What made me stay?

The front lines of Canada’s Immigration Policies

By Erica Howes

Rupert Yeung’s office walls hold colourful paintings lined with Chinese characters and picture frames with smiling people of all races. Bookshelves are packed with thick binders and a Canadian flag peaks out from the corner of the room.

Yeung, a social worker with the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre, OCCSC, works in family counseling, immigrant sponsorship and settling newcomers into the community. He admits it’s a heavy job, gesturing around the room as if the lack of desk space and busy walls is an indication.

When asked why he’s stayed working here for 35 years, he responds with a question.

“You want to hear a story?” he asks. His eyes are animated and he leans in closer.

He sets the scene in an elementary school in rural China. Ping-Pong was the popular sport for kids to play on lunch break so Yeung along with the other kids would line up outside the school hoping to get a chance to play at the limited tables. One lunch hour, Yeung noticed an old man begging on the sidewalk; dirty and skinny.

“He used some chalk to write on the sidewalk about how he became disabled. The way he sat down I could tell his feet weren’t normal; he had some disease,” he says. “I was standing there, gazing at them, reading what he was writing and while I was doing that, the line was moving.”

He missed his chance to play Ping-Pong that day and says he always questioned, “what made me stay?”

He attributes it to the realization of “the soft part of me,” pointing to his chest, and the understanding of what it means to help people.

That was the story Yeung wrote in his admission to Carleton’s Social Work program as an international student. It’s the same story he uses to remind himself of why he’s stayed at the Centre for so many years.

The OCCSC provides settlement, language and employment services for all immigrants, though closely tied with the Chinese community. Over his 35 years, he says it’s the policy changes that have been the most frustrating part.

“Get a job offer in Canada, have good language skills, working experience and in an occupation where there’s a lot of demand in Canada. You need that in order to be accepted, that’s the new system,” he explains.

Yeung is referring to the new economic immigration system announced by the government in 2012. This year, the online express entry system was created which matches immigrant applicants with Canadian employers’ needs. With the focus on economic growth, the required income to sponsor family members was also raised by 35 per cent.

Yeung says this means some immigrants take on two jobs, but still don’t qualify as enough income to sponsor a family member. He says he sees increasing number of divorces and broken family connections because “they just can’t cope, it’s draining,” to have the process of sponsorship take years.

Last year, the government created a cap of 5,000 for the Parent and Grandparent Sponsorship Program. Yeung says this means more than 60,000 applications “are just sitting there, because the government decided we can’t process anymore.”

May Chan, a senior settlement worker at OCCSC who has worked alongside Yeung for many years has noticed a major decrease in older immigrants because of these changes.

“Our clients are changing,” she says, with a sigh. “For those who have less job experience or education, it’s much harder now. Before, we had immigrant kids sponsoring their parents but now it’s all skills workers.”

Yeung agrees the policies have made it more difficult for family sponsored immigrants, but says that doesn’t represent the acceptance of the community.

Last week, Yeung attended a meeting at City Hall about the current refugee crisis and by the turnout of the crowd; “I think now the community is way ahead of the government,” he states.

But he says it wasn’t always that way. Yeung remembers getting complaints about discrimination from other residents or even the police. He says residents in Centretown protested the Vietnamese boat people moving into their area, insisting it would make the value of property go down.

“Can you believe that?” he asks, eyes wide, throwing his hand up in the air. “It’s amazing how in the past four decades, this city has changed.”

All day Yeung works with immigrants, using his “soft spot” from his grade school story to help newcomers feel a sense of community and belonging. He says such emotions policy can’t control, and “the way we’re more receptive to people shows that Canada has changed for the better.”

“When my kids went to school, they would bring friends home who were black, brown, yellow, white,” he says. “My kids are colourblind, but sometimes adults are not.”

He pauses, eyes searching for the right words.

“When I look at my kids’ friends,” he says slowly, starting to smile. “I think Canada has hope.”

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