding 50 percent, has access to only one full service hospital. The health policy of immigrants in an ethnic enclave like Brampton comes under immigration policy. Immigrants are generally healthier than Canadian-born individuals, however, due to Canada’s suburban-focused community design and less walkable cities, the health of immigrants suffer. While limited access to health resources, including both physical spaces and language barriers, is in itself a big enough issue other social discrepancies afflict immigrants in Canada.  The government is further unable  to or unwilling to focus resources on aiding immigrants to build a new life, one with a sense of belonging in Canadian society. This can be characterized by lack of funding in community building initiatives, and lack of funding for immigrant-led community infrastructure. 

Racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia force Immigrants in Canada to abandon their heritage, culture and native sense of belonging, in hopes of integration and assimilation. Othering and lack of commonality forces many people to adopt ‘accents’ or western cultural practices to fit in and be a part of larger society. Many may even turn on their own communities, and are happy to speak against further immigration efforts by the government. While some are successful in doing so, many find themselves unable to tether themselves to the Canadian social fabric due to linguistic and cultural barriers. 

A possible solution to our current organizing problems, and current community building issues, may be Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). The ABCD perspective is strengths-based and orients the community as abundant and capable rather than the current deficit-based paradigm. In ABCD the community already possesses everything they need to build a stronger neighbourhood, city, even society and this approach could shift our funding structures, our mindset and solve many community problems. ABCD does not look at community development as an issue to be solved, but rather celebrates the assets or resources already present within the community to foster social connectedness. Using an Asset-Based Community Development [ABCD] framework, we can celebrate the rich perspectives and assets that immigrants bring to Canada, which are necessary to eradicate social isolation, and build robust and diverse communities.  Creating socially connected communities means healthier, more resilient, more diverse and more fulfilled communities and has a lasting impact on people’s wellbeing. 

Government efforts must focus on bringing more immigrants into the community development space, ensuring immigrant input on social/community initiatives, garnering a better understanding of greater immigrant grievances and putting immigrants in positions of leadership. ABCD has seven key areas of impact, namely: (1) Sense of belonging, (2) Equity and Inclusion, (3) Civic Engagement (enabling care / acting together), (4) Strengthen Resilience, (5) Community Safety, (6) Community Health / Wellness, (7) Empowered Local Economies. In practice, these areas of impact translate into initiatives, such as building inclusive neighbourhood parks, where people of all ages can intermingle and share the joy of living together. However, there is limited immigrant input into ideas surrounding Asset-Based Community Development. I am very fortunate to have a strong command of the English language, and hence, do not face a lot of the barriers that many of my fellow immigrants feel when accessing community resources due to linguistic or cultural barriers. However, this isn’t true for many newcomers and we all deserve a space at the table, and bring rich assets into the community development process. 

Additionally, it is important for non-immigrant Canadians to do their part in making their immigrant neighbour or peer feel welcomed. A good start is to learn more about their culture, cuisine, values, traditions, and way of living. Immigrants are here to be a part of Canadian society and to add value to it, whether it be financial or social. We bring with us knowledge of ancient civilizations, and cultural traditions and activities that extend from Bollywood dancing to Taekwondo to Eastern practices of community development that have garnered results in our native lands for centuries. These range from providing free access to medical services, taking care of our neighbours, whether that be through emotional support or resources, and a myriad of other skills.

What I have come to know formally as Asset-Based Community Development is a lifestyle I lived in my neighbourhood throughout my childhood. Whether it meant sending food to my neighbours during the holy month of Ramadan, playing cricket in the streets, or a vigilant neighbourhood watch, our strong neighbourly bonds built a safe and welcoming community. Immigrants coming from a diverse set of countries have their own best practices for how to make neighbourhoods more inclusive and socially connected; they need  support, empathy and inclusion from their Canadian neighbours, as well as formal project funding from governments and organizations. These communities are already practicing ABCD, and they deserve recognition and support. 

It is high time that immigrants are viewed as essential members of Canadian society — people who help drive the social and economic progress of this country to its pinnacle. For neighbourhoods to have true social connectedness, we must address and tackle social isolation in the most vulnerable amongst us.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SCSC.

Photo by Rayhane saber on Unsplash