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Can faith and settlement partnerships shape Canada’s newcomer-settlement practices?

The current global refugee crisis has mobilized a number of community organizations, governments and private individuals to cooperate with the settlement of refugees in their host countries. Canada’s rich experience in mobilizing its communities for refugee integration has been put to the test with the recent arrival of 35,000 Syrian refugees. This has been an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on their own practices of refugee and newcomer integration, to evaluate the mechanisms that allow for different partners to participate in this process, and to assess the effects of the arrival of newcomers to different local areas.

The Centre for Community Based Research is spearheading a unique multi-partner research project entitled “Faith and Settlement Partnerships: Setting Immigrants and Canada up for Success.” Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), this two-year initiative (2016-2018) aims to study partnerships among faith-based and government-funded settlement organizations in their collaborative efforts to assist newcomers. The research project is itself an innovative collaboration, where local immigration partnerships, faith-informed groups and academic institutions have come together to better understand the stories of newcomers, identify the contribution of faith communities to this process and improve current settlement practices.

The structure of the research
The project was organized around the following three main research questions: to what extent are faith/settlement partnerships viewed positively; what types of partnerships presently exist and how could they be improved?; and how can effective partnerships be better facilitated? Although these questions constituted a way to determine the lay of the land, they also aimed to facilitate the mobilization of community groups and government partners around the integration of newcomers to their communities of arrival.

The first year of the project (Sept. 2016 to Aug. 2017) focused on research, including a survey of 73 faith leaders, practitioners and stakeholders in the Toronto, Peel, Waterloo and London regions, a focus group in Ottawa (at the “Pathways to Prosperity” conference) with three local immigration representatives, a national literature review (including academic articles to mainstream articles and reports), a survey and six local case studies conducted in the local areas of our stakeholders. The second year of the project (Sept. 2017 to Aug. 2018) focuses on mobilizing the research findings. This mobilization process includes the creation of a toolkit/guide for both service agency practitioners and faith groups to learn how to engage in partnership together, as well as a variety of other formats to engage important stakeholders around the value of faith and settlement partnerships.

The first year of research revealed a number of interesting data, mostly pointing at the organic nature of the collaboration between government agencies and faith-informed groups when it comes to the settlement of newcomers. While our literature review revealed that information on faith and settlement partnerships is limited, the survey showed that they are occurring quite frequently. Starting with the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, more literature has been produced on the topic. In many cases, however, the literature that has been generated does not yet represent the complexity and variety of those partnerships emerging at the grassroots level. Another finding that shows the complexity of the ground level reality points to dissonance between emergent practices and commonly held understandings of the issue. Although our research has shown that faith and settlement partnerships are a promising development, and that local immigration partnerships are increasingly brokering them, public policy and cultural assumptions are still significant barriers for successful partnerships.

Some key findings
One of the most significant challenges that newcomers face in their integration process is the complex Canadian way of life. Newcomers need to develop an understanding of the functioning of various contexts of Canadian living, Canada’s multiple levels of governance and their impact on their own settlement process. Once they have developed a clear grasp of these realities, newcomers are required to piece the information together and develop a settlement strategy for themselves and their families. All of this implies a new working language that newcomers need to understand if they want to successfully settle in Canada. This is an intricate, time-consuming process that creates easily avoidable obstacles to successful settlement.

From the perspective of service providers and faith leaders, partnerships provide a way to overcome this particular challenge. Faith and settlement partnerships have facilitated the creation of a common language between different types of agencies, creating a platform for referrals and ongoing information-sharing. Ultimately, it means a smoother transition for the newcomer from arrival to the search for housing and childcare.

For many of the newcomers interviewed in our research, settlement is basically a process that generates a lasting network of support. Most of their days are spent trying to find the “right person in the right place,” so that their questions may be answered and their needs met. The need of such a network is all the more palpable when they arrive with their families, as they must attend to different sets of needs – such as childcare, schooling, housing and employment. One crucial part of this research is the fact that organizational partnerships make it much easier for newcomers to find networks of support.

However, organizational partnerships are still countercultural, both for government-funded agencies and for faith groups. There is still a tendency to remain working in silos that can be easily controlled and understood by each side. The economic realities of Canadian society create an intense competition for finances, resources and people. Agencies compete for grants and donations, and faith groups compete to maintain their identities and keep their people engaged in their communities.

Forming a spirit of collaboration in this competitive environment has its challenges. It can be hard for government agencies and faith groups to understand how partnership directly benefits their organizations. It is even harder for one group of partners in one organization to take credit for quantifiable results. We need a paradigm shift from “how can my organization or group help those people” to “how can we support newcomers in our community.” Partnership-forming is the ground for building inclusive and whole communities, and it creates a multiplying effect that forms the basis for a deeper sense of social connection. Only in building community together can we naturally dismantle the barriers that keep us from being truly multicultural on a local level. In fact, this is the most distinctive suggestion of this research: to call for a cultural shift on the local level – one that facilitates trusting relationships between community partners, faith-informed groups, and government agencies around the common project of newcomer settlement.


  • Chris Brnjas and Héctor Acero-Ferrer serve as research assistants for the research project “Faith and Settlement Partnerships: Setting Immigrants and Canada up for Success.”

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