Guest blogger Alka Kumar shares her thoughts on the Conference Board of Canada’s Immigration Summit, which took place in May 2018.

For those of you who really wanted to be in Ottawa for the Immigration Summit, May 30-31, but could not make it, let me share some of my impressions, and if you indulge me, perhaps some reflections.

A word about myself as it may help me situate my small place in this big and complex world of immigration and settlement. During the last few years, in addition to my day job as front line staff supporting immigrant professionals navigate troubled waters of career and employment transition, I have been engaged in doctoral research where I apply a practitioner lens, a social justice perspective, and a hands-on problem solving approach for seeking solutions to issues of economic and social inclusion for the above mentioned cohort of new migrants to Canada.

Given the above personal context, the Canadian Immigration Summit 2018 was for me a rich feast. The spotlight was on exploring realistic and creative solutions, targeting both “how to improve services as well as the way they are delivered,” as articulated by The Hon. Ahmed D. Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship with the federal government. The Minister provided information about new initiatives and resources that will reduce processing times, cut backlogs, and introduce targeted employment strategies to help individuals start new lives in an environment where they feel “welcomed, integrated, absorbed and embraced,” because ultimately, “if they succeed we succeed.”

He certainly set the tone in his plenary session that opened the Summit, through highlighting current priorities and future directions within immigration and settlement policy. A few of his concerns and suggestions are listed below, and these themes took on the nature of a refrain in discussions as the Immigration Summit progressed over the next two days.

The Minister referred to demographic challenges resulting from an ageing workforce, and this in turn leading to a shrinking labour market. He pointed to the essential role played by immigrants to alleviate skill shortages, and the need within the settlement model for more flexibility and better stakeholder collaboration. Having an employability matrix that can upscale robust strategies for measuring successes was also one of his observations. Finally, Minister Hussen urged everyone to “fight fear with fact,” using their spheres of influence to help push back against anti-immigrant rhetoric.

When he shared a personal story about being mistaken for an enthusiastic `newcomer’ while handing out ice-cream to kids on Canada Day I couldn’t help but reflect upon the role and responsibility, power and privilege that rests in a leader to shape conversation, and policy, on issues that matter.

While a word-limited blog-post can hardly encapsulate all topics that were discussed during the Summit, a couple more that particularly resonated with me. Firstly, that Canadian immigration is not just an instrument for economic growth but rather a nation-building project, and a tool for development; and secondly, that the inherent complexity of settlement makes it critical to use an intersectional lens, one that locates the immigrant at its centre.  This makes the need for inter-departmental collaboration to create efficient, optimal, and targeted service delivery imperative.

In my last few years dabbling in this field, I have learnt that individuals must be supported one-on-one, and with empathetic understanding. This cannot be easy, as processes for employment inclusion for white-collar immigrants must take into account their high aspirations and their diverse and differentiated needs.

I have also figured out that systems need to do much better, and this is only possible if they are willing to be open and flexible, structured yet dynamic, and at all times they must indeed be responsive and nimble to adapt to continuously changing needs. This again cannot be easy, and I refer to the words of Sunil Johal, Policy Director, Mowat Centre, used in his talk to describe the current day gig economy, calling it “a tricky place for policy makers to work in.” While I acknowledge that it is a similar “tricky place” where policy-making in the case of economic inclusion for newcomer professionals must happen, effective efforts in this regard must be sincere, holistic, and ongoing, for solutions to be real and implementable.

Words certainly matter, but it is equally true that they have the power to motivate and energise but fleetingly, in a flash-in-the-pan kind of manner, and then they leave us to our own devices. We often slumber right back to our complacent lives, seeing the world as already changed. Unfortunately, the world can be a stubborn mule and will refuse to transform itself till we each pick up the shovel and take it upon ourselves to change it, one mound of dirt at a time. Systems must pick up their own shovels, too.

About Alka Kumar
In the last few years, Alka Kumar has been working as front-line staff and a researcher in the newcomer settlement sector in Winnipeg. While her previous background is as academic and educator in literary studies in India, she is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in the inter-disciplinary Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) program at Arthur V Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice, at University of Manitoba. Alka has recently relocated to Toronto and is excited about engaging with migration and immigrant-integration related work in meaningful ways in this new environment and context.