Newcomer youth feeling isolated in rural Canada: advocates - New Canadian Media
English Language Learner students from two Lakeland Catholic Schools, Assumption Jr/Sr High School and École Notre Dame High School, took a shot at curling during an event organized by Action for Healthy Communities and the school division. Credit: Lakeland Catholic School

Newcomer youth feeling isolated in rural Canada: advocates

An outdated funding model means many rural areas are lacking the proper supports and programs that could help mitigate their isolation.

The current government 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 mitigate the isolation newcomer youth experience, advocates say. 

“While it might be quite easy to serve 200 children in downtown Toronto or Winnipeg, or here in Edmonton, in the communities that we serve, maybe 50 children are in seven or eight different towns,” says Lisa de Gara, manager of small centres with Action for Healthy Communities (AHC), a federally funded settlement organization headquartered in Edmonton. 

“We have to work very diligently to ensure we’re supporting all of the newcomers who are in those regions.”

According to Sherry Depner, ESL/ ELL Support Teacher for Lakeland Catholic School Division, there has been a “dramatic spike” in the number of newcomer youth in the district this year. Situated in a large, sparsely populated area in northeastern Alberta, Lakeland is a partner in Action for Healthy Communities’ Settlement Worker in Schools (SWIS) program. 

Currently, 49 per cent of Lakeland’s newcomer students come 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 both settlement and school staff, newcomer youth often feel isolated when arriving in these communities, which is why they’re calling for additional settlement resources needed to effectively support them.  

“We can’t treat rural immigration like the solution to Vancouver’s housing crisis,” says de Gara.

“There is an opportunity to make this into a deliberate, intentional rural immigration strategy. But we need to start by understanding what do the communities have, what do the communities need? And how can we as people in the settlement sector can really support that effort?”

Filling service gaps

According to de Gara, 30 Ukrainians have arrived in the last two weeks, predominantly in Bonnyville and Cold Lake, including eight children, and she anticipates more arrivals soon. This is reflective of older migration patterns, she says, as most residents in Bonnyville have at least one Ukrainian ancestor.

Depner explains that together, Lakeland and AHC provide “wraparound” services for 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 students’ needs 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 around 100,000 people south of Edmonton. The seven-person team, funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, supports 11 communities, says de Gara. 

She says the challenges newcomers face here include lack of services that make finding rental accommodation and a doctor or dentist difficult. 

Systems also don’t exist in the same way as in urban centres. So, rural schools may provide an hour or two of ESL per week compared to all day ESL programs available in urban schools, she says, leaving newcomer youth to pick up language as they go the rest of the time.

Building school capacity

Newcomer youth also often arrive without contextual knowledge needed in certain subjects, such as social studies, says de Gara, so AHC helps to develop resources to support both students and teachers to bridge these gaps.

They also work to bridge the ways students have learned to view education based on the systems from their countries of origin with the expectations of the education system in Canada. De Gara explains that plagiarism, for example, is a common issue among newcomer students.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to discuss [with teachers] and say, well, in many countries, the attitude is completely different,” she says. “There’s a sense of, why would I want you to write a sentence? You’re just a student. You should copy from the book; the book knows better than you.”

As well as supporting students to understand that their opinions are wanted, AHC encourages teachers to have more flexibility with errors such as spelling that students may make when submitting original work, says de Gara.

In her view, tailored student support can have a profound impact. She shares the story of a 16-year-old male youth 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 had a complete turnaround.

“He’s just a completely changed young person, simply because he came to understand that you can express yourself in the Canadian school system. There are people who understand you, there are people who can make time for you.”

Program challenges 

Developing relationships of trust with both schools and newcomer families was not easy for de Gara, as the SWIS program began in earnest in 2020, when schools were not admitting external stakeholders due to COVID.

Additionally, she says the information is not clearly articulated at either the provincial or school division level, meaning frontline staff are left to explain a federal programs to stakeholders.

This is “very unusual” and presents logistical challenges, says de Gara.

But political sensitivities about the federal government having a role in the provincial jurisdiction of education make the funder reluctant to take a more top-down approach.

Additionally, since school referrals to SWIS are based on identifying second language learners, foreign born youth who do not fit into this category but are eligible for SWIS services may be excluded.

“If you are a child who’s emigrated to Canada from Nigeria, you speak English as a first language in all likelihood, but the school might not identify you as a SWIS client, because they would think of you not as an English language learner,” de Gara explains.

Mitigating youth isolation

To mitigate the isolation de Gara and Depner have witnessed newcomer youth experience AHC started an online Filipino Youth Group to bring youth across rural Alberta together virtually. 

In one session that ended in karaoke, Depner recalls seeing youth “just letting their guard down and singing and praising each other, ” and one of the youth shared appreciation simply for “hanging out with friends just like me.”

AHC also provides activities for younger kids — including delivering art activity packs to their homes, a conversation club in Elk Island Catholic schools, and summer and winter programming.

Depner says the 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, the youth tried poutine and had a chance to mingle with newcomers from another school.

One of the volunteer coaches explains the rules of curling to students before they hit the ice. Credit: Lakeland Catholic School

“So much planning went into it, but that day we got to sit back,” says Depner. “The kids are asking 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, dental and mental health services — Lakeland Catholic nominated the organization for the 2022 Friends of Education award, which AHC won.

“For both AFC and Lakeland Catholic, it’s all about creating connections,” says Depner. “We want to ensure that all of our students know they are seen, they are valued, and they belong.”

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Daniela Cohen is a freelance journalist and writer of South African origin currently based in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has been published in the Canadian Immigrant, The/La Source Newspaper, the African blog, ZEKE magazine, eJewish Philanthropy, and Living Hyphen. Daniela's particular areas of interest are migration, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. She is also the co-founder of Identity Pages, a youth writing mentorship program.

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