Ontario would be wise to do more for immigrant kids

posted on May 25, 2014

By Morton Beiser, the Star | Link to Article

By Morton Beiser, the Star | Link to Article

The C.D. Howe Institute has just published a new report about immigration that urges Canada “to define success not just in terms of immediate job prospects for newcomers, but also . . . the capacity of their children to become successful.” Good idea. After all, one in five of Canada’s kids below the age of 15 was either born outside the country or into an immigrant family.

Looking out for these kids, as the C.D. Howe Institute recommends, challenges time-honoured ideas about immigration and settlement. Usually, we consider immigration policy the turf of the federal government. But, when it comes to resettling immigrants — and especially when it comes to resettling immigrant children — the provinces are much more important.

The provinces are responsible for education, health, social and youth services, all of which affect immigrant children. Sadly, compared to other provinces, Ontario has a sorry record, and one of the candidates to become the next premier might well make it worse.

Like his mentor, Mike Harris, Tim Hudak wants to save money. His plan calls for short-term pain — cutting scholastic, social, and public health services — with better things presumably to follow. It doesn’t always work that way, especially for the most vulnerable.
Together with colleagues in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal, I have been conducting a study of the health, mental health and development of more than 4,000 immigrant and refugee families across Canada.

In one of our studies, we compared the mental health of immigrant kids from Hong Kong, mainland China and the Philippines across different regions of Canada. Vancouver and the Prairie cities scored best, Montreal slightly worse and Toronto worst of all. Differences in ethnicity, parent education, parent language fluency and income didn’t account for these regional variations.

Language was the main problem in Montreal: although lack of fluency in one of Canada’s official languages jeopardized all the immigrant families in our study, it was even more difficult for non-French speakers to get along in Montreal than it was for non-English speakers in Anglophone Canada.

Toronto’s problems were more multifold and more complex. Poor quality neighbourhoods, parent isolation and poor relationships between home and school made up the brew that proved toxic for kids’ mental well-being. The immigrant children in the Toronto sample were members of what many people now call “Mike’s kids,” who grew up in an era marked by slashed family benefits, cancelled social housing programs and cuts to educational “frills” like promoting relationships between parents and schools.

Toronto and other municipalities seem to be recovering from the Harris government’s policy of downloading responsibilities while withholding cash. But Hudak seems to want to head in the same direction — saving money through divesting responsibility and introducing “common sense” savings. The savings are probably a delusion. Mental health problems that develop in childhood don’t go away. They tend to persist, get worse and ultimately result in ballooning health care costs and loss of adult productivity.
It’s hard to argue against saving money. But before we buy into cuts that can jeopardize what the C.D. Howe report signals as the “success of the next generation,” we might want to examine past experience. What we learn from the Harris years is that society doesn’t always recover from short-term pain. Instead, the legacy of flawed policy is long-term pain. For all of us.

Morton Beiser is Professor of Distinction at Ryerson University, Scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital and Founding Director of the Ontario Metropolis Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement (CERIS).

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