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Smart Ideas: Q&A
Yoko Yoshida looks at the faces behind immigrant numbers


This series sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences features notable humanities and social sciences researchers with smart ideas for a better tomorrow. This month, we spoke with Yoko Yoshida, associate professor in Dalhousie University’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology.


After almost 20 years as a landed immigrant from Japan, Yoko Yoshida has extensive first-hand experience of how millions of newcomers have adapted to life in this country. She has turned that experience into a unique academic perspective on the statistics that capture the activities of these individuals. For her, these numbers become the gateway to some remarkable insights into human behaviour.

How did you end up an academic in Canada?

Dr. Yoshida: While I was an undergraduate in Tokyo, I was part of a group of students who came to Montreal for a month to learn English. It was 1994, just before the referendum on Quebec separation, and as a 20-year-old girl from Japan – which is really ethnically homogeneous – I got fascinated with this society very quickly. The city was far more socially and culturally diverse than anything I had ever seen, and it was even more shocking to hear people talking about how one part of the country wanted to separate.

The experience changed my life. I began studying international sociology with an emphasis on Canadian studies and I wrote my thesis on Canadian multiculturalism. I returned to Montreal in 1997 to start graduate work at McGill University and eventually became a professor at Dalhousie. Now my role is as educator to the new generation of social researchers who can produce solid evidence for good social policy.

Since you began with an interest in multiculturalism, how has your perspective on this subject changed?

Dr. Yoshida: When I first came here I thought of Canada as a very progressive and dynamic country, and an example of how we can improve conditions to create world peace. I thought of multiculturalism as having great potential to resolve conflicts based on diversity and something the rest of the world could learn from. Obviously, multiculturalism in practice and theory are different, and the ideas and attitudes toward it have changed a lot since then. Canadian society has changed a lot, too.

At this point, there is a strong sense of skepticism of multiculturalism as an ideal. People like me are no longer naive about that ideal, but they are more serious about how we could achieve it and how far we have to go. Also, the issues around Aboriginal peoples are something that I have learned over time and add another layer of complexity to multiculturalism.

How has this shift affected the way you approach your work?

Dr. Yoshida: My move from Montreal to Halifax was a professional game-changer for me. When I was at McGill, I was focusing on Canada as a whole as the target population for my analysis. When I arrived in Nova Scotia, I noticed the enormous regional variations – both across provinces and in communities within each province. People from New Brunswick have a separate identity from those in Nova Scotia, or those in Cape Breton, and so on. They have common issues but the historical contexts and institutional foundation in each place are distinct, and when you talk with people in the different levels of governments, they need information specific to their own jurisdictions.

However, there has not been a lot community-based research, nor is there always the capacity or data sources to do this kind of research in Atlantic Canada. This applies especially to rural areas, where the depopulation trend is salient. Governments want some sort of solution to attract people to these places but it is very difficult even to address the significance of the issue. We couldn’t provide an accurate picture of those communities.

What data sources do you use in your work?

Dr. Yoshida: One of the best-known and most complete sources of information is Statistics Canada’s Longitudinal Immigrant Database (IMDB), which contains details about the categories under which immigrants are admitted and what they do after landing here. Access to the IMDB is very restricted, which is understandable because it contains personal and private data about individuals. However, I was able to gain access to it through participation in Pathways to Prosperity, a national partnership among academics, government and NGOs that looks at immigration and immigrant integration.

The IMDB finally enabled me to gather enough information about immigrants to the Atlantic region to examine questions about how immigrants are living. However, most of this information was collected from other sources, such as tax records, rather than direct interviews. I had to think clearly about who would be included in my analysis of Atlantic Canada, since people move around and then file their taxes from somewhere else.

Are there other sources you will be consulting?

Dr. Yoshida: I am proposing to work with another statistical source called the Temporary Residents (TR) file, which captures data about individuals who came to Canada and then left, such as students or foreign workers. Since experience in the Canadian labour market is one of the greatest barriers to immigrant success, these individuals could have an advantage if they later immigrate. By linking the TR database with the IMDB, we might be able to identify those who arrived here with that kind of experience and then take stock of their success.

The idea of linking these two databases emerged from the extensive network of people I have worked with on these projects. That includes many different stakeholders in governments and individual communities, who have taught me about their concerns and the issues they find most pressing. One of the most important of those issues in Atlantic Canada is declining population; even though the region attracts many immigrants, retaining them is a challenge. If we can show that prior Canadian experience to keeping immigrants in this part of the country, then this finding will be very interesting to these stakeholders.

How does your particular emphasis on statistics shape this kind of analysis?

Dr. Yoshida: I tend to pick a certain concept or a topic which is causing some controversy or stirring up debate. For example, I used administrative data collected by the federal and provincial government to study the socioeconomic profile of Nova Scotia immigrants with various immigration categories. The popularly held image is that the province is struggling to integrate and retain this population. Also, family class immigrants’ economic contributions are often not expected to be as significant as for those who come here specifically under economic streams.

But that doesn’t mean these people are just going to sit around. I am an immigrant, sponsored by my husband, and my career is an important part of my life. So I looked to see how people who came under family-sponsored categories are more productive than we assume. What I found is that this class of immigrants are actually doing better in Nova Scotia than in the rest of Canada. In fact, up until 2009, immigrants who came to Nova Scotia as spouses were more likely to be employed than those who came here as economic migrants.

Why might that be?

Dr. Yoshida: Although we need further research, we speculate that many of these immigrants are coming from Britain and the U.S., so their cultural background translates more easily into the local labour market. Another possibility is that this market functions differently than in other parts of the country, with a strong network of personal connections. So if you are coming here as someone who is related to a person already working here, that might help you in the search for economic opportunities.

What do your findings reveal about the way Canadian immigration works?

Dr. Yoshida: Canada is not like the United States, where employers directly sponsor the process, although it has changed rapidly over the last few years. Here, at least traditionally, immigration is not solely based on market principles, which is something that enables people to work together after they arrive. The most recent immigrants may be having trouble in terms of economic success. But, even then, for the most part there is an underlying spirit of helping each other and not attacking each other. It is uniquely Canadian to think of immigration as a resource of social development, rather than a source of social problem.

In the past, even some Europeans were seen as “outsiders” and the first generation struggled; but the next generation could blend right into the Canadian mosaic. In a sense, integration is a long-term process, so we might find problems if we focus only on recent immigrants’ performance now. While we need research to assess short-term well-being and provide necessary services settlement, the leaders of the society also need a longer term vision of how immigrants will contribute to the future.


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