Settlement services need to improve their online offerings for new entrants interested in technology

Welcoming and integrating newcomers is becoming an increasingly important part of creating vibrant cities.

Canadian municipalities such as Toronto, London, Winnipeg and the Halton area are opening their doors to a large number of newcomers.

These communities understand the importance of digital initiatives such as welcome portals, pre-arrival services, web/mobile applications, and guides for online newcomers in creating a welcoming environment. Mobility restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the need for these online services and even spurred digital adoption among immigrants themselves.

However, settlement agencies still have to do work to ensure that they provide adequate online services to newcomers, including using online channels to connect with them before they arrive in Canada.

digital partition

Make no mistake – some newcomers may be left out due to pre-existing inequalities in accessing internet services or devices in their home countries. Demographics will determine whether they have access to digital services.

This includes age (young people use the internet more than older generations), gender, location (including whether they come from places in their home country with poor internet, expensive or absent broadband services), family wealth, education levels, and immigration status (some depend refugees and asylum seekers on the Internet and social media platforms to navigate the journey between the homeland and the host country).

This is known as the digital divide. For host countries like Canada, inequality in access to digital services means another layer of inequality that must also be addressed through settlement services. Failure to do so may exacerbate what is known as digital poverty.

Newcomers using the Internet must have sufficient skills to navigate various platforms, persistent misinformation and hate speech on social media.

This requires them to have vital and accurate information. They can and they do. Young refugees from the Middle East and East Africa, for example, use various platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and Viber before and after coming to Canada to communicate and obtain information.

Similar examples are found among immigrants from Bangladesh, refugees from Syria and the Tamil diaspora.

A 2018 report found that newcomers who used pre-arrival settlement services were more familiar with where to go to find more information after their arrival, knew how to assess their professional credentials and generally had a better understanding of Canadian workplace culture.

They also actively searched for work, while some enrolled in further education to improve their skills.

A new Canadian woman holds a flag as she participates in the citizenship ceremony at Parliament House in 2019.
The Canadian Press / Sean Kilpatrick

New technology transformation

Before coming to Canada, immigrants often have limited sources of information about life here, and often rely on their social networks.

Technology allows potential newcomers – with the help of friends and family on social media – to make informed decisions about immigration and improve their search for labor market information.

Even before the pandemic, 67 percent of newcomers to Canada were using social media, similar to Canadian-born usage rates (68 percent).

Newcomers were mainly using it to learn English, get local news, learn about Canadian culture, connect with family and friends, find information about the job market, and more education opportunities.

However, there can be some negative impacts on newcomer integration due to social media, which means there is a role for newcomer settlement services agencies to build greater trust in virtual spaces.

Some platforms can prevent integration if they limit interactions with local citizens. Chinese immigrants who use WeChat, for example, interact a lot with other Chinese immigrants and much less with Canadian-born citizens. This could delay how newcomers learn about Canadian social practices.

Social media can also create privacy and security challenges for newcomers leaving them vulnerable to fraud, identity theft and misinformation.

Find settlement services

Settlement agencies do not only provide services to newcomers. They also identify the best possible channels to reach them and provide them with the information necessary to make settlement in Canada a smooth process.

But a 2021 study found that while newcomers were using the internet for many things, few were using it to find settlement services. There is still a gap when it comes to helping newcomers with better online services.

The federal government invests in pre-arrival settlement services so that newcomers are ready for life in Canada.

There are currently 147 active settlement program initiatives funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. These projects are valued at more than $250 million, with the goal of finding new ways to provide services to newcomers.

About 45 percent of that money is directed towards 17 pre-arrival settlement service initiatives that are effectively newcomers to life in Canada. The initiatives provide employment-related services, orientation services, needs assessments, and referral services.

Pre-arrival initiatives have seen success in digital learning, counseling, and community building, including tackling xenophobia, disinformation, skills training, and starting an online business.

A woman wearing a white veil adjusts her smartphone settings while taking a picture of a man with dark hair
A woman adjusts her smartphone settings while picking up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his address to members of the Muslim community in Cambridge, Ontario, in April 2022.
The Canadian Press / Peter Bauer

The initiative by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and local governments aligns with the adoption of digital technologies and the internet among newcomer communities and the demand for more information prior to arrival.

But more needs to be done to raise awareness among the newcomers about the services that settlement agencies provide.

This is one of the focus areas of the Virtual Bridge project, which aims to provide research and tools for stability service agencies to improve their online communications and service delivery. Given the technological proficiency of many newcomers to Canada, online outreach and services are essential to ensure their successful resettlement.

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