How Libraries Are Helping Newcomers Adjust to Life in Toronto
This free program offers job assistance, workshops, and interpretation referrals.
By Nikhil Sharma
Three years ago, Gong Zan Cang entered through the doors of the Parliament Street library for the first time. He lived nearby—it took him just a few minutes to get there in his wheelchair.
The 79-year-old immigrated to Toronto from China in 2002 to join his daughter who already lived here. He speaks Mandarin and little English.
Cang went to the library that day to attend one of its workshops, Tai Chi for Well-being. It wouldn’t be the last time, he’d be a frequent client of the library in the coming years.
When Cang lost his Canadian citizenship card last February, he went there again looking for assistance. A woman named Sarah Shi stepped in to help him. They had met before when she taught the Tai Chi workshop.
Shi is one of the Toronto Public Library’s settlement partnership workers.
She speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, and she helped Cang fill out government forms so he could get a replacement citizenship certificate. She also helped him renew his Canadian passport.
“Sometimes he receives letters from the government he can’t understand,” Shi says, translating Cang’s responses to Torontoist’s questions. “But he comes to the service and the social worker can help him to interpret and translation. It (the program) is more convenient for people such as him who come from other country and have a language barrier.”
Shi has been a settlement worker for the TPL for over eight years. When her clients need help, they come to the library. There are no limits on how many times a client can meet with a settlement worker in a week for assistance.
The Toronto Public Library began its partnership with five settlement agencies as part of Toronto’s settlement and education partnership in 2002. From then on, summer settlement services were offered at branches, with workers assisting newcomers across the city when schools were closed for summer vacation.
But in 2007, the library and agencies worked together to deliver a proposal for settlement workers to be present at libraries year-round. The proposal was successful; today, the program is a three-way partnership between Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the Toronto Public Library, and seven settlement agencies. The initiative is entering its ninth year.
Multilingual workers provide free one-on-one information and referral services, as well as customized programs to assist newcomers to Toronto in integrating into Canadian society and overcoming challenges such as finding employment and accessing heath care services.
Connecting new residents with employment and health care services is one of the program’s priorities. It offers classes and workshops on topics such as dental and oral health, mental health and migration, career awareness for women, and understanding their rights in the workplace.
The program is funded by IRCC. Settlement agencies receive the funding and hire the settlement workers.
Then the TPL provides physical space for the workers in the branches and resources such as ESL collections, materials on resumés and job interviews, and electronic business resources.
Sixty-seven per cent of immigrants use Toronto Public Library branches once per month or more, compared to 46 per cent of non-immigrants, according to a November 2012 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
While there are 100 public branches across the city, the library settlement partnership program is only offered at 16 of them, which raises the concern of limited accessibility.
Under the Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement, signed in 2005, $920 million in federal funding was invested over the next five years for settlement and language training programs and services in Ontario.
But in 2010, $44 million cuts [PDF] were made federally for immigration and settlement programs in Ontario by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, as the federal department was then known. CIC also slashed coordinator positions for the library settlement partnership program, as well as the federal Host program, which helps match newcomers with a volunteer who spends time with them weekly.
Over the last four years, IRCC has provided approximately $1 million annually for the program.
One of the program’s focuses is job assistance.
Elsa Ngan, senior services specialist of multicultural services with the Toronto Public Library, says some newcomers experience challenges in finding employment comparable to that which they had in their home countries. She recalls when a teacher from China visited the Scarborough branch, trying to figure out a way to get into teaching here in Canada.
“For someone who is new, who is starting fresh, having that kind of pressure and barrier adds to distress,” Ngan explains.
The number of visits to the library rose last year. According to the TPL’s 2015 key performance indicator dashboard [PDF], the library saw a 2.3 per cent increase in its overall visits, which include virtual and in-branch visits, from 48.3 million in 2014 to 49.4 million in 2015—despite serious slashes to the budget over the past several years.
Provincial funding as a share of the city’s libraries’ budget plunged to 3.1 per cent in 2011 from 6.3 per cent in 1992 [PDF]. A total of 107 librarian and support worker positions were eliminated in the 2012 budget.
The report says it “is a reasonable and responsible funding request necessary to maintain existing services and service levels.”
With a growing digital demand among its users, the Toronto Public Library is also looking to adjust to the market.
According to the TPL’s Strategic Plan 2016-2019 [PDF], the system will explore “advancing our digital platforms, breaking down barriers to access, driving inclusion, expanding access to technology and training, establishing TPL as Toronto’s centre for continuous and self-directed learning, creating community connections through cultural experiences, and transforming for 21st century service excellence.”
The challenge with the library settlement partnerships program is finding new ways to reach out to immigrants who may not be aware of it. The services offered by the program are promoted on TPL’s website and on social media platforms, but not all newcomers may be well-versed in digital technology, just as all born-and-raised Canadians aren’t. There is still that digital divide.
Another challenge is that TPL settlement workers can only do so much. Shi can only assist clients who come through the library doors. Services need to expand more broadly across the city, outside of a library setting.
She is able to help clients prepare for tasks in their daily life outside of the library, though, by providing referrals.
For instance, if Cang needs an interpreter for a medical appointment, Shi will find an agency that can offer interpretation staff to accompany him. However, if there is no interpreter available, his wife will assist him in using the health care services.
“If it’s possible in the future, especially when they need to see the doctor, the social worker or community worker can accompany them when they go outside,” Shi says, translating Cang’s response to the question of what should be improved about the program.
“It will be more convenient, especially for seniors who need to see the doctor and have language barriers.”
Shi says if an interpreter is not available when Cang needs to go to the doctor, it can be stressful for him.
“Right now, in addition to helping them with health and employment, some of the workers are steering towards also helping the newcomers to feel a sense of belonging,” Ngan says.
All the TPL settlement workers speak different languages, and some are able to speak multiple languages. If there is ever a language barrier for a client, he or she will be connected with a settlement worker to help them either interpret or translate.
“In the library we also have a service called Language Line that helps customers who have library-related questions, and if we have communication barriers, we can use that for a real-time interpreter,” Ngan says.
For Cang, the diverse assistance offered by the program went a long way to help him feel at home here.
“He’s thankful for a lot of social services and social workers who can speak different languages; this helps him a lot,” translates Shi. “Living in Toronto, it’s multicultural. It’s a big need for the people from other countries if they have a language barrier.”
Cang says he hopes that government services have more staff who can speak different languages. This will benefit him and other newcomers.