Good afternoon. My name is Kristin Crane. I am with the Huron County Immigration Partnership. We are located on the shores of Lake Huron, northwest of London and west of Kitchener-Waterloo.
Huron County has a population of just under 60,000 that's spread out over 3,400 square kilometres, and our largest population hub is about 8,000 people.
We are a region in Ontario that has the lowest unemployment rate. We're sitting at about 3%, and the entire area is experiencing a severe workforce shortage.
Huron County received funding from IRCC in 2010, and this was to establish a local immigration partnership. More recently, in October 2017, our county received IRCC-funded itinerant settlement services, and these are delivered to us by the YMCA of Southwestern Ontario.
Our local immigration partnership is part of settlement services; however, it offers indirect services, and that is because the work is done with the service providers rather than with the newcomers themselves. The mandate of an immigration partnership is to create welcoming communities, raise awareness of newcomer needs and bring about better collaboration and coordination of service providers. We're kind of the behind-the-scenes movers.
In Huron Country, we've seen an increase in the number of newcomers mainly because of private sponsorship of refugees. Our county is a destination for secondary migration as those sponsored families are contacting friends and family members who are in urban areas. Therefore, many of our newcomers have low literacy rates, very low English levels and a high level of needs. However, we have very few formal services to offer them.
This is where the volunteer sector fits in. This increase in population is much needed. However the volunteer sector isn't quite equipped to serve all the needs of these refugee families.
The benefit of volunteers is that they do offer a very personalized service and a high level of support. However, they are untrained and they don't usually engage in training because all of their free time is spent helping the families.
We see that the volunteer sector is filling the gaps, but they cannot be replacing the settlement services that we need in our area.
That brings me to talk about some of the gaps that we're experiencing in settlement services in our rural areas. I want to add that it goes beyond Huron County. It's our entire region. I've gotten feedback from a lot of other counties in the area.
The first area is around language. We have a lack of interpretation services, and people must travel an hour and a half to provide those interpretation services in our area, which becomes very expensive to pay for that travel time as well as the cost of the service.
Our English classes are infrequent. They happen on a weekly basis only, and they aren't federally funded, which means that they do not come with funding for child care. They are still very high quality. Again, it's the volunteers who are providing child care so that the parents can attend these classes.
A really large gap that I want to focus on is the youth in our area. The kids are being left very unsupported. None of our schools have SWIS workers—settlement workers in schools—and most of the schools don't even offer the ESL classes. We find that the 10- to 16-year-olds are becoming a very vulnerable population. There are problems with language acquisition, which spills over into some academic barriers. There are social integration issues. They carry heavy responsibility in the family, providing child care for those younger siblings as well as providing interpretation and translation services to their parents, in addition to sometimes having part-time jobs or a lot of work in the home.
What is really significant is that there are not enough peers of a similar ethnocultural group, so this is leading to pretty significant feelings of isolation in our communities.
I want to make a series of recommendations of what I think I could see settlement services looking like in rural areas.
First would be having SWIS workers wherever settlement service workers operate. If the parents are receiving services, the youth should be as well.
Next would be training for the volunteer sector—perhaps mandatory training for those sponsorship groups prior to receiving the families, while they still have time to commit to that kind of training. Another recommendation would be to have more funding for support by the settlement service providers and agencies to train the volunteers on how best to support the newcomers and when to refer them to the formal settlement services. I think this would ensure that appropriate boundaries are set, and it would avoid the volunteer fatigue that many are experiencing right now. It would allow the volunteers to do what they do best, but allow the professionals to step in when that is needed.
I feel that the volunteer sector is what makes rural communities strong. Increasing their capacity makes our communities strong, but I think it will also save the government money.
Thirdly, I would advocate for virtual settlement services. If there are SWIS workers or ESL teachers who cannot come to the students on a regular basis, could they connect virtually or could students join classes elsewhere? There's a big opportunity to better utilize technology. The technology exists in the schools and employment centres. Almost all newcomers have a smart phone and can access the Internet, at least through the libraries in all the rural communities. This doesn't replace the human touch, which is still needed, but it can be a definite add-on to services.
As well, I recommend ensuring that the community connection program is funded in all rural areas as part of settlement services. This program encourages the social, cultural and professional interactions and connections between newcomers and the community. It assists immigrants and refugees to feel connected and engaged in the community, to feel as though it's home. Isolation is a huge factor in rural communities; it is very prevalent. We need to do more programming that brings newcomers together and newcomers to interact with other community members.
Another recommendation is to ensure that settlement services programming includes funding for transportation in rural areas so that newcomers can access the services they desperately need.
Lastly, I recommend that urban service partners that offer interpretation should receive funding to provide those services in rural areas, to cover the travel cost so that interpretation isn't cost-prohibitive, because we know that language is the fundamental barrier to overcome.
I want to focus on a few of the best practices that we've seen in our region.
It is actually the itinerant settlement service model. That's where the settlement services come to the newcomers and the transportation barrier is overcome. It doesn't rely upon maintaining physical buildings, and it's very efficient with its resources. As well, it's very flexible. It's based upon the needs. The appointments are set up as needed, and the location is left up to the newcomers, where it's convenient for them, which usually is in the library in the small communities where people live.
My last best practice would be to involve non-traditional partners in the settlement process—in this case, employers. Our Huron County Immigration Partnership has worked very hard to engage employers as partners and we've had a large success rate of newcomer employment in our area. Employers should be encouraged to adapt their practices to include more involvement in settling their newcomer employees. The growth and the survival of their businesses depend upon the newcomer workforce in many of our rural regions, so the employer should be doing what it can to support that.
As our reputation increases in rural areas as being a great destination for newcomers, we need to take measures that ensure that newcomers have positive experiences and that settlement services can meet their needs. Certainly the approach for settlement services in rural areas is very different from what it looks like in urban centres.