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RDI study examines small-town capacity to settle newcomers

Language barriers and transportation are some of the common challenges for refugees settling in rural Manitoba, says five-region study by Rural Development Institute

While anti-outsider sentiment seems to have intensified around the world, small groups in rural Manitoba have been eagerly opening their doors to newcomers.

Just under 100 Syrians now make their home in small towns and cities outside Winnipeg, thanks to work by volunteer groups and their offers of housing, furnishings, food, transportation, help finding jobs, and befriending these families so they start to feel at home.

Those 100 souls are a small fraction of the total 1,000 who arrived in Manitoba, and a mere drop in the bucket from the 30,000 brought here by the federal government in 2016.

Could the rural welcome be wider? New research done at the Rural Development Institute, at Brandon University, has looked at what’s needed to make that happen. In five case studies it has documented the experiences of groups sponsoring the refugee families.

Capacity to help

They wanted to learn more about the capacity in smaller communities to settle refugees, said Bill Ashton, RDI director.

The studies document many challenges and stressful situations, he said.

But there’s also been an outpouring of energy and commitment to bring these families here.

“There is phenomenal goodwill in rural communities to welcome newcomers and refugees alike,” he said. “There’s all sorts of ways the welcoming is happening. There was an enormous number of organizations making sure things were co-ordinated and organized and effectively communicated.”

The case studies were done in Boissevain and Killarney, Dauphin, Morden-Winkler-Altona-Carman, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach-Kleefeld, places where refugee families had either arrived or were due to arrive. Telephone interviews were done with members of active refugee sponsorship groups and supporting organizations.

The research did not seek the views of the newcomers or refugees themselves.

Each community tells a slightly different story about the experience, based on their particular population size, geography, culture and other factors, Ashton said.

Some areas report generally strong capacity to support newcomer settlement, thanks to an effort among an extensive volunteer network often co-ordinated by church-based sponsorship groups. Morden, Winkler and Altona settled 53 individuals in their respective communities. (Carman is still awaiting a family’s arrival).

Unique challenges

But all regions also cited unique challenges as a rural destination for refugees, lacking interpreters to overcome language barriers, and teachers specialized in English language training. Lack of public transportation in rural areas was a major need, groups said, citing the dependency these families have on volunteer drivers, and the isolation they feel when they can’t get out anywhere.

These studies are RDI’s latest effort to delve into the settlement experience in rural Western Canada. In 2015 it did an inventory of settlement services available in 29 selected communities across all four western provinces and three territories, concluding that expanding these services would be good for rural Canada.

Voluntary groups are helping these families settle out of goodwill, but they also want new people to move to their towns because they know it’s good for their communities, Ashton said.

“They (newcomers) have a desire to work and their contributions to the labour force and the economy is often hugely important to rural areas,” he said. This research raises the issue of how we invest in the services to facilitate more arrivals, he added.

“One of the big issues is around core funding for some of these (settlement) agencies,” he said. “I think that’s now increasingly part of the conversation. We’re beginning to understand that Canadian prosperity is increasingly hinged on bringing immigrants and refugees not only into cities, but also to our rural areas as well.”

This research will help with supporting regional settlement service providers as they work to develop small centre strategies for newcomer integration and to engage other stakeholders on the challenges, added Manitoba Association of Newcomer Serving Organizations (MANSO) executive director Vicki Sinclair.

“It’s important for us to understand the strengths and gaps in our settlement capacity,” added Sinclair.

The RDI research was funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) through MANSO.

The full reports are available online on the Brandon University website.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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