Canada is traditionally known as a country of immigrants. Its economic success is dependent, to a large degree, on decades of extensive immigration from countries all over the world among which Caribbean nations have played a pivotal role. Information, from the 2016 census, points to 21.5 per cent of Canada’s population being immigrants with permanent residence status. The percentage is considerably more significant if it accounts for those who have become naturalized citizens over the years. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, the 2016 census data shows that 47 per cent of the residents in this city were born in another country.
Immigrants from the Caribbean, and more so from Jamaica, tend to migrate to Canada under two classes of immigration. The economic immigrant and family immigrant classes. The economic immigrant class includes those skilled workers and professionals who are self-sponsored; while the family immigrant class allows for Canadian residents, both citizens and landed immigrants, to reunite their families. The economic immigrant class tends to be younger and more of a middle-class status. They are properly certified in a discipline of choice and are routinely university or college graduates. Normally economic immigrants gain a level of financial stability which has to be demonstrated before entry into the country. The family immigration class involves those who may have arrived years before; some as landed immigrants, while others were illegal aliens who have regularized their status through marriage or other means. They are currently able to sponsor other family members, whether it be parents or children that were left behind in their home country.
It is important to appreciate that immigrant families moving from the Caribbean and other countries around the world to Canada, do so with one fundamental aim in mind; that is to provide a better life for their children than that which is available in their country of origin. The adjustment of Caribbean immigrant children to their new environment varies from one household to another due to various factors which are not exclusive but may include the following. The age at which the children migrate, the family unit, the socioeconomic status of the family and the adaptability index of each family. Young children who migrate with their family tend to have a better time adjusting to their new culture and build renewed friendships. Teens and young adults who migrate with their parents or are reunited several years later, tend to have a harder time adjusting in their community and at schools. These children have difficulty adjusting to their parent(s) especially if they were living away from each other for a while. It is as if they are caught up in a time capsule. Newly arriving teens are like misfits in the school system, they are culturally disconnected and there is the issue of language and racialization.
Many families migrate to Canada with lofty expectations for themselves and their children, but on arrival their expectations are tempered by the reality on the ground. Immigrant parents command, historically, more depressed wages than their Canadian counterparts even if they are equally certified. They struggle to find employment in their field and are more likely to possess two or more low paying jobs that extend 12 to 16 hours per day. This leaves them with little or no family time and limited supervision of their children. This situation is more frequent with families in the reunification category. These families often live in the socially depressed areas of big cities out of economic necessity and dependence on family support. The children in these families, especially the teens, are exposed to the subculture and oftentimes the counterculture of gangs within their neighbourhoods. This dynamic more frequently forces the immigrant teens to come in conflict with the law, schools and even with their own families.
The education system bears some responsibility in the demise of immigrant children’s fortunes because of the lack of social support provided to these families. Children are often stereotyped, provided with misguided advice from guidance counsellors in terms of course selection, programmes and career pathways. Parents have to assume some of the responsibilities for the disappointing outcome of their children even though they have their own obstacles to overcome. Not enough Caribbean parents, regardless of social class and economic standing, are showing up at important events for their children. Parents do not show up on a regular basis for parent teacher interviews, sporting activities and other academic engagement activities. The times when they do show up only the mothers do; fathers are far too often not visible at these events in support of their children.
Many immigrant parents retain high hopes for their children even when they lose hope for themselves. That’s why they work so hard in multiple jobs trying to provide them with the things they never had. Some of these children are mature and sincerely appreciate the sacrifices of their parents and hence excelled beyond expectations. But, far too many of these children find themselves in a cycle of poverty with the same menial jobs as their parents and end up vulnerable to every adversity.
It is not enough to identify the challenges facing Caribbean immigrants and their children but it is necessary to identify ways by which these can be minimized. There is a need to reduce or eliminate language and cultural stereotypes that prevent families from obtaining information on how to navigate the education system. There is, additionally, the need for parents to attend to their children’s stepping stones and milestones without the fear of losing their jobs or not being paid if they take time off from work. Groups, like churches and community organizations, need to carry out key roles in seeking out immigrant families in their communities and aiding them to access food and housing assistance available to them. These groups also need to provide information on how to navigate the maze of a complex society.
Fernon Wilson is a Jamaican born educator working in Toronto, Canada.