An Analysis of Immigration and Refugee Law Services in Canada

Part Two: Immigration and refugee law services provided by community organizations (continued)

British Columbia (continued)


As noted above, the settlement organizations in B.C. generally do not provide formal legal services to refugees and immigrants. Most do not have lawyers or paralegals on staff to provide legal advice or representation, although they often provide workshops and information sessions on various aspects of Canadian law. Most settlement agencies noted that they refer clients to legal aid if they have a problem that requires legal assistance.

One organization noted that staff do provide a lot of assistance with family reunification cases, both for family class immigrants and for refugees who are applying for their dependants as well as for themselves. In these instances, staff will help clients overcome language barriers in the completion of forms, the compilation of background documents, and other preparatory work. They will also stay in touch with clients throughout the legal process.

Given that settlement assistance is such an important component of the range of services available to refugees and immigrants in B.C., the following discussion briefly describes the nature of these services. It includes a list of the kinds of programs offered by settlement agencies, the staff employed to administer these programs, and the types of funding received.

Types of settlement programs
  • Co-ordination and support for member settlement organizations
  • Facilitation of joint projects and the formation of collaborative relationships
  • Provision of advocacy and research on behalf of other settlement organizations
  • Accompaniment service (accompany clients to meetings)
  • Job coaching program, employment training and assistance
  • Counselling and support groups
  • Information and orientation sessions, workshops
  • Educational programs (including multiculturalism and cross-cultural training programs for professionals, community groups, etc.)
  • Language training (ESL), interpretation, and translation (staff-based and fee-for-service)
  • Assistance with finding accommodation
  • Provision of emergency supplies (food, clothing, medical care, housing)
  • Homework support and youth services
  • Airport reception service
  • Referrals (to legal aid, a wide range of community organizations, provincial and federal government offices, lawyers, notaries)
  • Assistance with completing forms and preparing resumes
  • One organization offers specific services to Government assisted and Joint assisted refugees (counselling service, temporary accommodation, etc.)
Types of staff
  • Directors (executive, program)
  • Administrative/support staff
  • Employment and settlement counsellors / settlement practitioners
  • Social workers
  • Interpreters, translators
  • Volunteers (including volunteer psychologist and psychotherapist)
  • Immigration consultants (One organization reported that two staff members are currently seeking qualifications as immigration consultants through a new program at the University of British Columbia. The goal of the program is to establish standards for people acting as immigration consultants and an accompanying certification process.)
Sources of funding
Government funding
Other funding sources
  • B.C. Gaming Commission
  • B.C. Equal Opportunity Secretariat
  • B.C. Human Rights Commission
  • United Way
  • Private foundations
  • Legal Services Society (project-based funding)
  • Law Foundation (project-based funding)
  • Vancouver-Richmond Health Board
  • Individual donors and fundraising, membership fees
  • Local societies and businesses
  • Corporate donations
  • Fee-for-service programs (e.g., interpretation and translation)

Most of the settlement organizations interviewed in B.C. characterized the funding they receive as increasingly unstable -particularly funding from the provincial government (one respondent used the expression "completely unstable" to describe provincial funding). This shift in perception is in large part due to the governmental change in B.C. The previous NDP government was interested in expanding and professionalizing immigrant and refuge settlement services, so the shift from federal to provincial responsibility for settlement programming was viewed as positive. However, it is not clear what direction the new Liberal government will take in this area, so groups are now more worried about the fact that the province is in control of decisions in this area. Many organizations have already recently experienced funding cuts (with significant implications for the range of services offered), but several respondents noted that they have been told to expect further reductions. In general, settlement agencies are operating in a climate of uncertainty. Two organizations also mentioned that the fact that some grants must be renewed annually contributes to the lack of stability in the funding area, while one highlighted an increasing emphasis on fee-for-service programs over the last several years, due to a concern about lack of stable core funding.

One settlement agency noted that there have been some changes over the last few years in the composition of their funding, due mainly to declining support for multiculturalism and anti-racism activities. Further funding pressures have been created recently by the fact that the provincial government is eliminating core funding for a variety of organizations. The respondent predicted that many organizations will be "hit hard" by this change, since the core funding covers such basic expenses as rent and administrative costs. There is some concern that the province will move to a funding model that relies on evaluations of program outcomes to make decisions about financial support - a difficult model for non-profit organizations, given that the outcomes they achieve may be longer-term. One worrisome response may be that organizations will be forced to "cherry pick" clients, selecting those who have the greatest likelihood of positive outcomes, in order to secure funding. In addition, one respondent noted that, given the Liberal government's apparent preference for the delivery of services by private bodies, there is a risk that public sector organizations will be squeezed out of the settlement field altogether.


Problem areas

All of the organizations interviewed were concerned about the level of funding available for refugee and immigrant settlement and legal services. Several commented that the 15 percent funding cut delivered by the province last year has already had a detrimental effect, leading to longer waiting lists, decreased services, declining ESL availability, and greater workloads for organization staff. In the new climate of uncertainty created by the Liberal government's widespread cost-reductions, many organizations are concerned about the possibility of further cuts.

Related to the concern about funding levels is the impact of the devolution of responsibility for settlement services from the federal to the B.C. government in 1997. Following this change, several settlement representatives pointed out that their organizations did not get access to all of the funds intended to go towards refugee and immigrant settlement - approximately half of the dollars in this area remained in general revenue. Without these funds, settlement agencies have had to deal with an increasing number of immigrants with less funding.

Gaps in available services

The organizations interviewed pointed to several gaps in the range of services available to refugees and immigrants in B.C. As one respondent put it, the basic services are in place, but organizations are not able to provide enough of them, and the result is increased waiting lists and need in the community.

Respondents also noted several particular service gaps. Three organizations suggested that there is an insufficient amount of legal support for refugees and immigrants. Legal aid lacks the resources to provide anything more than basic coverage. Tariff levels are too low to allow for good representation; the range of issues covered by legal aid is too limited; and there are too few places for people to receive legal advice, a function that pro bono clinics cannot adequately cover. The recent round of cuts - and the scheduled closure of the Immigration and Refugee Office in particular - will exacerbate this situation. Overall, the impression of these three respondents was that refugees and immigrants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer are very vulnerable in B.C. Interestingly, another respondent expressed a view quite different from the above negative assessment, arguing that those legal services currently available to refugees and immigrants in B.C. are functioning well. This person noted that few complaints are received about legal services, and that clients are generally aware of the available resources for support.

Lack of immigration and refugee lawyers

One organization noted that there are too few lawyers in the Victoria area with expertise in immigration and refugee law. While other lawyers may be willing to take on such cases, they lack the knowledge to be able to offer services of comparable quality.

The Immigration and Refugee Board

One respondent suggested that members of the Immigration and Refugee Board lack the appropriate training. Examples of problems include a general lack of cultural competence, and a lack of understanding or appreciation of how trauma affects testimony at proceedings. The implications of the latter can be very deleterious. If a claim is rejected on the grounds that the claimant lacks credibility, due to the testimony given, the options for post-hearing remedy are very limited. Overall, the respondent suggested that there are not enough checks and balances in the IRB structure to ensure that the decisions are fair and impartial.

Services for refugees

One respondent suggested that there is too little support for refugees in B.C., both in services needed immediately following landing and in longer-term services like English language training (there are few ESL programs for refugee claimants without status, but obtaining status can sometimes take two or three years). There is also a lack of consistency in the information that refugees access from different sources.

Related to concerns about the range of services available for refugees was the comment that there are unacceptably long delays in the refugee processing system. One respondent noted that there can be substantial delays in actually acknowledging a refugee claim. This creates problems because the "Acknowledgement of claim" form is needed in order for a refugee claimant to receive benefits, health care coverage, and so on - supports that are particularly crucial if a claimant is not yet entitled to work. Another respondent made the more general claim that the refugee process system, as a whole, is too slow.

Success stories
Collaboration and communication among organizations serving refugees and immigrants

Several respondents noted that there is an effective system in place for collaboration and communication among agencies serving refugees and immigrants in B.C. Organizations work together in various ways on both programs and services, including the formation of partnerships. One organization noted that a particularly effective co-operative venture is the immigrant fair, in which a variety of government and non-profit groups set up booths to provide a one-stop information point for refugees and immigrants. One caveat noted by a respondent is that it is difficult for a group of organizations to collaboratively administer the funds for a given program - this approach would be to too difficult to co-ordinate across a variety of agencies.

Initial reception services

One respondent noted that the initial reception services available to refugees and immigrants are a positive feature of the system in B.C. They include airport reception and similar programs as well as the services initially offered through the various organizations serving refugees and immigrants. All of these organizations are able to offer some kind of assistance to the people who come to them, even if it is only basic information. As this respondent noted, it is positive that these new arrivals have somewhere to go. Another respondent commented more specifically that it is positive that there is no automatic, initial detention for refugees arriving in B.C., so these people are allowed to choose a lawyer, to find work, and so on.

[8] Federal funding is provided directly to community organizations that provide settlement services to refugees selected from abroad. This funding is provided for resettled refugees (Convention refugees who have status by the time they enter Canada) under a special federal-provincial funding agreement. These settlement services are not generally available to asylum refugees, although some community organizations may provide services to members of this group on a pro bono basis.

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