A Justice-Department-funded study into legal barriers faced by immigrants in Vancouver and Victoria says discrimination underlies many of the legal problems they have faced in Canada — but most don't consider it worth challenging.
The report — by the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria — is based on in-depth interviews with 20 immigrants about their experiences navigating the legalities of employment, housing, immigration and both family and criminal law.
Researcher Florentien Verhage says the people she spoke with included immigrants who were well established in Canada and people who had just arrived. The vast majority had at least a bachelor's degree.
"One thing that was very clear in all my conversations with these individuals is that discrimination was almost always associated with many of these legal problems that immigrants experienced," Verhage said in an interview with CBC.
"But very often, that was not the part that they decided to challenge or to take up or pursue any further because very often, the feeling was that it was no use."
Canadian Legal Problems Survey
The 56-page report is a complement to the Canadian Legal Problems Survey, a project conducted by Statistics Canada on behalf of the Justice Department and other federal departments to identify the kinds of serious legal problems people have, how they've attempted to resolve them and the impact on their lives.
The Justice Department contracted researchers to do qualitative, in-depth research on legal problems faced by specific populations, including sexual minorities in Western Canada and immigrants in London and Toronto.
Verhage interviewed 10 men and 10 women. Nine came to Canada as economic immigrants and seven came through family sponsorship. Two had refugee backgrounds and two were temporary residents.
Most participants were from Asia; two people came from Africa, two from the Middle East, Two from Latin America and one from Ukraine.
The information was gathered between July and November of 2020, but the Justice Department only released the report in the past few weeks. The results cannot be generalized to the larger immigrant population.
Verhage says the bulk of the discrimination she heard about concerned housing and employment.
"The difficulty with many cases of discrimination is that participants are often not fully sure that this is the reason that they are passed over because landlords and employers usually give other reasons for not giving them the job or the house," the report says.
Examples cited in the report include injuries on the job and being tricked into working for free by an employer who made verbal promises but failed to cement an agreement in writing. Another person spent three months trying to get paid by an employer who went bankrupt.
Participants also spoke about their problems trying to access government services, insurance and child tax benefits. A number of the interviewees said they had been defrauded.
Verhage says that the more complicated the legal issues got, the greater the consequences for the people trying to deal with their rights when it comes to issues like child custody.
The report opens with comments from two of the people Verhage interviewed: "Small things can spiral out of control when they happen to newcomers," and, "People, not everybody gets justice! Justice is when everybody feels safe, and I do not feel safe, I feel vulnerable."
"This report shows that being denied jobs or housing because of prejudice, while struggling to navigate a system without fully understanding the laws and one's own rights, all the while trying to learn a new language and build a new life, can indeed lead to feeling out of control," the report says.
'Not how it's supposed to work'
The report identifies 42 legal problems faced by the 20 interviewees. The participants sought legal recourse to tackle 18 of the problems through bodies like small claims court, family court or WorkSafeBC.
Verhage cites the example of one woman who was continually passed over for promotion, but did not recognize the situation as something she could challenge before speaking to "an acquaintance who happened to work in human resources and who happened also to be a person of colour."
"And this acquaintance said, 'that is not OK, What you're experiencing is not how it's supposed to work, and this is what you can do to find some rectification of the situation,'" Verhage said.
Verhage says participants identified a need for greater access to legal aid and people who can help immigrants navigate procedures and organizations that can be difficult for anyone to understand.
"One of the calls to action is to make more resources available," she said.
"All of that was so much easier as soon as there was someone they could to talk to on the phone or meet through Zoom. That connection where it's more than just sending some information and getting some cut-and-paste answer or any kind of website."