Newcomers learning English call on government to stop proposed cuts to Winnipeg EAL program

Grammar, tone, body language, eye contact — they're all part of a review that Stan Bell and other students go over during their English language training course at the Enhanced English Skills for Employment program in Winnipeg.

Bell, a father of four who moved to Winnipeg from Cameroon four years ago and an EESE student, said such courses have helped him settle in his new home.

"It's good, fantastic. I've met a lot of nice people here," Bell said.

"Friendly Manitoba," he adds with a laugh.

But for Bell and others at EESE, proposed changes to federal government funding for English as an additional language programs are no laughing matter. He said the program helps participants with their language skills and ability to communicate with others, which he said is the biggest barrier for newcomers.

"We learn not only English — even Canadian behaviour, Canadian culture, we learn everything Canadian existing. If you do not speak the language you cannot get a job," he said.

EESE has been told its funding will be cut by 75 per cent. Louise Giesbrecht, EESE's interim executive director, said the program had 1062 students in 66 classes over five sessions last year, but after the cuts take affect, it will be limited to offering 15 classes with approximately 330 students.

That's a concern for students like Bell and Olga Fedotova, who immigrated to Canada from Kazakhstan a year ago with her husband. She agreed that the language training they're receiving is integral to their ability to establish a new life here.

"If I don't have this chance to improve my English to next level … what about my future job? What will I do? A lot of questions," she said.

EESE focuses its programs on levels five through eight on the Canadian Language Benchmarks system — the system used to measure standards for English and French in Canada. That's also known as stage two training, which focuses on intermediate language skills.

Giesbrecht said that 92 per cent of the program's students have a minimum of college education from their homelands and are typically professionals from the provincial nominee program.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in an emailed statement that it has increased the level of support to EAL programs from 38 per cent of its overall settlement allocation in 2015 to approximately 55 per cent in the 2016-17 fiscal year, and it expects that level of funding to be maintained this upcoming year.

But the department said there is a growing demand for basic language training and that they are working closely with service providers to ensure the needs of newcomers to Canada are being met.

"Over the past year, IRCC has made strategic investments to increase the number of language training seats, particularly at literacy and basic levels [Canadian Language Benchmark levels 1-4], where the need is greatest, and for childminding spaces to facilitate participation," an IRCC spokesperson said in a statement.

Giesbrecht said EESE was shocked to find out last month that not only was the organization not getting more funding, its budget was going to be slashed. She said the newcomers in the EESE program are highly skilled individuals, who without EAL training won't be able to move up the economic ladder. 

"These are people who come with an education here — another country has provided that financial input to educate them. They come here prepared and ready to engage in our economy and they're stuck in low level positions," Giesbrecht said, adding that it's a perceptual cycle.

"They can't get out of [it] until their credentials can be recognized. Without language training those credentials can't be recognized." 

A spokesperson for the Manitoba Association of Newcomer Serving Organizations confirmed that 12 organizations in Manitoba are losing funding for stage two language programming, and they are concerned about the impacts on immigrants and refugees in the province.

Giesbrecht quotes a Manitoba Labour Market Forecast that projects 177,800 jobs will open between now and 2021 and said the report predicts 25 per cent of those vacancies will be filled by newcomers.

"How are we going to fill those openings if we can't get people to be at the language level that they have to be at?" Giesbrecht asked.

Bell, who taught logistics back in his home country of Cameroon, said most newcomers came to live in a better country and give their families more than they had, and they simply want to work their way back to the level of employment they had in the past.

"Most of us would like to get back to our previous job and you cannot have your job if you do not speak English," said Bell.