With Canada set to welcome 330,000 new permanent residents this year – the highest levels of immigration since the early 1900s – a timely new research report examines the nature of the settlement sector in Canada and the competencies of the settlement services workers who comprise the sector. Written by Iren Koltermann (eCaliber Group) and Daniel Scott (Calience Research and Consulting), “The Competencies of Front-line Settlement Practitioners in Canada: A Background Research Report” is part of a project funded by CERIC to enhance understanding of capacity building among settlement workers.

While the economic and social benefits of immigration are well documented, it is also widely acknowledged that these benefits depend on the capacity of the system, where front-line settlement workers are frequently the initial point of contact. Settlement service workers play key roles: to welcome newcomers, strengthen their participation in Canadian society, improve their labour market outcomes, expand the absorptive capacity of communities and maintain public support for immigration. As the report states, it is reasonable to assume that as immigration levels rise, the value of the service provided by these workers will grow, as will their workload and challenges.

The objective of the report is to define the nature of front-line settlement work, the context in which it is carried out, and to review what research and work has been undertaken toward strengthening the capacity of front-line settlement practitioners.

Part 1 examines the Settlement Sector in Canada, including:

  • The nature of settlement, historically and the sector today
  • Settlement sector clients, programs and services
  • General and specific roles of settlement workers

Part 2 explores Competencies in the Settlement Sector, including:

  • Considerations regarding the use of competencies in the settlement sector
  • A review of initiatives to strengthen the capacity of settlement workers
  • Pan-Canadian as well as provincial initiatives

A snapshot of the settlement services landscape in Canada is captured in the report. Today, settlement services are delivered by a variety of types of organizations. The four main service providers are civil society organizations (the largest category), school boards, provincial governments and municipal governments. The report notes that the federal government does not provide settlement services itself, instead contracting out services to third parties. To further unpack the types of settlement service providers, civil society organizations can be broken down into five groups:

  1. “Universal” Service Providers: Universal service providers are organizations that provide services to both newcomers and those born in Canada.
  2. Immigrant-Serving Provider Organizations: Also known as a “settlement agency,” these organizations provide direct services to immigrants and can be multi-service or single service providers.
  3. Umbrella Organizations (Settlement Sector Associations): These organizations bring together the settlement sector in a given region for training, support, advocacy and co-ordination.
  4. Issue-Based Organizations: A number of settlement service providers provide services based on a specific settlement need or priority issue, such as employment or language.
  5. Colleges and Universities: Post-secondary institutions accept many international students and permanent residents each year, and thus their student services used by newcomers can be considered settlement services.
  6. Multicultural Non-Governmental Organizations: These organizations are focused on diversity issues as a whole, however, they occasionally receive funding to provide settlement services.

The report provides an analysis of the settlement sector, based on a 2017 survey from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the federal department that funds settlement services. Eighty-seven percent of organizations have been providing services for fewer than 40 years; nearly half have been doing so for fewer than 20 years. While there are large organizations serving thousands of clients each year, a clear majority are small organizations with fewer than 10 full-time equivalent staff. All rely on a pool of volunteers to support programs and service delivery.

As the report outlines, there are a wide array of programs and services offered by settlement agencies. IRCC identifies three types of services: direct service delivery, support services and indirect services.

  • Direct Service Delivery: Includes Needs Assessments and Referrals; Information and Orientation Services; Language Assessments; Language Training; Employment Services; and Community Connections.
  • Support Services: Services aimed at helping address barriers newcomers face in accessing settlement programming: Care for Newcomer Children, Translation, Transportation, Interpretation, Disability Support and Crisis Counselling.
  • Indirect Services: Include projects that support the development of partnerships, capacity building and the sharing of best practices among settlement providers, for example, developing new interventions, updating training content and conducting research.

In terms of the profile of settlement services workers, the report cites a study that found that over 86% of workers in Toronto’s settlement sector are women, that 75% immigrated to Canada and 63% are racialized. This is considered broadly illustrative of the sector with the dual phenomena of over-representation of women and the racialization of the sector. Regarding pay, settlement counsellors would likely be categorized in the National Occupational Classification (NOC) under 4212, “social and community service workers.” Statistics Canada data for 2015 reports the average salary at $38,503.

Job security and advancement are issues among settlement workers highlighted by the report. Many positions in the settlement services sector are short-term and tied to funding agreements. There are not often opportunities for advancement. The absence of clear career paths and lack of funding for professional development makes career progress a challenge. A bright spot, the report does point out the growing professionalization of the sector. Over the past two decades, a number of Canadian colleges and some universities have begun offering specialized certifications and full programs for the education and training of those entering the settlement sector.

The report’s exploration of competencies in the sector found that sector-specific education is generally a requirement for employment positions, but many agencies hire those who do not have specific qualifications, because of their abilities with specific language and/or culture. The report notes that this development has led to a growing tension “among workers who see settlement as a cause and those who seek this sector as a career.” There is concern that “professionalization may further marginalize and inhibit career advancement opportunities for racialized immigrant women who have years of experience in the sector, but no formal education.”

The conversation in the sector about human resources development and capacity building has unfolded at both the national and provincial levels. According to the report, there has been overall support within the sector for the articulation of best practices and the elaboration of foundational core competencies for settlement practitioner roles. Practices and standards have been refined and built upon by provincial umbrella organizations, such as the Alberta Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies, which are also working to develop and offer basic training content using both in-person and online formats. However, the authors suggest careful thought needs to be given to the elaboration and use of competencies. Their preliminary research shows that competencies do not appear to be widely adopted and used within the sector. This point remains to be further investigated during the second phase of the project.