Refugee resettlement in Canada’s North: Yukon group looks to sponsor 1st family since pandemic began

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says the pandemic has had a lingering effect on processing the number of refugee applications. It’s also added challenges to the resettlement process. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Experts say the North is well-poised to help families settle in their new country

A refugee sponsorship group in Yukon is aiming to resettle another family in the territory, the first since before the pandemic.

Yukon Cares has been helping resettle refugees in the territory since 2015, when the Syrian refugee crisis was happening. Since then, it has worked to sponsor a new refugee family every 12 to 18 months, mostly working through the federal Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program.

The past two years have been a challenge, though. The BVOR program was put on hold during the pandemic, and public health restrictions have added difficulty to resettlement. The last family Yukon Cares sponsored came from South Africa in early 2020, just as pandemic restrictions were beginning.

“They were flying the day that Trudeau was saying [Canada is] shutting down its borders to everyone who’s not Canadian,” Meagan Naomi, a member of the Yukon Cares board, recalled.

“We were all freaking out on our end, just worrying … we just didn’t even know what was going to happen.”

The family — a mother and three daughters — did end up making it to Canada that day. They stayed in Yukon until last year, when they moved to southern Canada.

Naomi remembers the sense of relief and also the challenges that followed their arrival: how to support a family amid pandemic restrictions, when many people were in isolation or in family bubbles.

Almost two years later, Naomi says lessons were learned that may help Yukon Cares prepare to welcome the family it is looking to sponsor this year when the BVOR program reopens. And though COVID-19 restrictions and the remoteness of the North can be a challenge, private sponsorship groups in the territories may be well equipped to support refugee resettlement in Canada.

Pandemic challenges 

The global pandemic has made refugee resettlement in Canada difficult, due in part to travel restrictions and slower application processes.

In November, CBC reported that Canada was nowhere near to meeting its goal of welcoming 81,000 refugees by the end of 2021. Figures provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) showed the department was only about halfway to its refugee intake target.

While fewer refugees were able to resettle in Canada during the pandemic, those that were able often experienced challenges accessing support within Canada.

Naomi recalls how Yukon Cares members went to the airport to pick up the South African family in early 2020 — distancing themselves, with masks on, and then bringing the family to their home only to leave them to quarantine for the next few weeks.

“We tried to make it a warm welcome, even though we couldn’t all be there,” Naomi said. “We would meet with them on Zoom and we had pictures of all of us so by the time they met us, they kind of knew who we all were.”

The resettled family became part of Naomi’s family bubble during periods of tighter restrictions. But spaces to be indoors and engage with other residents weren’t open for use. That made it difficult to meet people.

“If you bring people from a hot climate to Whitehorse, one of the things that I think can really soften the blow of that is the Canada Games Centre. So in the past, we would have the kids up there swimming and skating. And even as an adult, it’s a place to be out in the community without having to be outside,” Naomi said.

“Those opportunities weren’t there. And I think they’re not going to be there in the same way in this next while too.”

Some services limited 

Stacey Haugen, a researcher and PhD student at the University of Alberta, has studied how privately-sponsored refugees have fared in four smaller communities in southern Canada. She said in some cases, the pandemic limited the already-limited services that resettled refugees have in smaller communities.

“I’m talking about for kids in elementary school — parents connect with others and talk to other parents while they’re there. But when school gets shut down, that’s one very important connection to the community that’s lost because that might be the only service that they’re accessing in their community,” she said.

“So [the pandemic] put increased pressure on community members to then provide over and beyond what they were already doing.”

Haugen recalled talking to a neighbour who had opened their basement to the kids from the refugee family they helped resettle, to come in and spend time there so they wouldn’t disturb their mother while she learned English at home.

“It’s the struggle of many young families during COVID, but there’s already limited access … on top of language demands.”

Resettlement in rural and remote areas

Haugen is from Round Hill, a small farming community near Camrose, Alberta. Through a research project with the International Development Research Centre in 2017, she looked at the experiences of refugees and private sponsors in four smaller communities across four provinces — Nova Scotia, southern Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

Haugen found that most refugees in smaller, rural communities were privately sponsored, and that they shared similar challenges — lack of services, access to public transit, healthcare, education and fast and reliable broadband — but were also able to build a wider social network and receive greater support from the community as compared to refugees in urban centers.

According to Haugen, this was in part because some private sponsors in smaller communities believed the refugees might not be welcome by others in their community, and so would make a greater effort at community outreach.

Haugen said this process of building social capital or social networks was something that people in rural communities did to access jobs, housing and for their general health, and that it was something private sponsors and local community members started doing more of for the refugee families they were helping resettle.

“They created a bigger network than they may have otherwise, which actually really was beneficial for the community because they then had more ties to different groups than individual sponsors would have had,” she said.

Advantages of smaller communities 

Haugen’s research also showed that some refugees liked living in smaller communities because of things like better housing, learning English faster through immersion, and ease of getting around the community.

“In some cases, being the only [refugee] family in the community was a positive for certain families,” she said. “They felt like they were special or were looked after. They felt like everyone knew who they were.”

Omar Homosh is one such example. He applied to resettle as a refugee in Canada in 2015. Along with his wife and kids, he landed in Jasper, Alta., beginning work at Parks Canada.

Homosh’s work later required him to move to Yellowknife and that’s where he’s lived since 2018.

Homosh has since become a Canadian citizen and has found that the reality of living in the North is much easier than he thought.

“I can categorise my experience in Yellowknife as one of my good experiences in my life,” he said. “It is a city where you can get yourself wherever you want in 10 minutes. You have access to almost everything you need.”

‘Do we really need limits?’

According to data from the IRCC, between January 2015 and November 2021, 50 refugees have been resettled in the Yukon and 35 in the Northwest Territories.

Of the 50 refugees resettled in the Yukon, 30 were resettled through the BVOR program and 20 through private sponsorships. Of the 35 resettled refugees in the Northwest Territories, 10 were resettled through the BVOR program and 25 through private sponsorships.

No government-assisted refugees have been resettled in the North.

Jennifer Hyndman, a professor at York University who currently serves as associate vice-president of research, has explored the private sponsorship of refugees in Canada. She says that while COVID-19 has challenged the refugee sponsorship process, the pandemic may be distracting from other issues that affect refugee resettlement numbers.

Hyndman said before 2010, there was no formal limit to the actual number of applications for resettlement that would be accepted. For Hyndman, the limits or targets for resettlement now in place is a concern because Canadians — across the country and in the North — are showing the motivation and capacity to sponsor more refugees.

“Yes, the [number of refugees resettling in Canada] are going up, which I think is a positive and a good sign. But we do have to ask the question: do we really need limits?”

Hyndman says while she understands the government and private sponsors have to initially pay for things like schooling and medical care, in the long run, refugees contribute to the workforce and the economy. And with most refugees applying to resettle in Canada through the formal process, she says Canada should pick up the pace and reconsider its targets.

“There will always be more demand than we can possibly bring in, but I think we can do more,” she said.

This story is funded by the Emerging Reporter Fund on Resettlement in Canada by Carleton University’s Future of Journalism initiative.

Related stories from around the North: 

Finland: Researcher seeks to improve immigrant employment in Northern Finland, Yle News

Norway: Immigration curbs population decline in Norway’s northernmost county, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Migrants arrested in Barents Sea as they try to reach Norway, Russian security services video, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Sweden to grant refugee status to Chinese Uighurs, Radio Sweden

Meral Jamal, CBC News

Meral Jamal is a bachelor of journalism graduate from Carleton University and an intern with CBC North.

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