Few can appreciate the vital role that settlement agencies play in helping newcomers assimilate into a new environment than Jamila Aman.
After migrating to Canada in 1984 from her native Eritrea via Sudan, she completed her last year of high school in London before relocating to Toronto and finding employment with the Learning Enrichment Foundation (LEF), which initiates programs that reflect the needs of the mostly immigrant population it serves.
Aman worked with the LEF for three years as an employment counsellor before joining Northwood Neighbourhood Services as its executive director.
“I did not know of the existence of organizations that helped newcomers settle in Canada until I joined the LEF,” said Aman, who fled Eritrea in the 1980s at the height of former president Mengistu Haile Mariam’s tempestuous reign that left the country in economic ruin and on the verge of political disintegration.
“That’s why I am so passionate about the work I do now because I know how tough it is for newcomers trying to make that transition in a new country. I spoke English when I came to Canada, but the majority of people coming here from other countries don’t and in a lot of instances they have large families. The services that we and other agencies serving newcomers provide are extremely necessary.”
Located in the city’s north end, Northwood Neighbourhood Services has been providing culturally-appropriate programs and services for newcomers for the past 27 years. The settlement services program has been an integral part of the organization’s delivery since 1986, serving nearly 7,000 clients annually.
Last month, Citizenship & Immigration Canada informed Northwood and nine other immigrant serving agencies that their program funding will not be renewed.
“This came as a shock to me and the organization,” said Aman who has worked tirelessly to facilitate the smooth transition of newcomers by lobbying politicians and funders and spearheading the development of meaningful programs and services for new immigrants.
“What is even more alarming is that we recently passed an audit with flying colours and we were successful in tests that had to do with our capacity and performance. To have the funding cut so suddenly when we knew that it was being properly used is like a slap in our face.”
A 2009 New Pioneer award winner, Aman said her organization received $390,000 annually from the federal government for settlement services.
“Our total annual budget is nearly $1.5 million so the federal funding that we will no longer receive amounts to about 30 per cent of our annual budget,” she said. “We are not going to close our doors. In fact, this is going to make us stronger. Presently, we are holding strategy meetings and looking at other sources for funding. We will still continue to serve newcomers and our settlement service division will continue to function even though we will have to do so with limited human resources.”
Seven of the organization’s 10 staff members will lose their jobs because of the cuts, including one who has been with the organization since 1993.
“The first staff person that I hired is one of those losing her jobs,” said Aman. “All of the people losing their jobs because of the cuts have had a minimum of four years service. That’s the hardest part of what has transpired in the last few weeks. Good people dedicated to helping newcomers transition into a new society are going to be no longer working for us. When the department funding goes, you know your job is gone.”
In addition to settlement services, Northwood also offers child and parent programs, referrals, counselling, English conversation classes and a translation bureau that creates employment for foreign trained professionals.
The bureau offers competitive rates for translation, interpretation and notarization services and fees vary depending on volume, complexity and document language.
The Ontario Council for Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) which represents about 200 settlement organizations in Ontario said the cuts will have a devastating effect on groups like Northwood whose work target racialized immigrant communities.
Ontario’s Immigration Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins said the federal cuts to settlement services will lead to job losses and agency closures and newcomers will lose access to the services they need.
“These agencies have been exceeding their targets and receiving positive audit reports,” he said. “We have funding relationships with nine of these agencies and the one thing I can say is some of these frontline organizations provide specific ethnic and cultural needs.”
The federal government is slashing funding to immigrant service agencies across Canada by $53 million this year, $43 million alone in this province that attracts the bulk of newcomers to Canada.
Federal Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said the funding cuts are necessary because the number of immigrants settling in Ontario has dropped in the last five years from 145,000 to 106,000. He said many newcomers are now settling in the Atlantic and western provinces.
Other local organizations affected by the funding cuts are Tropicana Community Services Organization, Elspeth Heyward Centre for Women, Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood Centre, the Afghan Association of Ontario, the Ethiopian Association in the Greater Toronto Area and Surrounding Regions, the Eritrean Canadian Community Centre of Toronto, the South Asian Women’s Centre, the Bloor Information & Life Centre and the Community Action Resource Centre.