More money coming for rent, language classes for Syrian refugees in B.C.

 

Immigration minister says problems with housing, supports being solved as quickly as possible

 
 
 
 
The federal minister of immigration, John McCallum, discusses Syrian refugees with The Sun on Friday, March 18.
 

The federal minister of immigration, John McCallum, discusses Syrian refugees with The Sun on Friday, March 18.

Photograph by: Kim Stallknecht, PNG

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John McCallum, Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, sat down with The Vancouver Sun Friday for an interview that focused on the resettlement of Syrian refugees in B.C. Just over 2,300 government-assisted Syrian refugees have arrived since early November, which is almost three times the number of refugees this province usually receives in a year. The vast majority have settled in Metro Vancouver.

Q: I would like to start with the government-assisted refugees that have arrived here. Some of them are in pretty dire situations. They’re spending their entire government allowance on rent, because the families are large, they need large units and housing is expensive here. This forces them to use food banks and scrape by as best they can for their other expenses. I’m wondering if the supports in place for government-assisted refugees, in your opinion, are adequate?

A: If you’d seen where they came from, in Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon as I have, then I think they are better off where they are today. The transition is never instantaneous, but we are definitely making progress.

Two or three weeks ago, just 52 per cent of the refugees already here were in permanent housing. Now that’s up to 72 per cent. The vast majority should be housed by May, all of them by June. Now Vancouver and Toronto have been slower than the rest of the country, because those are the two biggest cities with expensive housing. So in the case of both Vancouver and Toronto, two or three weeks ago it was 30 per cent and now it is approximately 50 per cent. ... Now, we’re trying to speed that up in a number of ways, partly through private donors. We’ve raised over $30 million from the private sector, led by CN at $5 million. (The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. got a piece of that money Friday, with a $500,000 contribution from the Welcome Fund for Syrian Refugees to help large families with rents.)

We’re also trying to speed up access to child tax credits. If you have four, five or six children, which many of them do, it’s not a trivial amount of money you get from child tax credits. And, we are acting to try to spread the refugees out more evenly across the country ... we never wanted to concentrate them in Vancouver and Toronto, for obvious reasons. And so we now have Victoria opened as an official receiving centre. We have some six or seven communities in British Columbia receiving government-assisted refugees. We have some 30 to 40 communities in British Columbia receiving privately sponsored refugees.

Q: Some of these refugees have disabilities. A great many have experienced significant trauma, they don’t speak any English. Not all will be able to work. Will there be enough support for people like this?

A: Well, there’s two sides of the coin when we say we were seeking the most vulnerable people. On the one hand, we got the most vulnerable people, and that was the plan ... we got the list of people from the United Nations, of vulnerable refugees. We worked from that list and that’s what we received. That was the objective.

But the other side of the coin is when you receive vulnerable people, that creates more work to prepare them for success in Canada. And so, the vast majority of the government-assisted refugees speak not a word of English or French. So obviously language training is crucial. I just came from a meeting with 20 or so employers in British Columbia. ... A whole lot of different people, all of them anxious to help, all of them saying they had jobs ... but also conscious of the barriers. In many cases we need at least a minimum proficiency in English or French. For example, there were jobs in the Okanagan in orchards, jobs suggested in hotels. There are many industries crying out for low-skilled labour, anxious to get temporary foreign workers, for example, and here we have a group of newcomers who are largely low-skilled. Once they learn a little English, I think there are a lot of employers out there wanting to give them jobs.

Q: Let’s talk a bit more about language, because we’ve got some settlement agencies here in B.C. receiving less funding for the Language Instruction for New Canadians program to teach English. Some of the refugees can’t even get onto waiting lists to take English classes and the waiting lists can be up to a year, especially for women who need child care.

A: Well, my understanding is that we’re putting more funding in. That should get those waiting lists down by approximately 40 per cent. That doesn’t mean we’ll be all the way there, but certainly progress, because ... language training is crucial and if they can’t get their language training, we’re in trouble.

In terms of overall funding, it’s true there was a drop for British Columbia. It’s based on a formula and the proportions in the funding depend on how many immigrants you’ve had in the previous three years and B.C. was down relative to others ... so it got less money. But B.C. got additional money for the refugees, so it kind of balanced out.

This has been edited for length and clarity.

tacarman@postmedia.com

twitter.com/tarajcarman

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The federal minister of immigration, John McCallum, discusses Syrian refugees with The Sun on Friday, March 18.
 

The federal minister of immigration, John McCallum, discusses Syrian refugees with The Sun on Friday, March 18.

Photograph by: Kim Stallknecht, PNG

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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