10 Understanding and Supporting Immigrants and New International Arrivants in Rural and Northern Communities

Judy White

The focus of this chapter is on the changing landscape of rural and northern communities in Canada as a result of newcomer settlement in these locations; and on the role of social work in responding to the diverse challenges and opportunities facing these newcomer populations and their receiving communities. The definition of rural and northern being used includes both distance away from the cities or urban centres (spatial) as well as population size of communities (Johnston, 2020; Laurin et al., 2020). The terms settler and immigrant settler are used interchangeably to refer to newcomers who have moved to Canada from other countries. The term “settler” is intentionally used to push readers to keep Canada’s history of colonialism uppermost in mind during the discussions about newcomers in Canada. The chapter recognizes the presence of diasporic peoples who may have once arrived as immigrants but who are now settled as Canadian citizens, and for whom the term “immigrant” is no longer appropriate. This chapter also includes a focus on individuals arriving as refugees who are also seen as newcomers settling in Canada. The chapter recognizes the diverse ways in which newcomers or settlers are able to enter the country (Government of Canada, 2021). The list of pathways includes:

  1. Express entry (applications are reviewed based on three economic immigration programs: the Federal Skilled Worker, the Federal Skilled Trades Program, and the Canadian Experience Class).
  2. Family sponsorship
  3. Provincial Nominee Program
  4. Quebec-selected skilled workers
  5. Atlantic immigration pilot
  6. Caregivers Program
  7. Start-up Visa (opportunities to start a business or create jobs)
  8. Self Employment Program
  9. Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot: (several communities in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan are participating in this pilot).
  10. Agri-Food Pilot (opportunities to work in agri-food industries and jobs)
  11. Health-care workers permanent residence pathway
  12. Temporary resident to permanent resident pathway
  13. Permanent residence pathways for Hong Kong residents

In addition to the above, individuals applying as refugees may qualify for entry under the Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (Government of Canada, n.d.).

The next sections of this chapter will include a brief historical overview of Canada’s newcomer settlement history, followed by a discussion about the implications for social work practice. The discussions on implications for social work practice emphasize the importance of ensuring accessible and culturally relevant services; a focus on the importance of understanding and embracing cultural diversity; the importance of building trusting relationships; and the issue of newcomer settlement within the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action.

The chapter emphasizes that social work practice in rural and northern areas offers an array of practice options for social workers: micro, mezzo, and macro because of the complexity of issues.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter you will have had the opportunity to:

  • Engage in critical reflection of newcomer settlement history in rural and northern Canada;
  • Build knowledge of the complex, intersecting issues experienced by newcomer settlers in rural and northern areas; and
  • Reflect on the implications for social work practice with newcomer settlers, in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).

Immigrant/newcomer settlement in rural and northern Canada has survived despite the growth of industrialization and urbanization which led to the majority of immigrant settlers heading to larger centres such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal (Patel et al., 2019).  Provincial Nominee Programs (PNPs) and other policy and program developments have served to bolster settlement in smaller centres, northern, and rural communities across Canada, thereby increasing the diversity in terms of populations and needs. Newcomer settlement has had different impact on different groups of people and communities.

For Indigenous peoples, immigrant/newcomer settlement meant the loss of lands and long-lasting negative impacts on their food security, health and well-being. More specifically, loss of traditional lands resulted in loss of traditional ways of life and in a reliance on European foods (Hossain & Lamb, 2020; Robidoux & Mason, 2017). The long-term impact has been the emergence of physical and mental health challenges among Indigenous peoples in northern and rural communities (Hossain & Lamb, 2020). Indigenous peoples have continued to organize and engage in various strategies to address the historical impact. More recently, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action exposed the history of genocide experienced by Indigenous peoples, and provided a comprehensive list of action items to which Canadians are called to respond (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).

While immigration policies resulted in losses for Indigenous peoples, they offered the promise of land and prosperity for settlers, many of whom left countries of origin because of economic and social conditions such as violence, poverty and lack of access to land ownership in those countries (Pedersen, 2004). Describing the evolution of immigration policy, Fleras (2014) summarized it as:

Patterns of immigration to Canada corresponded with the changing requirements of its economy. A pre-First World War concentration on agricultural development and domestication of the West gradually segued into a post-Second World War demand for unskilled labour to extract resources or stimulate industrial growth. More recently, emphasis has shifted towards a reliance on highly skilled immigrants as part of a master plan in transitioning towards a global/knowledge economy. (Reitz, 2003; Simmons, 2010, as cited in Fleras, 2014, p. 6)

Many of Canada’s aggressive immigration strategies developed in the 19th century even though settlers had been arriving long before this.  The federal government’s early immigration plan initially aimed at attracting White settlers from Britain and Northern Europe to fill labour market needs. The United States was also seen as a viable source country. The promise of employment in infrastructure development (for example, the rail industry) and in agricultural activity was an early attraction, especially in Western Canada (Friesen, 1987; Shepard, 1997). The emergence of settler clusters in rural communities was often facilitated by word of mouth or chain migration. Canada’s ethnic and cultural diversity continued to grow because of the diversity among these settler populations.

Europeans originating from regions outside of Northern Europe experienced racist and discriminatory policies and practices during the early years of Canada’s immigration outreach (Dobrowolsky, 2017). While these latter populations were not immediately welcomed, Canada eventually opened its doors to them. Consequently, a dominant White settler population emerged in rural Canada, with stories of classism, racism, and discrimination affecting these early settler populations in diverse ways, depending on country of origin. The “Whites Only” and/or Whites preferred policies are evidenced by policies, statements, and actions by a long list of Canadian leaders such as Mackenzie King, Wilfrid Laurier, and Robert Borden. Together, these leaders promoted anti-Black, anti-Asian, and other migration strategies and policies in order to limit or restrict settlement populations (Crawford-Holland, 2020; Dobrowolsky, 2017; Niergarth, 2010; Walker, 1985).

Despite the Whites only and/or preferred policies, non-White populations made their way to Canada’s rural and northern communities, also because of the political, social, and economic conditions of source countries. Non-white settlers who were prepared to accept employment as farm or domestic workers were granted entry (Anwar, 2014; Silvera, 1989). Black Americans travelled from the Southern United States of America (USA) to Oklahoma, and then to Canada hoping to find a welcoming country that would offer land and opportunities for a better life (Crawford-Holland, 2020; Walker, 1985). Instead, they encountered a country where systemic racism was embedded within the cultural and social fabric of host communities. Notwithstanding, there are examples of Black settlers setting up successful farms and homesteads in Prairie rural communities such as Amber Valley in Alberta, Maidstone in Saskatchewan, and Swan River in Manitoba (Irby, 1985; Johnsrude, 2004; Shepard, 1997).  Canada’s openly racist policies remained in place until 1967 when new immigration regulations were introduced.

The 1967 Immigration Points System introduced changes within immigration policy by placing emphasis on skills, education, and training rather than on factors such as race, ethnicity, and country of origin during the recruitment or screening stage (Anwar, 2014). This Points System reflected a movement away from a focus on agriculture and rural development towards urban development (Verbeeten, 2007).  Canada’s 1988 Multiculturalism Act was designed to move the country even further (Berry, 2013). Nevertheless, evolving policies and legislation did not result in the elimination of systemic racism. For example, while the Points System recognized the skills and backgrounds of applicants, this did not necessarily translate into jobs for all newcomers. Canada recruited the brightest and most gifted from developing countries but did not recognize their credentials and out of country work experience when they actually arrived in Canada. Racialized newcomers were often the victims of these discriminatory policies.

More changes were made when provincial nominee programs started emerging after 1998, leading to new immigrant settlement in smaller centres, rural, and northern communities.   Nominee programs have provided opportunities for smaller provincial centres, northern, and rural communities to recruit newcomer settlers from varied social, economic, and cultural backgrounds (Bonikowska et al., 2017). Provinces and communities recruited individuals whom they considered to be best suited for their immediate, often short-term needs. Carter et al. (2010) suggest that provinces were usually able to attract newcomers with lower- level skills and/or with specific skill and trades backgrounds. These settlers might not have qualified under the federal skilled worker program. The Northern and Rural Immigration Pilot and the Agri-Food Pilot pathways were launched in 2019. These pathways have offered further opportunities for welcoming communities to attract newcomers to their locations.

Another significant pathway is the temporary foreign worker program which allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers when there are no Canadians available for the jobs. The program includes a focus on highly skilled professionals, seasonal agricultural workers, and domestic workers. The stories of exploitation and abuse of temporary foreign workers are rampant and have been repeatedly raised (Barnetson et al., 2017; Bryan, 2019; Narushima & Sanchez, 2014; Salami et al., 2015).  However, these same workers are often reluctant to rock the boat since their participation in the programs and the resultant income are a lifeline for source countries. Families and communities depend on remittances and workers are reluctant to speak out about poor work conditions.

Finally, communities in rural and northern Canada have experienced periods of economic boom and bust, with accompanying employment, economic, and population growth and decline (Dobson et al., 2014; Marchand, 2012). Newcomer settlers have taken advantage of periods of boom and have also experienced the effects of bust. This is particularly relevant to newcomers who moved to northern communities where mining has been occurring (Coderre-Proulx et al., 2016).  The arrival, or parachuting in, of newcomers (including interprovincial and international migration) for employment purposes has had significant impact on local communities. In some situations, companies have made investments into local infrastructure, but this has been inconsistent. A study by the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women described some of the issues facing northern fly-in and fly-out communities (Leung et al., 2016). Many of these communities do not have year-round road access so often depend on air travel. Accommodation may be temporary or portable, and not appropriate for families who are often based elsewhere. In boom times, the arrival of workers and their families in the hub northern or rural communities that serve the mining sites, has resulted in booming opportunities and business for hotels, restaurants, transportation companies, and stores.

At the same time, boom has had other impacts such as skyrocketing rental and housing prices, and challenges for non-mining companies to find workers because these companies are unable to match the high salaries of the mining companies. Those residents who are not employed directly in the mining sector are disadvantaged by the lower wages and skyrocketing prices. Temporary foreign workers employed in the service sector outside of the mining sector are faced with low wages and often overcrowded accommodations. Some research has identified other issues such as women’s vulnerability to violence and an increase in substance abuse issues. An issue that continues to be raised is the impact of mining on the environment, the impact on women and Indigenous communities in the north, and the extent to which dialogue and genuine consultation has been done to identify the impacts of developments on the lives of Indigenous and northern peoples.

The next section will discuss implications for social work practice. The overall message is that the stories and experiences of newcomer settlement are complex and varied. As such, the aim of the section is to encourage students to explore the diverse opportunities that are available to them to address the needs of newcomers in northern and rural communities.

Implications for Social Work Policy and Practice

Overall, stories of life in northern and rural communities offer accounts of tremendous generosity and hope but also provide insight into the extent to which location away from major centres (place/geography) has posed a variety of challenges for newcomer setters and residents in these communities (Burnett et al., 2020; Kulig & Williams, 2011; Patel et al., 2019; Reid, 2019). These challenges include isolation, and unequal access to affordable public transportation, social services, health, and education resources (particularly specialist services). In addition, systemic racism and discrimination continue to be a major issue in communities across Canada.

Social work with newcomer settlers in rural and northern communities therefore offers an array of possibilities for social work practice: direct social work practice, community development, research, advocacy, education, and social policy. The hope is that social workers will engage in practice to support immigrant/refugee/newcomer settlement in these communities, celebrate the strengths of rural and northern communities, and address the disparities experienced as a result of northern and/or rural living.

As noted earlier, immigrant settlement in northern and rural communities has been driven primarily by economic considerations, and by economic and political developments both within source countries and internally in Canada. Immigration patterns and experiences have also been shaped by the talents/expertise that settlers bring to Canada and by government immigrant selection policies (Bonikowska et al., 2017; Kolbe & Kayran, 2019). The end result for communities is the arrival of newcomers from diverse backgrounds including diverse ethno-cultural, professional, educational, language, and class backgrounds. These are important considerations when striving to understand rural and northern immigrant settlement in Canada. The considerations identified above are particularly significant when working to ensure that settlers are able to (1) create a sense of home in their new locations; (2) have access to job and education opportunities that genuinely recognize and credit the credentials, knowledge, and skills which they bring from other countries; (3) have access to culturally relevant and appropriate supports, resources, and services to enhance their settlement and retention in their new locations; and (4) have a sense of well-being that allows them to flourish. They are also relevant issues for social workers who strive to address issues holistically, and who recognize the layered, multidimensional aspects of issues.

Social workers are therefore challenged to remember that a “one size fits all” will not work for newcomer settlers in rural and northern communities.  Newcomers may be highly skilled professionals working in the mining and scientific sectors, and they may also be low skilled workers working in lower skilled agricultural or service sector jobs. They may be highly skilled professionals having left situations of violence and extrema trauma. They may be taxi drivers with professional backgrounds who are working other jobs to support families here in Canada and in countries of origin. Social workers will need to develop the knowledge and skills to learn about and understand these diverse realities. As well, communities will need to engage in ongoing reflection, training, and capacity building in order to ensure they are appropriately responsive to the new populations. As discussed in the following sections, policymakers, advocates, and community workers in rural community will need to constantly review, transform, and develop services and resources to respond to the diverse needs of their new arrivants. Areas of concern and need include availability of resources and infrastructure, understanding and embracing cultural diversity, building trusting relationships, and the issue of social work in rural and northern communities in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action.

Availability of Resources and Infrastructure

It is worth emphasizing that studies focusing on the retention of newcomer settlers (those arriving as immigrants and refugees) have consistently noted factors such as access to employment (facilitated by recognition of foreign credential and non-Canadian work experience), education, and cultural communities as strong influencers on decisions to remain in communities, or to relocate (Carter et al., 2010; Krahn et al., 2005). Patel et al. (2019)’s scoping review identified factors such as social inclusion, culturally-appropriate services, gender, and housing as distinct social determinants of health factors relevant to well-being in rural and northern communities. Newcomer status adds another layer to these intersecting factors.

More specifically, in addition to generic health and social services, access to formal settlement services (infrastructure) offering language assessment and training programs, employment readiness programs, and mentorship programs have also been identified (Carter et al., 2010; Krahn et al., 2005). Unfortunately, formal settlement infrastructure has not been consistently available in northern and rural areas. Formal infrastructure, which can be seen as sites offering a level of cultural safety, has provided venues where newcomers can reach out to other newcomers and service providers, access resources and support services, raise issues relevant to their settlement needs, and address some of the isolation that they tend to experience.  Infrastructure that includes newcomer information centres provides one-stop centres where newcomer immigrant settlers can begin to learn about what services and resources are available in communities. The Northern and Rural Immigration and the Agri-Food Pilots are programs that are well positioned to fill such gaps since they are expected to ensure the availability of settlement and mentoring opportunities for newcomers (Government of Canada, 2021). Many of these welcoming communities already serve as hubs and outreach centres for those living in small towns, on farms, and in other rural locations. The assumption is that these newcomer gateway projects will expand existing resources.

One area where social work intervention would be useful would be to advocate for the development of infrastructure and services that might be missing. This could include advocating for interpreter services for newcomers who are accessing health and education services. Those social workers interested in macro practice could play a leadership role in bringing together various stakeholders to facilitate discussions and research about the development of such services. Another area would be engaging in direct micro practice within settlement agencies, health care, and the schools that newcomer children would be attending. Various communities now have Settlement Worker in School programs (SW1S) as well as social workers who provide a range of referral, support and mentorship services relevant to newcomer children and their families. Finally, social workers in settlement agencies, health, education, and other sectors may choose to engage in group work practice. This would be particularly useful for women who are survivors of abuse and violence; and would be a site where education about issues of violence and abuse could occur. More than anything else, social workers need to have the relevant and appropriate competencies to work well with newcomer women and their families. The next section explores the wide range of personal values and ways of being that all players—- including newcomers, community residents, community workers, and social workers—bring to communities and the relevance of these to successful settlement of newcomers into rural communities.

Understanding and Embracing Cultural Diversity

Newcomers to Canada have tended to move to larger metropolitan centres. As a result, ethnic and cultural diversity of rural and northern communities has evolved at a slower pace than within larger centres. This has been changing over time because of immigration policies, and also because of the emergence of more employment and business opportunities in rural and northern communities. Nevertheless, newcomers are moving into rural and northern communities whose populations may be tightly knit because of longstanding history and well-established relationships (Herron et al., 2021). The same factors that have positive impacts may also include troublesome elements for these populations. Rural residents may have lived in communities for a long time and cultivated a community culture that is slow to change and accept new ideas and ways of being. This reluctance may be driven by a commitment to preserving what is perceived to be dominant, acceptable traditions and cultures.

Those individuals who do not “fit” into the mainstream may include those who are living in poverty, Indigenous peoples, racialized peoples, and gender diverse peoples. Newcomer settler /immigrant/refugee status adds another intersecting dimension, especially when the country of origin is that of a developing country, is not seen to be adequately “Western”, and where English or French (depending on the location) is not the dominant language. Settlement workers, sponsorship groups, and social workers are faced with the challenge of working together to create communities that are open to embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion. This includes facilitating conversations and activities with messages about how diversity will add richness to existing cultures and communities.

In short, newcomers are coming from diverse cultural backgrounds and are living both positive and challenging realities. A huge challenge is to avoid essentializing cultural identity. Essentialist views of identity view identity as singular, fixed and stereotypically applied without paying attention to diversity within cultures and nationalities (Zilliacus et al., 2017). In other situations, there is a tendency to exoticize people of different cultural backgrounds by an over-emphasis on dance, food, and dress (Zilliacus et al., 2017). Social workers are encouraged to engage in critical reflection of the meaning of cultural diversity in order to arrive at a place where they recognize the multiple, rich, evolving, and complex identities of individual newcomers.

Well-intentioned social workers who fail to acknowledge these complexities, add fuel to existing tendencies to demonize or degrade non-Western cultures. For example, lack of acceptance or understanding of non-Christian cultures may lead to Islamophobia. An assumption that Muslim women wearing head coverings are all living in situations of submission fails to recognize the diversity among Muslim women wearing head coverings. In addition, ignorance about the rich cultural heritage of newcomers from many developing countries may lead to patronizing and paternalistic approaches by settlement workers and sponsorship groups. These issues, while common across different geographies, may be particularly problematic in rural and remote regions. Outcomes of ignorance, assumptions of superiority of one culture and way of being over others, and a drive to maintain the resulting status quo are reflected in racism and gender-based discrimination. These issues may be even more intensely felt in rural and northern communities because of geographic location as well as the size of the communities.

There are multiple, interconnected elements to be addressed when seeking to support newcomers in their new homelands, and particularly in northern and rural communities. At the same time, rural and northern communities have well-established traditions of caring for one another. Social workers and other community workers are encouraged to draw on these positive traditions, and play leadership roles in working in partnership with communities to build awareness of the strengths, contributions and complex realities of newcomers. In addition, it is vital that social workers continue to examine their own biases and assumptions throughout their social work careers in order to be part of a process that has positive outcomes for newcomers in rural and northern communities.  These actions will go a long way to build trusting relationships that are central to healthy communities.

Building Trusting Relationships

Several studies and reports have exposed the extent to which xenophobia, racism, gender-based discrimination and lack of cultural safety permeate the fabric of rural and northern Canada; and the extent to which these factors have had extensive negative impact on the well-being of communities (Du Mont & Forte, 2016; Higginbottom et al., 2016; Patel et al., 2019; Tungohan, 2017). Higginbottom and others have described how language barriers compromise accessibility to health services. They have also cited examples of newcomer women not understanding the concept of consent or not having faith in service providers’ respect for confidentiality. They comment that newcomer women have not always been able to develop trust and build relationships with service providers because the sessions and processes, including communication styles, are often too fast paced. This results in service users not always understanding or trusting the proposed plans or interventions.

Social workers and other service providers will need to be continually aware of the need to improve their communication skills. This includes paying attention to the pace at which messages are communicated, ensuring the availability of brochures, pamphlets, and messages in multiple languages, and the availability of interpreters and cultural brokers. Of particular note to younger practitioners is to remember to slow down the pace of their speech, without sounding patronizing.

Social workers have a responsibility to ensure that services are relevant and accessible, and that they are able to provide the kinds of services that newcomers will access. Attending workshops and training opportunities to build competency skills will be helpful in building/enhancing communication competency skills for working with newcomers. Engaging in volunteer activities with newcomers in communities and within agencies will serve to build relationships and create visibility and messages of genuine interest and caring to newcomers. These kinds of initiatives will address the longstanding concerns that newcomers do not access mental health support services, even when there are concerns about the need to respond to histories of trauma and the impact on mental health and well-being.

Newcomers in rural and northern communities ought to have access to resources and services similar to those available to residents of larger, urban centres. Social workers and other health care providers recognize the issues of trauma and the accounts of mental illness experienced by many newcomers. However, they are still not always able to provide care because of varied cultural understandings and interpretations of mental illness, which often result in newcomers not accessing services. Other factors include the lack of familiarity with Western models of mental health services, lack of faith in the ability of service providers to respond to their needs, and the issue of stigma associated with mental health. That is, many of the health care needs experienced in urban centres are also prevalent in rural and northern areas. However, communities are now faced with the additional challenge of ensuring the availability of professionals who have the relevant competency skills to work with these diverse newcomer populations.

Technology plays a role in accommodating some of the disparities resulting from geographic distance away from main centres for all citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the role of technology such as tele-health and e-health services, and social media tools particularly in rural and northern communities. It also exposed disparities when residents in rural and northern communities experienced unequal access to these same resources and services because of lack of adequate technology infrastructure (bandwidth as an example), and unequal financial resources to access this infrastructure. These are broad issues with which social workers can also be involved.

The above discussions have focused primarily on the role of communities and social workers in providing a welcoming place to newcomers who are arriving from other countries and settling in Canada’s rural and northern regions. Newcomers continue to arrive in Canada at a time when Canadians are grappling with the histories of exclusion, colonization, trauma, genocide, and violence experienced by Indigenous peoples in their own traditional lands. The next section of this chapter emphasizes that ethical social work practice in rural and northern communities requires that social workers learn about the histories of Indigenous peoples,  and engage in practice that is grounded in principles of social justice.

Social Work in Rural and Northern Communities within the Context of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action

One of the points raised in the introduction of this chapter is about Canada’s colonial history with Indigenous peoples. The chapter began by noting the loss of land and culture, and the violence experienced by Indigenous peoples. This final section will draw on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to discuss the role of social work in rural and northern communities within the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action (United Nations, 2008). UNDRIP challenges the doctrine of racism and expresses condemnation for the historic injustices suffered during Canada’s colonial rule. The document names the loss of land and resources and applauds the pathways adopted by Indigenous peoples to organize in order to end all forms of discrimination and oppression. It also calls on states to provide prevention measures and redress in response to the colonial history. That is, UNDRIP makes a strong case for social justice. UNDRIP’s declaration of the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples is well aligned with the Social Work Code of Ethics and particularly well synced with value 1: Respect for Inherent Dignity and Worth of People, value 2: Pursuit of Social Justice, and value 3: Service to Humanity. The door is open to social workers engaged with newcomers in rural and northern communities to work with newcomers so that they are immediately engaged in learning about and reflecting on Canada’s colonial history and about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) raises important questions about settler work in mining and extraction industries in particular. How has engagement with Indigenous peoples taken place? Have impact benefit agreements been developed in partnership with Indigenous peoples? (Amyot et al., 2012; Levac & Manning, 2019; Levac et al., 2016). UNDRIP also raises issues about the impact of all developments on the environment and the importance of proactive, consistent discussion with Indigenous people. That is, social workers have an opportunity to work with newcomer settlers so that they are engaged, as fully as possible, in new ways of being with Indigenous peoples. There should not be delay with these kinds of partnerships, teaching opportunities, and dialogue.  Some concrete strategies for social workers include facilitating joint attendance at cultural, educational, and social events hosted by Indigenous peoples and newcomer settlers; development of joint social and community activities to build relationships and learn from one another; and facilitating events with attendees from a broad range of backgrounds, including Indigenous individuals and newcomer settlers.


The issues of newcomer settlement in Canada are complex and forever evolving. The pandemic (2019 and beyond) has added complicating factors since Canadians have been  required to pay attention to social distancing, to vaccinations, and to doing everything to keep residents safe. This has created an additional burden on social workers who have traditionally worked hard on building human relationships through personal connecting. It has also created stress for communities where personal contacting has always been important. Clearly, technology and social media have helped to respond to the basic human need of connecting with one another. This chapter noted that the pandemic also exposed that not everyone has equal access to the full benefits of technology. This has certainly been the case for northern and rural communities, and will be an area to which policymakers and scientists will continue to attend. Social workers will also need to respond to concerns that not all older adults are comfortable with the use of technology. When immigrant status and language barriers experienced by newcomers are added to the mix, the concerns become more complicated.

The chapter has challenged social workers to understand and embrace cultural diversity and to avoid essentializing cultures and perpetuating assumptions of the superiority of one culture over another. The chapter recognizes the strengths of rural and northern communities and the different ways in which community is built. This includes the sites where community building and dialogue takes place (for example, seniors’ centres, coffee shops and coffee rows, Legion centres, churches, and Elks Halls). The chapter concludes that social workers have a role to play to build bridges between newcomers, residents, and others connected to these locations.

The chapter identifies problematic issues that are present in communities. These include the experiences of temporary foreign workers whose contributions help to sustain communities, but whose experiences of precarity and exploitation are troublesome. These continue to occur at a time when communities are striving to set themselves up as welcoming communities. The chapter also points to Canada’s longstanding history of racism and to the importance of open discussion focused on unraveling root causes in order to address equity and inclusion.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), along with the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, together provide documents that social workers doing work with newcomers in rural communities can use to facilitate new ways of building relationships and working with Indigenous peoples and Canadian peoples. The documents can also provide important lessons about how to work with newcomer immigrants so that mistakes made with Indigenous peoples, are not repeated by immigrant settlement agencies.

Finally, this chapter recognizes over and over again, the complexities of issues and circumstances relevant to the lives of newcomer immigrant settlers. The chapter recognizes the multiple, intersecting identities of newcomers, and challenges social work students to dive deeper into these and other complex identities and experiences, for example: newcomers with disabilities, newcomers with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, and newcomers at various life stages. Of particular note for further reflection is the situation of older racialized diasporic adults. These individuals would have come to Canada as immigrants or refugees but are now Canadian citizens. They may have lived as minorities in northern and rural communities for decades and continue to have strong connections to ancestral countries of origin. That is, doing solid, ethical practice with newcomers in Canada’s rural and northern communities calls on social workers to push themselves to be open to the forever changing and complex realities and contexts of these arrivants, settlers, and communities.

Activities and Assignments
  • Students are encouraged to locate a settlement agency or immigrant gateway agency in a rural or northern region and discuss the services that are provided. What language supports are available? What services are offered? What is the geographic reach of the agency? What is the general profile of the newcomers they are seeing in their agency? What is the educational background of the workers? How did the community come to have a settlement agency?
  • Choose a rural or northern community. What have been the newcomer settler trends over the past 5 years? What might be some of the emerging social issues? What have been the responses? What gaps in services exist? What have been the contributions of the newcomer settlers?
  • Students are invited to review the list of communities participating in the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot and the Agri-Food Pilot. Students are asked to choose two (2) communities to focus on. They are to develop a brief profile of these communities, identify the kinds of newcomer populations that are arriving, and highlight the potential community services that might be required.


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Rural and Northern Social Work Practice: Canadian Perspectives Copyright © 2022 by Judy White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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