Two stories of newcomers’ experiences explore where Canada’s priorities around immigration lie
By: Hiatt Abendschoen
Helshy Garrido has not seen her nine-year-old daughter, Fabiana, face-to-face in nearly two and a half years.
Garrido came to Canada in November of 2018 after she and her husband eloped in her hometown of Barinas, Venezuela, a few months prior. Her husband is from Ontario and wanted them to move to Victoria, B.C., to begin their new lives together. So, Garrido made the voyage to Canada on a spousal sponsorship visa, intending to be away from Fabiana in Venezuela for only a three-month stint.
Garrido and her husband got pregnant while she was in B.C., a few weeks after a small ceremony with her new family. She knew from her first pregnancy she needed a RhoGAM shot for a healthy pregnancy because of potential complications with her blood type.
Garrido reached out to her mother, a hospital worker in Venezuela, and learned the medicine was not available there. The borders between Venezuela and Colombia—where the drug would typically come from—have been closed because of ongoing political strife between the two countries and pandemic restrictions. She opted to stay in Canada for the shot, concerned for her baby’s life.
Garrido’s passport has since expired, and she is currently in the process of applying for her permanent residency (PR). Her daughter Fabiana is still in Barinas, living with her grandparents. It’s only the three of them in the household, and Garrido says her grandparents spoil Fabiana.
“At first, it was awful because my status wasn’t clear here. So, there was no chance that they would allow her to come.”
Garrido says she has kept up with all the paperwork, continually pressing Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to reassess Fabiana’s eligibility.
“It looks like we’re really near to the end for me to get my permanent residency, and we still have no answers from them.”
Family reunification is not the priority it used to be
Newcomers to Canada face various and exceptional challenges because of the pandemic. Many families are still trying to reunite, and thousands of refugees are seeking asylum. However, Ottawa has set ambitious goals to increase immigration rates during shutdowns and a recession. Immigration policies prioritize skilled workers over welcoming newcomers for humanitarian reasons.
Garrido’s lawyer has advised her IRCC will typically grant a visa to children of parents with PR and believes Fabiana will join her in a matter of time.
Garrido could not fly home even if her passport were still active, with the federal government recently cancelling flights to all “sun destinations” in January.
Fabiana did not come to Canada with her mom in 2018 because passport processing can take up to two years in Venezuela, Garrido said. Further, she said Venezuela has not been helpful at all through the process of her settling in Canada.
“[Venezuela] won’t do anything for the reunification of families if you’re outside the country,” she said, holding back tears. “For them, if you leave the country, it’s like you betrayed them.”
Garrido says she and her daughter keep in touch through WhatsApp, but Fabiana is upset with her mom for not being around.
“She’s only nine, and I tried to explain to her why the delays and that I had another baby,” the 31-year-old said. “She’s sometimes mad at me, but I talk to her every day, and I’m like ‘hey, I am still trying to bring you.’”
She says Fabiana is often distant and is reluctant to speak with her when she calls.
Garrido feels exceptionally concerned for her daughter’s well-being because of the state of Venezuela. Corruption around the oil industry has made Venezuela’s government one of the least transparent in the world.
“It’s worse because she is in a country that is falling apart… It’s a complete chaos.”
To collect Fabiana’s medical records for her PR application, her grandparents would have to travel with her to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, Garrido said. But with harsh restrictions in place, domestic travel in Venezuela has been significantly limited.
Garrido says the health crisis has enabled the government to enforce stricter rules and exert control over the population.
“COVID has given them the excuse.”
After a year of applications, Garrido secured a work permit in Canada and began working as a childcare facilitator out of her home shortly after giving birth to her youngest daughter, Tatiana. She worked as a labour lawyer in Venezuela, but her credentials are not acknowledged here in Canada.
“Because I have the degree back home, I could study for immigration consultant,” she said. Her experience has encouraged her to help those going through similar challenges.
“It’s really hard to be apart from the person you love. So, with this COVID thing and the restrictions, it’s… it’s hard for a lot of people,” she said. The IRCC still has Garridos’ expired passport. “So, my hands are literally tied,” she said. “And I can’t bring my baby (Tatiana) to Venezuela for security reasons.”
“Either my daughter comes here… or I don’t know when I will be able to see her again.”
Immigration to Canada in 2020 bottomed out to its lowest since 1998. In the second quarter of 2020, Canada took in 34,000 immigrants—down 60,000 from the same period in the year before.
Maneuvering the pandemic while starting a new life
Kathleen Bernardo and her family travelled nearly 12,000 km to Winnipeg from the Philippines as businesses began to close and the government began drafting restriction orders. The Bernardos arrived at midnight on March 15, 2020.
Kathleen said she and Martin have been thinking of leaving the Philippines since 2015 and considered moving to Australia, New Zealand and the United States. They decided on Winnipeg for the substantial Filipino population here, and many family and friends already here and willing to help them.
They began the process of applying for the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program in 2018.
She said when they landed, COVID-19 was cast from her mind in a moment of shock, having come from Manila, where she remembers the temperature was 38 C. On March 15, the temperature was -17 C in Winnipeg they stepped out of the airport.
“It’s crazy cold here. It’s like you’re living in a deep freezer here in Canada in Manitoba,” she said. She now lives with her husband Martin and their three kids in the Tyndall Park area.
“It took a lot for us to decide on this because we love the Philippines. And we’ve always believed that if we were born there, we are meant to be of service to our country,” she said.
“But, when you get to have kids, and their practical needs are not met by staying there. The social structures are not supportive of your growth as individuals and as a family, the opportunities are limited, and you need to make a change.”
She and her husband have been married for 14 years.
“When we got married, we were so idealistic. Like, we have projections, and we have plans,” Kathleen said. After a few stagnant years in the Philippines, she says it was time for them to reassess their progress.
She said she and Martin were concerned with the government’s direction in the Philippines, high inflation rates, wealth disparity, and government impunity.
“My husband and I couldn’t keep up with our expenses… our children are all going to school, and the tuition fee in the Philippines is very expensive.”
Trying to leave struggles in the past
Public school facilities in the Philippines are not safe, she said. She was in the public school system, and she says things have not gotten any better since she was a kid. Public schools are typically in rougher parts of the city, and security is not like it is at private schools.
She says healthcare can be costly without insurance. A night in the hospital in the Philippines can cost up to $500 CAD—equal to a relatively comfortable monthly wage in the Philippines.
“We told ourselves it can’t go on. We have to do something to make sure that our kids have a better future. And us as professionals we have more opportunities.”
Bernardo works as a lunch supervisor at her kids’ school, École Stanley Knowles School (ESKS), but she worked as an administrative assistant before she came to Winnipeg.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Manila, but her accreditation does not hold the same value here in Manitoba. She would have to go to university full-time for another year to get her degree recognized. She worked in television broadcasting but said she couldn’t juggle the pace and raise three kids. Martin worked as a freelance business analyst.
Her kids have been making friends quickly and learning a lot at ESKS since their first day of classes last September.
“My husband and I were like, ‘We made it.’ Our kids are in good school, and we didn’t pay a single cent,” she said. “I can see that my kids are so happy with school here. The focus is more on understanding the concepts rather than on memorization, and they make school fun.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had not yet taken hold of the Philippines when she and her family were embarking to Vancouver and eventually to Winnipeg.
“It was so worrying for us because, at that time, our PR visa was about to expire on the 18th of March.”
If their PR visa expired, they would not have been eligible for the PR certification and would not be granted entry to Canada.
Restrictions were light in Vancouver and across Canada when the Bernardos arrived. But things tightened up shortly after that. In Manitoba, masks were not mandatory in public, but most businesses began closing only days after they arrived in Winnipeg. Eventually, all non-essential businesses were closed.
An unusual arrival
Bernardo says her flight was one of the last to arrive in Winnipeg on March 15, and the airport security locked the doors behind them when they left.
Kathleen’s family was meant to stay with an appointed host upon arrival. Because of the host’s concerns around their international flight, the Bernardos were asked to stay elsewhere for a 14-day isolation period. Luckily, Martin’s cousin was willing to take them in. This house, however, was not fit to house two full families. She says she felt like she was imposing and was concerned one of her family members may have been carrying the virus from taking an international flight.
“We didn’t have coverage yet. I don’t have a Manitoba Health card yet. You know, all those things come to my mind.”
Extended family and other members of the Filipino community were very welcoming after they arrived. They would often wake up to care packages with snacks and Tim Hortons gift cards left for them on the front step.
They stayed with Martin’s family for two weeks all the while Kathleen was worried she might display symptoms and would not be able to stay with their appointed hosts.
“That’s how sweet they are. They give us so much support,” Kathleen said. “So, we never really felt as if we were alone.”
Before coming to Canada, Kathleen spent a lot of her time researching how to integrate appropriately and which steps to take first.
First, they applied for Social Insurance Numbers (SIN) to apply for their Manitoba Health card. Next, she registered her kids for the Canada child benefit. Then had to register for GST numbers.
Because Service Canada Centres were closed, and services had been backed up with extenuating circumstances resulting from the pandemic, it took nearly two months for Kathleen to get her SIN. Usually, Service Canada can issue a SIN on the same day when a newcomer visits a service centre. Martin had to wait more than three months for his.
No one can legally work in Canada without a SIN.
To be eligible for the Family Sponsorship Program and Express Entry, families must have a settlement fund based on the number of family members. Kathleen understands the settlement fund is meant to sustain the family for roughly six to eight months.
“It makes perfect sense because we don’t want to deplete social service resources right away.”
Immigrate Manitoba indicates a family of five must have $27,315 in settlement funds readily available before receiving a PR certificate.
“You have to be ready mentally, physically, psychologically, emotionally, and financially. It’s a really big move for us.”
Kathleen and Martin’s savings were not enough to cover the amount, but thanks to the support of friends and family in Manitoba and the Philippines, the Bernardos were able to scratch together the fund.
“We have family who helped out of their generous hearts… they know it’s what we wanted to do.”
She solicited assistance from Immigration Services Canada, IRCOM, Osborne Resource Centre, Manitoba Start and more through the process of settling into Winnipeg.
“The newcomer support here in Manitoba is amazing,” she said. “Martin’s uncle told us they didn’t have this when he came here two decades ago.”
Before leaving the Philippines, Kathleen attended a two-day seminar provided by Manitoba Start.
“They give you a crash course about what Canada is, what’s the weather like. How do you need to dress? How to get work. What is the culture? What you need to prepare before you leave.”
Building new connections
École Stanley Knowles School hosts a Family Cooking Club, where Kathleen and her kids have made community connections with Winnipeggers and other newcomers.
The school also provides networking opportunities for newcomer parents. Kathleen says she has been able to make some new friends, but mostly online.
The Garridos family and the Bernardos are both transitioning to Canada as permanent residents, not as refugees. Their journey has been problematic, but they come from a background with a certain amount of stability. This is not the case for many asylum seekers in Canada.
Where do Canada’s immigration priorities lie?
Federal funding cuts in 2019 to refugee programs caused newcomer resource centres like Welcome Place, which primarily offers refugee support, to lose nearly one-third of their funding.
Felicien Rubayita, manager for Client Settlement Services at Welcome Place, and his team spent almost three months when closures began in March 2020 reconfiguring their support system for clients. All the while, the doors were closed, and services were at a standstill.
In 2018, Welcome Place received about $750,000 from the federal government toward its Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP). The 2019 cuts forced Welcome Place to cancel RAP and lay off the staff comprised mostly of refugees, Rubayita said. RAP helps refugees without sponsorship by providing temporary housing and navigating things like school registration, banking, and other basic amenities.
These cuts, he said, make it more challenging to provide the services these newcomers need, pandemic aside.
“Our funding level has reduced, but our willingness to serve has not reduced at all. We continue to serve our clients,” he said. “But this has a huge negative impact on our clients.”
Rubayita says the lack of resources can affect people’s health and livelihood.
“So, during that time, it was very, very difficult for our clients to find a service,” he said. “They needed someone to explain to them what good instructions were all about, what we could do, what we could not do with COVID… what was allowed, what’s not allowed.”
Rubayita left his home country of Rwanda in 1994 seeking asylum after the Rwandan genocide that same year.
Canadian government data shows the country welcomed 184,370 new permanent residents in 2020 as newcomer flows fell due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is the lowest since 1998 when it received just over 174,000 immigrants.
Economic prosperity for whom?
In late October 2020, Ottawa announced the most ambitious immigration targets in Canadian history. Under the 2021–2023 Immigration Levels Plan, Canada intends to welcome at least 401,000 new immigrants per year.
Dr. Mikal Skuterud, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo, says he is pro-immigration as an immigrant himself. But he is concerned about these goals set by the federal government for the newcomers trying to build their lives during an economic recession.
“[Newcomers] struggle a lot more when there’s a recession when they enter…through no fault of their own,” the labour economics specialist said. “If you follow people even 10 to 15 years in the future, you can still see their earnings are lower, and their careers haven’t progressed in the same way.”
He points out a shift in priorities around immigration and the narratives depicting immigrants as essential to economic prosperity rather than advocating for immigration on humanitarian terms. He says there are several loud voices encouraging this narrative, particularly the Business Council of Canada. These advocates present immigration to be necessary for economic recovery.
“If you own a company or a factory, you’re clearly at an advantage when there’s a lot of people lining up, queuing up to get a job,” Skuterud said. “Why? Well, because you can get them to compete amongst each other for who’s willing to work at the lowest wage.”
He lists other significant proponents: Immigration law firms, real estate developers, and in the public sector, language training programs.
“If what you care about is immigrants, then what your objective should be is not economic growth for us. It should be the well-being of the immigrants themselves,” he says. “And if that’s what you care about, let’s select the immigrants that benefit the most from coming to Canada.”
Skuterud explains economic prosperity comes with GDP growth per capita and not merely growth itself. India’s GDP is 40 per cent larger than Canada’s. But Canada’s GDP per capita is nearly $60,000, whereas India’s is just over $2,500. Quality of life and economic prosperity is much more robust in Canada than in India.
Adding to the population does not impact the GDP per capita in Canada, Skuterud says, but we still are encouraging immigration in the name of the economy.
The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada reports at the end of September 2020 there are 85,593 refugee claims still pending from all over the world.
“If simply adding people to the population aided the economy, why wouldn’t we approve more of the pending claims?” Skuterud said.
According to Skuterud, families like the Bernardos have an uphill battle integrating during an economic recession. Kathleen is hopeful it will go smoothly and has encouraged other friends and family to consider applying for PR in Canada.
Helshy Garrido, her husband, and Fabiana will be playing the waiting game with IRCC until they can reunite with Fabiana.
Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s Liberal government enacted the Immigration Act of 1976, which the Migration Policy Institute describes as emphasizing “family reunification and humanitarian concerns over economic interests.” In 2001, the act of ’76 was replaced with the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, “a policy that stresses education, language, and adaptability,” on the part of immigrants. Applicants with trade certificates and degrees are more likely to be admitted to Canada, and the system favours younger workers.
“I’m all for immigration,” Skuterud said. His criticism of the federal plans to increase immigration during a pandemic and economic recession is often skewed as being “anti-immigration” and effectively racist in Canada, he says.
“We are so terrified, given what we’ve been seeing south of the border, of sending that sentiment of being anti-immigrant.”
His concerns lie with immigrants themselves, however, and not the economy. “What happens so often is that we put the narratives ahead of the evidence.”