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Place of Refuge

photography by Chris Robinson

Nearly one million immigrants are expected to settle in Canada by 2020 as a result of the Liberal government’s new multi-year immigration strategy, an estimated 170,000 of them in Toronto. With its lack of affordable housing, job scarcity and high cost of living, can Canada’s most populous city readily accommodate such a surge of newcomers?

Susan McGrath thinks yes.

A professor emerita in York University’s School of Social Work and a former director of York’s Centre for Refugee Studies, McGrath views Toronto’s official status as a “sanctuary city” as evidence that the municipality can and will be able to provide adequate support to migrants over the next two years.

“Toronto has a long history of providing social services to newcomers, dating back to the settlement houses established in 1910,” says McGrath, whose leadership of the Toronto-based, globally influential Refugee Research Network (RRN) earned her a 2014 Order of Canada award in recognition of her contributions to refugee rights research and policy. “We are a city of refuge. Toronto doesn’t ask people about their status before providing services, which is important for immigrants who are often fearful.”

It’s official policy like this that is making “Toronto the Good” a destination of choice for most immigrants to Canada. From 2011 to 2016, nearly 30 per cent of all immigrants – roughly 357,000 people – relocated to Toronto, almost double the number who went to Montreal, according to the most recent census figures from Statistics Canada.

The city is already home to 36 per cent of the 7.5 million immigrants in Canada. Most are from China, India and the Philippines, origin countries identified from the data collected in 2016. Refugees, and last year Canada admitted 43,000 – 3,000 more than in 2017 –  have come mostly from Syria, followed by Iraq, Afghanistan, the Republic of Congo and Eritrea, reports Immigration, Refugees & Citizenship Canada.

But how do they fare as immigrants to Canada? A York-led study of the group resettlement program launched by the federal government in 2006 is hoping to provide some answers.

Specifically, the project, for which McGrath served as academic leader, looks at a relatively small number of resettled Burmese Karens (approximately 3,900) and the significant role local Canadian communities play in helping newcomers secure housing, doctors, education and language programs to ensure success in a new country.

Another study in which McGrath is involved examines Syrian refugees – a more recent group that has relocated in larger numbers. Over 58,000 have arrived in Canada since Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came to power, McGrath says, 11,800 of them to Toronto. Through a Canadian Institutes of Health Research longitudinal study led by colleague Michaela Hynie (a professor in York’s Faculty of Health), McGrath is helping to track the settlement experiences and health outcomes of 1,921 Syrian refugees in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. “We are doing presentations, publishing journal articles and sharing infographics of our findings with the participants and broader community.” 

Later this year, McGrath will publish a book on the global RRN and the efforts of researchers to generate knowledge useful for assisting refugees. Cities like Toronto will figure prominently as hubs of humanitarianism freely giving services to the people who need them the most. 

“If you are new here,” says McGrath, “dropped in from a dangerous situation, and you don’t know the language and have no place to live, you really rely on the settlement agencies which a city has to offer. The City of Toronto puts funding into that. It has newcomer staff. It’s a whole piece of support that Toronto can call its own.”  ■

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