Despite Canada being widely acknowledged to have one of the most vibrant settlement sectors in the world, with some 500 non-profit organizations that deliver programs and services to help newcomers adjust to life in Canada, there is a pressing need for both greater training of front-line workers and for a more robust learning process to connect their experience with broader policy and objectives. The settlement sector needs to strengthen its capacity for learning systematically.
In 2019, Calience Research and eCaliber Group undertook an extensive research initiative supported by CERIC, including over 40 in-depth interviews with settlement counsellors and their managers in five provinces, to identify the competencies of settlement counsellors. This followed extensive research into the development of settlement services in Canada and efforts by the settlement sector to strengthen human resource development.
A wealth of knowledge
Settlement counsellors are generalists within the settlement system. They work predominately for non-governmental, community-based organizations that work with newcomers. Some are employed by government agencies such as libraries or school boards. The core of their work is to provide one-on-one and direct services to support the efforts of immigrants and refugees to adapt to life in Canada and begin to participate in the life of society.
This invariably involves conducting a needs assessment, identifying strengths and barriers, developing a service plan, and setting settlement goals jointly with clients that consider available services and community supports. The broad scope of their work and the nature of the issues they address implies both a need for ongoing training and support, and demonstrates that these workers possess a wealth of knowledge that can be tapped systematically to strengthen the settlement system and immigration outcomes.
How the work is changing
The research showed that the settlement landscape is evolving; the work of settlement counsellors is becoming more demanding and the complexity of settlement issues is reshaping the nature of the work. This evolution is driven by several factors.
- Increasingly, new immigrants are more educated and knowledgeable, and innovation has provided them with access to information and resources online. Many also arrive with some connection to family or community in Canada.
- The availability of pre-arrival services and orientation help to prepare immigrants for their transition.
- The increase in immigration levels – with Canada now welcoming numbers of newcomers not seen since after the Second World War – continues to increase the diversity of Canadian society. This has given rise to the challenge of drawing on and channelling that diversity for the benefit of the whole.
Settlement work will need to be redefined, going beyond its historical approach of providing direct services to immigrants to focusing increasingly on building capacity in the communities that welcome them. The work of settlement counsellors, then, can be conceived as having two parts, each concerned with capacity building: empowering newcomers and empowering receiving communities.
What capacity-building looks like
Empowering newcomers includes assessing the needs of newcomers and providing appropriate information, orientation, referrals and direct assistance in the areas of legal services, housing, healthcare, education, employment and language training. This work also involves helping newcomers appreciate Canadian society and Canadian culture.
The emerging aspect of the role of settlement counsellors is focused on building capacity in the existing community to be inclusive of newcomers. This involves advocating to communities to overcome biases and systemic barriers that prevent immigrants from participating in society. It also goes beyond this to include actively working to create environments based on unity in diversity.
Creating this kind of environment requires career practitioners to see newcomers as participants contributing to the positive development of Canadian society, rather than as bundles of needs to be addressed. Two common tendencies need to be avoided: one in which immigrants isolate, often as a means of preserving their way of life; and, the other, in which newcomers are expected to fully assimilate. It requires newcomers to find their place as active contributors. The existing community needs to go beyond inclusiveness, to be willing and able to challenge its own perceptions, its own habits of thought, patterns of action and modes of expression.
Settlement through a competency lens
The final report presented a set of eight competencies that address both aspects of the role of settlement counsellors. Competencies refer to broad areas of activity that draw on numerous concepts, qualities, attitudes, abilities and skills.
- Discern the strengths and identify the needs of newcomers
- Assist newcomers to navigate social and economic systems
- Help newcomers gain understanding of Canadian society and culture, and nurture a sense of belonging
- Advocate for the well-being of newcomers
- Contribute to building environments of unity in diversity
- Uphold integrity
- Promote learning
- Foster initiative
The research initiative was made as a contribution toward a growing body of knowledge used by settlement agencies to raise the profile of settlement workers, to help identify potential candidates for the role of settlement counsellor, to provide ongoing training and to ensure that talent is well nurtured. Calience Research and eCaliber Group are now working to develop training content for settlement counsellors and other settlement practitioners based on the competencies identified in this research.
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