ARCHIVED - Chapter 1 – A Wide Demographic Gap: Immigrants in Francophone

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Looking at Canada through the eyes of a new immigrant yields images of high expectations, dashed hopes, eventual adjustment but seldom regret. Some 13,000 of the 250,000 immigrants who arrived in Canada in 2001 were in a rather special position: they were English-speaking newcomers heading to the province of Quebec or French-speaking newcomers settling in other Canadian provinces. An English-speaking civil engineer from India may, for example, move to Quebec as part of a company transfer, while a Francophone technician from Morocco decides to settle in Manitoba. The difference between the two: the Indian engineer who moves to Quebec can call on an Anglophone minority that has a well-established tradition of integrating immigrants. Quebec's Anglophone society is immigrant-rich. More than one in four Anglophones in Quebec were born outside of Canada. The Moroccan immigrant, on the other hand, will face a minority community that has not yet had much experience with the integration of immigrants.

Francophone minority communities are failing to attract the number of immigrants that correspond to their own weight: close to one million Francophones live outside of Quebec but only 44,000 of them are immigrants. Not even one in twenty minority Francophones is, in fact, an immigrant. There should be four times as many if we take the proportion of immigrants among Canada's Anglophone population as a guideline. Minority Anglophones in Quebec, on the other hand, have been a host community to immigrants for a long time. In fact, the proportion of immigrants in the Anglophone community far exceeds that within the Francophone majority of the province.

We participate in the Francophone struggle but when it comes to sharing the fruits of that struggle, there is no room for us. You feel like "une mouche dans un verre de lait" (a fly in a glass of milk).

(East-African immigrant)

Immigrants, governments and communities are the three key players who co-determine the success of immigration into official language communities. Especially for minority Francophone communities, diversity is a new phenomenon. In the past, these communities have maintained themselves mostly by relying on their own close-knit networks and, in certain areas, by the arrival of Quebecers, who are of similar origin as themselves. Suddenly, they are confronted with immigrants who share the French language with them but come from very different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

By engaging with the stories of these immigrants, both the communities and government representatives will better understand the aspirations of immigrants and the barriers that they often face. Some testimonies by immigrants are filled with disappointment and dissatisfaction at the inability of the official language minority community to accept them. But it can also be the community that experiences frustration when an immigrant family that they have assisted and hoped would reinforce the local community decides to move away or slowly integrates within the majority community. The reader, whether a government representative, an active member of an official language minority community or a newcomer to Canada, will gain an appreciation that immigration into minority communities involves two parties who are in a sensitive position: the community, by virtue of its minority status and the newcomers, by virtue of their starting a new life in an unfamiliar environment. Immigration is never an easy journey but it is a highly worthwhile one.

Essential Ingredients for Immigrant Success: Tenacity, Networking and Flexibility

Ahmed Shabani came from Eastern Africa to Canada in 1994. Asked about his experiences since immigrating to Canada, he laughs and wants to know how much time we have to hear his very own Canadian odyssey.

Ahmed makes it clear that his family was not forced to leave their country. Both he and his wife held good jobs. They are university-trained and Ahmed holds a Master's degree in biology from a university in France. The most difficult year in Canada, Ahmed explains, was definitely the first one. The savings he and his wife had put aside to see them through the initial adaptation period vanished far more quickly than they had anticipated. "Getting an entire family dressed up for the Canadian winter is no small expense," Ahmed says. While their savings dwindled, all attempts to find work came to little or nothing. Both were determined, however, not to allow frustration to set in and reassessed their situation. If it should turn out to be impossible to find work in their own profession, they could either wait and keep trying or they could resign themselves to accepting a position for which they were overqualified but which would, they hoped, at least provide an entry into the Canadian job market. Thus, they started to work in a local literacy centre. Outside work, both became active in local Francophone activities and Ahmed's wife was elected to sit on the board of the local Francophone college.

About a year later, funding for the literacy centre was cut and both faced unemployment. At that point their volunteer involvement and networking within Francophone institutions turned out to be important. Ahmed's wife became aware of teaching positions that were opening up inside her college. Her status as a board member, however, prevented her from being employed. With a family to support, it did not take her long to decide. She resigned from the board and was able to apply for a teaching position, which, given her credentials, she was able to secure easily.

Ahmed kept trying to find work as a biologist but soon realized that the Master's degree he had earned in France was not readily accepted and that employers were looking for professional experience in Canada, a prerequisite that hardly any new immigrant is able to fulfil. "I enrolled at university to get a second degree in biotechnology. I am passionate about science, but at the end of the first year of this two-year program, I had little choice but to give it up because there was just not enough money to take care of my studies and my family." Ahmed again reassessed his options. Four years after arriving in Canada, he put his hopes of working as a scientist aside and took advantage of a government subsidized program that paid 50% of the course fees to become a computer administrator.

His first assignment after completing the course took him to Prince Edward Island's Evangeline region where a Francophone community institution was looking for someone to carry out a feasibility study on linking their various sites in a computer network. Had it not been for his networking within the Francophone community, Ahmed would probably never have heard of this position. His active involvement within the Francophone community had paid off. With a few years of work experience under his belt now, Ahmed is confident about the future. When the family moved to Toronto recently because his wife accepted a new position, he had no trouble finding work as a network administrator. Says Ahmed: "There is a shortage of Francophone personnel in Toronto. So, for someone who has much-needed qualifications like computing skills and who knows French, it's not hard to find work."

Ahmed's very own Canadian odyssey has not left him stranded. He and his wife have achieved the kind of success most immigrants hope for. They are both gainfully employed, have a social network that includes members of their own ethnic and linguistic community and beyond, and their children are doing very well at the public French school they attend. "It's not at all unusual for us to deal with a number of different languages. We speak an African language and French at home, and English with those around us. I think Africans have a more functional relationship with languages." Ahmed explains that he is not afraid of assimilation as he believes that different languages, serving different purposes in one's life, cannot only exist along-side each other in the present but that they can continue to coexist, as many languages have in Africa, across generations.

Many African newcomers fail to achieve the level of comfort and well-being that Ahmed and his family have reached. "To know French in Ontario is a definite advantage but English is still essential and many Francophones don't realize this until much too late," Ahmed explains. The second obstacle is the difficulty in having one's skills and education recognized. Many immigrants feel let down by an immigration system that selects them on the basis of points awarded for their education when that very same education is then not recognized by private employers or even the government itself. The most pernicious hurdle, however, is what is called Canadian experience. Many immigrants feel they cannot work without Canadian work experience and without work they are unable to obtain such experience. As Ahmed's story shows, the only way out of this conundrum is to accept jobs well below one's level of qualification. But many refuse to accept this initially and become isolated, which further aggravates their situation. "The result is that Francophone immigrants become increasingly resigned here in Canada," Ahmed feels. He believes that three messages should be communicated to newcomers: they must learn English, they must try and have their credentials and professional experience validated and, above all, they must not isolate themselves but make contacts with as many people as they possibly can. Arriving in Canada, Ahmed concludes, is only a first step and often turns out not to have been the most difficult one.