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The face of Canada is changing. The most diverse city in the world, home to persons from over 120 countries, Toronto continues to attract people from all walks of life, ethnicities, religions, languages and cultures. Canada is a country for immigrants, built by immigrants. Waves of immigrants have swept its shores over the years, each one facing its own peculiar challenges. Post World War II saw large numbers of Europeans flee to Canada in search of a new home. The majority were Caucasian and either Catholic or Protestant. Almost everyone arrived by boat and settled in various parts of Canada. That was almost five decades ago.

Since then, the centre stage of global conflict has now shifted to other parts of the world. Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America are areas where human induced suffering takes place on a massive scale and has forced the displacement of millions of people searching for ways to survive and places to live in relative peace. Canada offers such an environment. The present wave of immigrants to Canada is neither Christian nor Caucasian. They are coloured; Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs and from every other type of religious background and the majority of whom are from Asia, Africa and the Middle East whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. In fact, of the 250,000 newcomers to Canada every year, less than one percent are from Europe . Ten percent of this number is refugees. Toronto itself is home to a large number of these newcomers and together with Vancouver and Montreal , account for most of them. Current population trends indicate that the visible minority in Canada would not be a “minority” any more in a hundred years.


“When I came to Canada, everything appeared so big. The roads, the buildings, the trains, the shopping malls, everything. Back home I am used to simply driving in the direction of where I want to go when I want to get to a particular place. But here, if I want to go west, I must first drive east, get off the ramp and only then proceed. This is totally foreign to me and confusing as well” says a newcomer from Mauritius, “it is not the way we are used to driving back home”. “Here, signs matter a lot, there, our driving is impulsive”.

Newcomers come to Canada for many reasons. Some seek a better future for their children, some because they face economic hardships in their country of domicile, others seek to re-unite with family and yet others simply want refuge from persecution and conflict. A recent longitudinal research of about ten thousand new immigrants over the past five years reported that the majority of them were very pleased with their decision to come to Canada. They cited an environment of peace, presence of relatives and friends and greater opportunities as reasons they came to Canada. See Statistics Canada for more information.

Of course there are fundamental differences between immigrants and refugees. One group comes to Canada out of choice while the other does not. Immigrants arrive with some basic financial resources; refugees do not. Immigrants do not necessarily bring the emotional and psychological baggages that are so much a part of the refugees persona. However many of the challenges faced by these persons are common. Ask a newcomer to name some challenges and one is sure to pick up common themes; the stark difference, isolation, finding adequate employment and the weather.

From riding a bus (having a bus with no conductors is strange to most persons) to waiting patiently in line to board a train are practices not many are used to. Even simple acts (to the seasoned Canadian) such as figuring out how things work such as food dispensing machines or how order at a drive-through McDonald takes some getting used to.

Many immigrants and refugees to Canada arrive with no social capital at all. Whatever they built up in their home country was left behind. Re-starting a new life for those who were once well established in their home country is a difficult challenge. And yet, for many, beginning life all over again is much more desirable than facing the hardships back home.



Canada’s immigration system selects the brightest and best from the world and allows them to come to Canada as skilled workers. The “points” awarded by visa posts overseas to select immigrants are primarily weighted towards education, language (English or French) and age. Consequently those with high education levels stand a better chance of immigrating to Canada. It is not uncommon therefore that doctors, engineers, PhD qualified individuals are allowed into Canada with their families. However, this is where the biggest challenges of integrating and settling lie for such people. Canada does not recognize these professional qualifications. For such professionals to work in their fields, they have to go back to school and re-qualify before they can even begin being considered for a position. A popular quip among Canadians is that the best place to have a heart attack is in a taxi since it’s bound to be driven by a doctor.

New immigrants,especially those with families, do not have the luxury of going back to school. There are bills to pay, kids to take care of, new things to learn and jobs to find. So what do most immigrant professionals end up doing? Any work that gives them a decent pay and, if that doesn’t pay enough, two jobs; which gives them hardly any time to study or energy to look for other jobs in line with their training. Immigrants could spend years being under-employed and finally just give up, putting aside a whole lifetime of dreams. Often this leads to frustration and a sense of disillusionment. Many immigrants live in this state for years, the only thing keeping them from returning being the hardships they would face in their own countries and the joy of seeing their children flourishing.

The first three years of a newcomers life in Canada are the most vulnerable. It takes about that time to get acclimatized and accustomed to the Canadian way of life and its social norms and, the weather of course! The process is accelerated or drawn out depending on the social supports one has, steady income and ability to communicate in one of Canada’s official languages.


Canada accepts about 25,000 to 30,000 persons per year as refugees or as persons who have humanitarian and compassionate grounds for remaining in Canada. Of this number, about 10,500 are selected from refugee camps and brought to Canada either on a government program or through a private sponsorship program. These individuals and/or families are granted permanent residents (PR) status when they arrive in Canada. For details of the private sponsorship program please visit the Government of Canada's website.

Others who find their way to Canada and make a claim for asylum are invited to appear before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) which determines whether their claims are credible. Those found to be genuine refugees are granted permanent protection and could apply to become permanent residents. Canada’s acceptance of such persons has reduced drastically over the years and currently is around 10,000 such persons annually. The process from making an asylum claim to being granted PR status could take anywhere between 8 to 120 months. For challenges that persons in this situation (referred to as “limbo”) face, visit Waiting to Live Again: The Realities of Refugees in Limbo.


Some who arrive in Canada with legal documents either as visitors, students or migrant workers for example, decide not to return to their home countries for various reasons. Many such individuals apply for refugee status but are refused because they do not meet the definition of a protected person or refugee. Once they are refused by the IRB and barring three other avenues for a procedural review of their claim, they are slotted for removal from Canada. Those who don’t go back voluntarily or are not removed end up being without status in Canada. It is estimated that there are about 200,000 to 300,000 such persons in Canada. Ironically, while well qualified immigrants who meet the criteria to immigrate to Canada are unable to get jobs in their fields, many non-status persons seem to be able to find work quickly. Most of them are employed in a non-office environment such as in the construction industry or service industry such as hotels and restaurants, doing work that Canadians don’t want to do. It is a well established fact that the construction industry, especially in urban centres such as Toronto would collapse if the non-status workers employed in the construction industry were removed from Canada. Non status persons live in fear of being picked up by the Border Services Agency, the government organization authorized to arrest and remove foreigners. They have to access to services such as health, language assistance and welfare and are unable to get loans and credit cards, aspects that are part of everyday life for others. These persons are especially vulnerable to mental health issues and prefer to stay hidden, unable to fully participate in Canadian life and society.


How do we even begin to understand newcomers and respond to their needs? There is a healthy discomfort within the church in Canada about our inability to reach out and welcome them as one of us. Many and varied are the discussions around this topic, especially in the GTA where the reality of diversity is most evident. It is our hope that as we combine heart and head to find creative ways of making space for these individuals, families and communities, we will be able to fulfill Gods commission to us believers to embrace them into the Kingdom of light.

Submitted by:
Chris Pullenayegem
Consultant, Learning4Change
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