The government’s current funding model for settlement agencies in rural Canada – which is based on the number of clients served per region – is a barrier to providing adequate services that could alleviate the isolation experienced by young newcomers, say advocates.
“While it’s pretty easy to serve 200 kids in downtown Toronto or Winnipeg, or here in Edmonton, in the communities we serve, maybe 50 kids are in seven or eight different cities,” says Lisa de Gara, Manager of Small Centers. with Action for Healthy Communities (AHC), a federally funded settlement organization headquartered in Edmonton.
“We have to work very diligently to ensure that we support all newcomers who are in these areas.
According to Sherry Depner, ESL/ELL support teacher for the Lakeland Catholic School Division, there has been a “dramatic spike” in the number of young newcomers to the district this year. Located in a large, sparsely populated region of northeastern Alberta, Lakeland is a partner in Action for Healthy Communities’ Settlement Worker in Schools (SWIS) program.
Currently, 49% of new students at Lakeland are from the Philippines, with others from India, Pakistan, Nevis, Italy, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Vietnam, Somalia, Hungary, Mexico , Singapore, South Africa and Ukraine.
But according to settlement and school staff, newcomer youth often feel isolated when they arrive in these communities, which is why they request additional settlement resources needed to support them effectively.
“It is possible to make this a deliberate and intentional rural immigration strategy. But we have to start by understanding what communities have, what do communities need? And how can we, as people in the settlement sector, really support this effort? »
According to de Gara, 30 Ukrainians have arrived in the past two weeks, mostly in Bonnyville and Cold Lake, including eight children, and she expects more arrivals soon. This reflects older migration patterns, she says, as most Bonnyville residents have at least one Ukrainian ancestor.
Depner explains that together, Lakeland and AHC provide “package” services to youth and their families to make their lives easier. She says the district’s passion for “creating an equitable platform for all of our students” means they try to meet the needs of students at home and in the community as well as at school.
In addition to Lakeland, AHC’s SWIS program serves Leduc Beaumont and Camrose, an agrarian community of approximately 100,000 people south of Edmonton. The seven-person team, funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, supports 11 communities, de Gara says.
She says challenges newcomers face here include a lack of services that makes it difficult to find rental accommodation and a doctor or dentist.
Nor do the systems exist in the same way as in urban centers. So rural schools can offer an hour or two of ESL a week compared to the all-day ESL programs available in urban schools, she says, letting young newcomers learn the language as they go. and as the rest of the time.
Newcomer youth also often arrive without the necessary background knowledge in certain subjects, such as social studies, de Gara says, so AHC is helping to develop resources to help students and teachers fill those gaps.
They also strive to bridge the ways in which students have learned to perceive education based on their home country systems with the expectations of the education system in Canada. De Gara explains that plagiarism, for example, is a common problem among newcomer students.
In addition to helping students understand that their opinions are sought, AHC encourages teachers to have more flexibility with errors such as spelling that students may make when submitting original work, says de Gara. .
According to her, personalized support for students can have a profound impact. It tells the story of a 16-year-old who never spoke or looked anyone in the eye, but after working with a SWIS worker from the same country who spoke the same language, he had a complete turnaround.
“He’s just a completely changed young person, simply because he understood that you can express yourself in the Canadian school system. There are people who understand you, there are people who can take time for you.
Developing trusting relationships with schools and families of newcomers has not been easy for de Gara, as the SWIS program began in earnest in 2020, when schools were not admitting external speakers due to COVID.
Additionally, she says information is not clearly articulated at the provincial or school division level, which means front-line staff must explain a federal program to stakeholders.
It’s “very unusual” and presents logistical challenges, de Gara says.
But political sensitivities about the federal government’s role in provincial jurisdiction over education make the funder reluctant to take a more top-down approach.
Additionally, since referral of schools to SWIS is based on the identification of second language learners, foreign-born young people who do not fit into this category but are eligible for SWIS services may be excluded.
“If you are a child who migrated to Canada from Nigeria, you probably speak English as your first language, but the school may not identify you as a SWIS customer, as they will not consider you a learner of English,” de Gara explains.
To ease the isolation Gara and Depner witnessed the experience of newcomer youth, AHC launched an Online Filipino Youth Group to virtually bring rural Alberta youth together.
During a session that ended with karaoke, Depner recalled seeing young people “let their guard down, sing along and praise each other”, and one of the young people simply shared his appreciation for ” hanging out with friends like me”.
AHC also offers activities for young children, including home art activity kit delivery, a conversation club at Elk Island Catholic schools, and summer and winter programs.
Depner says Curling Day held in partnership with AHC in March 2022 for high school newcomer youth in Bonnyville and Cold Lake was very successful. Community volunteers taught the history and mechanics of curling, kids tried poutine and had a chance to mingle with newcomers from another school.
“There was so much planning, but that day we had to sit down,” says Depner. “Kids ask us every time we see them, what’s next?”
To show their appreciation for AHC’s help – which included providing winter clothing, food, school supplies, books and resources, interpreters, chrome books, and access to medical services, dental and mental health – Lakeland Catholic named the organization for the 2022 Friends of Education award, which AHC won.
“For the AFC and Lakeland Catholic, it’s all about bonding,” Depner said. “We want to make sure all of our students know they are seen, valued and belong.”
Daniela Cohen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, New Canadian Media