Carleton University Student Blog Series: Enabling the Participation of Immigrants
Carleton University undergraduate students in Ottawa, Canada, are studying the link between communication and open government. In the class, the students examine how communication can be used to improve governance and to foster a more collaborative relationship between governments and citizens. This series of blog posts is related to a range of topics concerning the issues that challenge open government in Canada and around the world.
Civic engagement is not an equal opportunity in Canada. Marginalized groups, including Canada’s growing immigrant population, face significant roadblocks to citizen participation.
Newcomers to Canada are faced with economic, educational and social barriers, limiting their levels of engagement. However, time, money and language are recognized as the biggest hurdles crippling their ability to participate. Canada became home to over 200,000 immigrants in 2018 alone, so these concerns should not be taken lightly.
Recent immigrants are more apprehensive about volunteering, joining groups and voting than settled immigrants due to feelings of social exclusion. This explains why civic participation is relatively low among immigrants. Recent immigrants often feel more challenged to contribute to society than their peers. Language barriers and discrimination are prominent obstacles, which make it harder for newcomers to actively partake in their communities.
Language is one of the main challenges to engagement in Canada. The official language legislation exists and guarantees government information is available to Canadians in English and French, but other languages do not have the same protections. This legislation excludes Canada’s massive immigrant population who speak a varying number of languages.
Cultural and linguistic differences impede immigrants’ ability to engage in Canadian society. This explains why Canadian-born individuals are more likely to participate in civic life than recent immigrants. This issue needs to be explored further.
Immigrants make up a growing 21% of the population in Canada. Their opinions on policies and public issues is crucial to sustaining Canadian democracy. This brings me to question, is ‘openness’ as open as it can be? If we fail marginalized groups, we fail at some of the most prominent Canadian values.
Engagement is a two-way dialogue. We simply cannot have meaningful two-way conversations if we do not understand each other. To reduce these barriers, materials and content need to be distributed in multiple languages. This way everyone is informed and different perspectives are acknowledged.
New immigrants tend to engage with their own social networks due to familiarities and comfort with individuals from similar backgrounds. As a result of being confined to smaller community initiatives, their perspectives are not being recognized in larger organizations.
Obstacles to civic participation do not end there. Time and money are two remaining barriers in immigrants’ ability to engage in public life. When immigrants settle in Canada one of their main objectives is to work to attain a better life. Thus, working long hours makes it hard to find time to volunteer, go to a town hall meeting or participate in a focus group.
The different ways that exist to get input from the public are restrictive. However, because many Canadians are able to engage in civic activities, these limitations are not frequently considered. How can the voices of immigrants be just as prominent as their Canadian-born counterparts?
It needs to be acknowledged that within marginalized communities, each group has unique needs. Responding to these needs is essential in developing and maintaining trust. If language and time are barriers, access to information and transparency is heavily in question in respect to this population. Thus, these challenges need to be recognized and reduced.
Civic engagement is the core of open government. Perspectives from a variety of angles is crucial to our democracy. Marginalized communities cannot offer feedback if they do not have access and if they are unaware. Inclusion is clearly a challenge to civic engagement.
Civic engagement among immigrant populations in Canada is significantly low, specifically political participation. The federal government should consider doing further outreach and support with immigrant populations. More specifically, the government should explore how it can extend its initiatives to local organizations which have larger support from immigrants.
This will foster a more inclusive environment for new immigrants and strengthen democracy. Civic engagement is a fundamental recipe in sustaining a healthy democracy. The only way to keep it this way is to include everyone.