Strangers in New Homelands conference brings immigrant issues to light

University of Manitoba faculties of sociology and social work hosted their fifth annual Strangers in New Homelands: Deconstructing and Reconstructing “Home” Among Immigrants and Refugees in the Diaspora conference last Thursday and Friday. The conference brought together social workers, government officials, academics, and students to discuss issues critical to the experience of newly settled immigrants, especially in Canada and the United States.

The theme of the conference was “crossing borders from old homes, settling in new societies: exploring critical issues on migration, integration, and adaptation of newcomers in host societies.”

Dr. Michael Baffoe, conference chair and professor of social work at the U of M, opened the conference with some brief welcoming remarks, followed by Dr. Harvey Frankel, dean of the faculty of social work, who discussed the centrality of immigrant and refugee issues to the study and practice of social work.
“For social work, immigrant and refugee issues are really a core of who we are and what we do. Social work in Canada and the United States really owes much of its origins to working with immigrant and refugee populations,” said Frankel.

Manitoba’s Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism, Christine Melnick, also addressed the audience. Her speech focused on the integral role that newcomers play in maintaining the economic prosperity of the province and the need for governmental and non-governmental organizations to help new Manitobans smoothly adjust to life in their new home.

“We have to continue to be welcoming and thankful that people have come. If we don’t continue to make it relatively easy for people to come live in Manitoba, we will all suffer. I know that there are many changes that are happening now with the federal government, many of which are unilateral changes and quite concerning. The provincial government is talking to the federal government in any way we can.”

Only briefly alluding to recent changes in the federal government’s policies on immigration, Melnick assured the audience that she would be available to speak in greater detail about her criticisms in the future.

Manitoba has accepted newcomers from 140 countries within the last ten years, according to Melnick. Manitoba has a retention rate of 84 per cent and 25 per cent of new Manitoba residents have settled beyond the perimeter highway.

Jean Augustine, the first Fairness Commissioner for the province of Ontario and recipient of the Order of Canada, delivered the conference’s keynote speech.

Augustine spoke of her current role as Fairness Commissioner in Ontario, which was created with the passing of the Fair Access to the Regulated Professions Act in Ontario in 2007. The role involves “ensuring that barriers that hinder the smooth entry of foreign credentials of newcomers to Canada are removed.”

According to Augustine, immigrant workers have often been caught in a tough situation when attempting to have their credentials approved for work in Canada.

“In some of the professions, the employer says, ‘I can’t hire you because you don’t have a license,’ but then, ‘I can’t license you because you don’t have Canadian work experience,’ so the individual is caught in a conundrum. We have been pleased to collaborate with regulators to find solutions to this issue of having to have Canadian work experience.”

A presentation was given in the senate chambers following Augustine’s speech entitled “Raising African Immigrant Children in the Diaspora: A Critical Analysis of Parents’ Perspectives.” The talk was presented jointly by Baffoe and professor Lewis Asimeng-Boahene of Penn State University and moderated by professor Buster Ogbuagu of the University of St. Francis.

During the discussion period after the presentation, one member of the audience informed the presenters that there are organizations in Winnipeg involved with pairing newly settled families with families that have been living in the city for years in order to help form bridges between cultural practices.

Baffoe told the Manitoban that although the International Students Centre was an effective support structure for immigrant students, more could be done to ease their transition into student life in Manitoba.

Baffoe suggested a buddy or mentor system for students in which they could be paired not only with other students, but also with supportive faculty members who have also been through the transition experience, similar to the Winnipeg program mentioned during the discussion period.

A documentary depicting the difficulties of a Burmese refugee and his family settling in one of the poorest areas of Buffalo, New York, titled Nickel City Smiler, was presented at the conference.

Day two of the event opened with a presentation by Joseph Mensah, professor of geography and international studies at York University in Toronto entitled “Gender, Power, and Religious Transnationalism Among the African Diaspora in Canada.”

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