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Opening Canada’s doors in a time of global turmoil

A panel of university experts discuss the need for economic opportunity, flexible education and inclusive spaces for newcomers to Canada.

BY ANQI SHEN | FEB 15 2017

Reis Pagtakhan’s personal experience as a child of Filipino immigrants was watching uncles, aunts and cousins come to Canada in the 1970s. They were able to find good jobs that they kept until retirement. An immigration lawyer now, Mr. Pagtakhan helps his clients navigate a newer system, whose policies are in constant flux, and which presents a challenging road ahead if they do not have firm job prospects.

Recently, Mr. Pagtakhan joined a panel of university leaders at Converge 2017 in Ottawa to discuss the roles of universities in welcoming immigrants and refugees to Canada, at a time when nations like the U.S. and U.K. are putting restrictions on mobility. There were stories of perseverance and resilience, as well as an energized discussion around work-integrated learning, “survival jobs,” flexible learning and inclusive spaces.

“In Manitoba, where I’m from, there’s a lot of retention of immigrants, unlike in the Maritimes, because those people [in Manitoba] are coming for the family,” Mr. Pagtakhan said. Immigrants who come for employment are more likely to leave the country for other opportunities, while immigrants who come for family are often underemployed or unemployed, he said. It presents a huge challenge for government policy-makers.

Universities could help bridge accreditation gaps for foreign professionals by forging stronger partnerships with institutions abroad, and could offer more flexible learning options similar to those in MBA programs, Mr. Pagtakhan said. “You cannot put food on the table and feed your family if you’re going to school 9 to 5. … That is an impediment to successfully integrating.”

Left to right: Melanie Humphreys, Abdullah Snobar, Michael Ungar, Dammee Sero, Reis Pagtakhan and Robert Summerby-Murray discuss approaches to welcoming newcomers at Converge 2017. Photo by Mike Pinder.

In a time of political turbulence, Canadian universities have expressed an interest in playing a lead role in welcoming newcomers, and that includes refugees fleeing war and persecution. The recent executive order by President Trump, which has been halted by federal courts, excluded refugees and travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, an action which shook university communities in Canada and abroad.

“Being a refugee is not a choice. It is not something that you wake up and say, ‘I want to be a refugee now’ – you are forced to be one,” said Dammee Sero, a fourth-year human rights student at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is now a student refugee program co-ordinator for the World University Service of Canada, a program which brought her to Canada and her university five years ago. “They picked me up from the airport; they help you.”

Michael Ungar, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University, said educators and researchers have “a critical role to play in developing capacity” for refugee resettlement. Dr. Ungar is part of a research project, launched shortly after Canada’s bid to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, to study factors for success of the children who have arrived here.

“Imagine we could actually show that this group of Syrians that come into this country are successful – that three years, five years out, we prove that we’ve got this model in this country – we begin to really show that this is an investment,” he said.

Crucial to welcoming newcomers is to provide support networks and spaces where people can interact with each other, said Abdullah Snobar, executive director of Ryerson’s flagship DMZ start-up incubator, where the majority of entrepreneurs are recent newcomers to Canada.

“Take out 60 percent of the people at DMZ today and you don’t really have a space anymore. You lose talent, but more importantly you lose the ability to learn from each other,” Mr. Snobar said, adding that it is important to avoid racial segregation by fostering collaboration among communities. “The minute you start to put people in one community and say, ‘you folks talk to each other, and that’s where you’re going to stay’ … that’s where it becomes a bit dangerous.”

Audience members also got involved in the panel discussion – moderated by The King’s University president Melanie Humphreys and Saint Mary’s University president Robert Summerby-Murray – in impassioned and heartfelt ways. In a Q&A session afterward, an international master’s student from British Columbia spoke about being unsuccessful in getting a single interview for a co-op or internship position despite sending out more than 100 applications last year.

“It’s not about me. It’s about everyone I know here in Canada, refugees or immigrants, they have the same problems,” he said. The student has received an opportunity in Holland and intends to return to Canada to complete his degree. “That’s really amazing, I really appreciate that. But it’s really hard that I didn’t get the first job here in Canada.”


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