Bridging the Gap: Newcomer Access to City Services

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January 29, 2014 by ceris

Among the many issues facing newcomers today, the lack of child care, inaccessible quality and affordable housing, and barriers to education and training were discussed at an Open Dialogue Event on Newcomer Access to City services. At this third session of Open Dialogue Events, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and a range of community members including City Council, City staff and community agencies identified ongoing initiatives and gaps in connecting newcomers to City of Toronto services.

 Gap1Opening remarks were made by Chris Brillinger, Executive Director of SDFA. Debbie Douglas, Executive director of OCASI moderated the discussion which included the panelists: Elaine Baxter-Trahair, General Manager of Childrens Services; Angela Robertson, Executive Director of Central Toronto Community Health Centre; Councilor Janet Davis, Ward 31, Beaches – East York; Sultana Jahangir, Founder and Executive Director of South Asian Womens Rights Organization (SAWRO); and Cheryl MacDonald, Manager with the Citys Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division

The discussion of the day was two pronged: one highlighted the initiatives already in place to better connect newcomers to City services, such as the Toronto Newcomer Strategy, and the other pointed to the barriers that continue to prevent this critical access. Overwhelmingly, speakers agreed that, while there are public mandates in place to improve newcomer accessibility to City services, road blocks persist, such as experiences of “discrimination” and “disrespect” from city service providers, cultural taboos of seeking social assistance, and simply the lack of knowledge that these services exist.

Angela Robertson, Executive Director of Central Toronto Community Health Centre, detailed how there is a continued “overpolicization of racialized youth” especially “Black” youth in the City of Toronto. Robertson also indicated a desperate need for “improved customer service” as many newcomers feel discriminated against and disrespected when they are applying and receiving social benefits.

During question and answer period, a community member posed the critical question: “Is there any other way to access services other than people needing to prove that they’re poor?” The member went on to say that in some cultures it is considered taboo to seek social assistance in the first place because it is seen as a form of “begging.”

Is there any other way to access services other than people needing to prove that theyre poor?

This comment is a timely reflection of the Canadian reality for many newcomers. The Canadian unemployment rates show that newcomers comprise an increasing proportion of those who are unemployed and needing social assistance. Since the recession in 2008, the unemployment rate in Toronto has been rising steadily, particularly for newcomers. Despite the fact that recent immigrants are almost twice as likely as their Canadian-born counterparts to hold post-secondary education and professional certification, accreditation requirements in professional fields prevent many qualified newcomers from working in their trained occupations. Furthermore, newcomers who find employment earn substantially less than their Canadian counterpart. Thus, the newcomer population seeking social assistance and access to City services is growing. In response, City services need to restructure their policies to adequately reflect and be sensitive to the populations and cultures they serve.


The Toronto Newcomer Strategy,an initiative funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has a vision: “all newcomers reach their full potential to thrive and contribute to their local neighbourhood, community and city, ensuring Toronto’s continued success and prosperity.”

While City of Toronto departments like the Children’s Services and the Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division are making concerted efforts to increase the amount of child care subsidies and decrease service rates for pools and community centres, panelists and community members at the Open Dialogue discussion collectively agreed that there is still a widening gap that prevents newcomers from accessing City services and fully integrating into the community.

One of the panelists, Sultana Jahangir, founded the South Asian Women’s Rights Organization (SAWRO) in 2008. Every day Jahangir is on the front lines, hearing the grievances from hundreds of South Asian women in her community about being underemployed or not being able to enter the workforce at all because of the lack of affordable child care. She reported that if there is no child care service, there is no ability to work – at least for the women she represents, many of whom are highly educated and professionally trained in multiple countries. “Every day I feel a lot of people’s pain,” Jahangir states.

As a graduate researcher, I study the transitions of internationally educated nurses (IENs) into professional practice in Ontario, a growing population who enter the country via temporary foreign worker streams such as the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). After successfully completing 24 months of “low-skilled” domestic work requirements, the vast majority of these internationally trained professionals seek permanent residency. As soon as this process passes, a new set of hurdles appear. As temporary workers and as permanent residents, IENs are unaware of any social supports; transitioning into professional practice is not easy. Like IENs, other newcomers face multiple barriers to integration as soon as they arrive. Many turn to family and faith-based organizations for support because access to City services and community organizations is not clearly outlined. Consequently, identifying critical community organizations as transmitters of knowledge for newcomers is imperative.

Granted, newcomer integration into the community is a complicated responsibility that will not and cannot happen overnight. In fact, the stories I hear from my own research of migrants today echo the stories of struggle of my parents and their family and friends when migrating to Canada well over 30 years ago. This responsibility of creating a friendly and accessible environment for newcomers requires organization and coordination between City services and community organizations. While many city and community groups already have integrative programs for newcomers, they exist separately from one another. When streamlined and coordinated, the impact of these education and training programs on newcomers can then be maximized.

luluAbout the blog author:

Lualhati Marcelino is currently a research associate at the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR). She is completing her MA in Human Geography, in a joint program with Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Her research interests centre on transnational labour migration and gender and social inequality.


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