Lakehead University’s endeavor to explore and enhance community integration of existing and potential newcomers
Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla - Staff Writer
A project undertaken by Lakehead University, Employing New Immigrants: Community and Organizational Inclusion Challenges in Northwestern Ontario, is aiming to explore and cater to better integration of existing, and potential, new immigrants to help address the large employment demands in the area. Sioux Lookout, Thunder Bay and Atikokan are the three communities chosen to base this project.
“Welcoming practices have a positive effect on everyone – employees, employers, the community in general, and newcomers. Newcomer welcoming would include not only new immigrants, but other people who come to Sioux Lookout from another community, whether it is from somewhere else in Northwestern Ontario, another province or another country. Welcoming increases feelings of belonging, which is beneficial for all people. It also benefits the greater community as people become invested in the community, want to stay, and work to make the community a great place to work and live,” shared Project Lead Dr. Kathy Sanderson.
Sanderson added, “I think that as Sioux Lookout has a very diverse population, the focus should be on welcoming for all newcomers. For example, there are many Indigenous people who come to Sioux Lookout, and their experiences of welcoming would be very important to capture and consider. Indigenous people may have a very different experience of welcoming and belonging than that of new immigrants; the barriers could be both similar and different, and it would be important to understand a variety of perspectives when designing welcoming initiatives.”
Hron said that the project aims to identify welcoming practices at both, individual and organizational levels, assess employment barriers facing new immigrations, and make recommendations for both, communities and organizations. “Our definition for welcoming is a collective effort to create a place where individuals feel valued and included.” He added, “While recruitment of new immigrants presents a challenge in itself, the way organizations and communities welcome new members plays a vital role.”
Lakehead University project Research Assistant Ryan Hron explained that at an individual level, welcoming increases trust, inclusion, belonging and feeling of being valued by a community or organization. Integration for newcomers is more successful when they feel welcomed, barriers are reduced or eliminated and individual needs are met. He added that at an organizational level, welcoming is a way for organizations to attract and retain new immigrants in order to fill gaps and tap into a new skilled labor force.
The project commenced in April 2020. Sanderson, who has also been a long-time Sioux Lookout resident, came up with the idea and further reached out to Sioux Lookout Municipal Economic Development Officer Vicki Blanchard to partake in the initiative. “I was working with an employer in Atikokan who has had success recruiting new immigrants, and was speaking to some of the employees and supervisors about connections to community and the workplace, and that was the impetus for looking at welcoming in Northwestern Ontario,” shared Sanderson.
In a presentation of the current findings of this project by Lakehead University at the March 24 meeting of the Municipal Economic Development Commission, Hron said that a very small number of immigrants relocate to northwest Ontario, which is limiting the ability of local organizations to recruit and retain qualified individuals. He added, “Today, immigration to northwestern Ontario has been very low. In 2018, only 0.15% of new immigrants to Ontario landed in northwestern Ontario. While 77% landed in the Great Toronto Area. With population growth in the region expected to be stagnant in the next 25 years, the need for immigration has become increasingly important.”
Sioux-Hudson Employment Services (SHES) Program Manager Roxanne Hammond shared that Sioux Lookout has been experiencing labor shortage for almost a decade. Currently SHES has over 140 job vacancies posted across a variety of occupations. Hammond added that the top three occupations with job openings are in the fields of social service, business administration, and health care and sales and services tied for third.
Blanchard said at last week’s meeting, “I was very pleased when she (Sanderson) reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in participating in her project, and absolutely, there was no hesitation. We commenced that process in 2020, and we are now at the point of sharing the information that has been gathered, and Sioux Lookout was a champion, I feel, in responding to our request for survey and working with the team to introduce them to many of our employers.”
Hron said that the project was initiated in Thunder Bay as it offered them a larger population to study. Sioux Lookout’s large number of job vacancies at any given time for general employment and highly skilled professionals, and the community’s reliance on newcomers to fill those gaps, made it a preferred community for the project. He said, “A large segment of the population in Sioux Lookout is young professionals looking to gain valuable work experience.” Hron added that Atikokan was the third community chosen, with specific and limited employment needs.
“As new cultures are introduced into workplaces, social groups, and communities, there are risks associated with conflict, marginalization, discrimination and accommodation. The process of recruitment and retention is complicated not only by geographic factors, but also social, economic, cultural and political perspectives. The complexities of inclusion and transition include micro and macro organizational and societal barriers and opportunities,” said Hron.
Hron said that interviews were conducted around Sioux Lookout, with key informants, new immigrants, community leaders, business owners and managers, and with particular focus on those responsible for hiring and supervising new immigrants. Due to COVID-19, all interviews took place virtually or over the phone, and all surveys conducted remotely and electronically.
“Our survey was designed to capture attitudes and awareness towards diversity, recruitment and retention strategies, transition supports and organizational and community preparedness. The tools used were designed to capture individual, employee and community member reviews on diversity management within the workplace, the level of closeness and welcoming in the community, and the perception of social support, relationship quality and cultural issues, both in the workplace and community services,” said Hron.
128 people responded to the survey in Sioux Lookout, including 111 Canadian residents and 17 new immigrants, succeeding their initial goal of 100 surveys. Five interviews were also conducted with community leaders, business owners and managers, and two in-depth interviews with new immigrants. Hron shared that the pandemic affected their ability to reach out for interviews and that they hope to interview more immigrants in Sioux Lookout in the months to come.
Sanderson shared that they combined the interview data and did an analysis of what they noticed for Sioux Lookout, reaching six major qualitative findings. She said, “Challenges related to housing and how housing has a direct effect on whether or not people are able to be recruited into the area. Of course, the affordability, the quality of that housing, it all has a huge impact, and I know that this is something that Vicki (Blanchard) is always raising as an issue is that employment and immigration aren’t going to happen in a vacuum, and that the housing stock needs to be adequate in order for these initiatives to bring in newcomers to be successful.”
Blanchard recognized the need for adequate housing in the community. She identified Fresh Market Foods as a best practice business that is utilizing immigration programs, and has also gotten into accommodation and housing, being at full complement for their staff.
Lack of formal settlement support for newcomers and businesses is another contributing factor identified through this project. Sanderson said, “Without formal support, it’s very difficult for employers in particular, to be able to utilize some of the federal programs that exist from bringing newcomers in, and the paperwork associated with these programs is extensive. So, not having that support for businesses and organizations to be seen is a huge barrier. At the same time, other settlement supports for individuals also are not present anywhere really in Northwestern Ontario, with the exception of Thunder Bay.”
Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance said, “Given the situation in Sioux Lookout, we could certainly use federal, provincial assistance regarding immigration for even a position called settlement supporter. For us to create a new position it’s a one percent tax increase, it’s more than that actually, probably one and a half percent by the time we have the facility. It’s very difficult being in a community with high taxes.” He added, “But with support, and since immigration is so important to the country right now, that would be something, I think, that would be very useful in Sioux Lookout.”
Geographic location was identified as another key factor affecting newcomers to Sioux Lookout. However, Sanderson said that while they heard concerns of geographic isolation, there also were several comments about the beauty and the activities offered in northwestern Ontario that certainly adds to its attraction.
The project also recognizes cultural differences as a contributing factor. “Anyone who knows what it’s like to go to a new community, knows that it is hard to break into existing social groups, and it is hard enough to break in when you are very similar. What happens when you have the barriers of language, of culture, of race, when we see all of those other barriers that affect new immigrants, we know that it is difficult for them to engage with long-term residents, outside of work,” said Sanderson.
However, the project noticed some existing diversity awareness or cultural awareness programs in place locally, that a number of people who participated in the interviews and completed the surveys, had exposure to. “That is quite unique for Sioux Lookout, we did not hear that in the other two communities,” she added. Sanderson pointed out that one such program is Bimaadiziwin by the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre (SLMHC).
High demand for employees and overworking among newcomers was another key point identified by this project. Sanderson said, “Especially those who are working in really high demand jobs, is that new immigrants tend to be underemployed. Sometimes this is because of issues related to the acceptance of qualifications, so how long it takes for a person to be recertified in whatever their area of expertise might be, so that it is accepted as Canadian qualification. So, quite often we see that people are underemployed and they are overworking.”
Sanderson continued, “We do see that minority employees and new immigrants are more likely to identify barriers such…intolerance related to ethnicity, race, culture, religion and the idea that there is a power structure in place that prevents people who are in minority positions from advancing, and we also heard about diversity issues having effects on teens, and we saw that consistently across northwestern Ontario.”
The project also identified a variation in the welcoming experience, based on the employer. The project findings show an overall positive response from newcomers with finding their co-workers helpful and supportive at work. However, Sanderson said that the numbers flip on the graph when it comes to building a personal connection.
Neighborhood welcoming, which is feeling at ease with people who you live around, having a connection to the community, being able to rely on your neighbors in the event of an emergency, was also tapped into as part of the survey. Sanderson said that while there was a general low score of newcomers on neighborhood welcoming, there weren’t many extreme low responses relating to welcoming either.
Sanderson said, “If you want to work in Sioux Lookout, you can work, that there is a job for you, and we don’t have enough people to fill all of these jobs, and as we continue to see people retire, we do not have enough young people to fill all of those positions and so, there is some work to be done in education, in people becoming aware of what is, first of all, the economic benefit, and what is the necessity of bringing new immigrants into our communities. But going beyond that is, that’s not the only reason why we want to be inclusive and welcoming to new immigrants. We know that for people to feel belonging, they have to feel like they are valued and feeling like you are valued has to go beyond the economic, into that social.”
As a result of their findings, the project has narrowed down to three organization-based recommendations: Welcoming and Inclusion Training, Implicit Bias Training for Decision Makers and Supervisors, and Supports for Employers.
Sanderson said that they would continue to reach out to new immigrants for interviews in Sioux Lookout. Anyone interested to contribute to the project could reach out to the team via the project’s website at welcomeNWO.ca, or Welcoming Immigrants in Northwestern Ontario’s Facebook page.
Sanderson concluded, “I think that the next step is figuring out exactly how it is that new immigrants join with long term residents, how does that happen in a smaller community? What kinds of welcoming practices are most effective, given the environment that your businesses are operating within, and I really do think that Sioux Lookout would be the ideal location for some kind of pilot project that would involve certain employers or groups to employers, to try to test out some of these practices. There is no official…definition of what organizational welcoming is, and so, that is something that needs to be explored, and we really need to understand exactly how is that interpreted by individuals and what sort of difference can that make in the longer term.”