In November 2022, the federal government announced its 2023-2025 Immigration Levels Plan to welcome approximately 1.45 million new permanent residents to Canada by 2025. Designed to strengthen the economy and fill employment shortages with skilled workers, it comes a year after Canada admitted 431,645 new permanent residents: the largest number of people ever welcomed in a single year in Canadian history.

“We need immigration to Canada and migration to Calgary,” says Karen Young, president and CEO of United Way of Calgary and Area. “It’s well-established that more people, especially highly skilled and educated people, are good for our economy and our community. And in a period of instability around the world, it is no surprise that Calgary remains a magnet for people across Canada and the globe.”

“However,” she adds, “we are now experiencing the results of that magnetism; demand for settlement services, including those funded and supported by United Way, is at an all-time high.”

For example, from January – September 2023, Immigrant Services Calgary (ISC) experienced a 49 per cent increase in the total number of people served compared to the previous year. ISC also saw a 58 per cent increase in demand for language assessments from January – September 2023 compared to the same period the previous year.

“English language assessments and classes are an indicator of the demand we are facing,” says Nawal Al-Busaidi, CEO of ISC. “Once a skilled newcomer settles in Calgary, one of the first things they require to integrate into our community and build a career is English language proficiency.”

In Calgary, there are approximately 1,500 newcomers on a waitlist for a language assessment and 5,700 newcomers on the waitlist for language classes. Due to that backlog, it can take six months to a year to access a language class. That delay means it can take at least a year for a skilled newcomer to get the language skills to truly start their lives in Calgary. During a national affordability crisis, delays like this can be especially painful for people who have come to Canada aiming to build a better life.

Anila Umar Lee Yuen, president and CEO of the Centre for Newcomers, also sees the growing waitlists for newcomer services as an issue requiring immediate attention. As the co-chair of the Calgary Newcomers Collaborative (CNC) powered by Gateway, Lee Yuen has an eye on the capacity of newcomer-serving agencies throughout Calgary.

“Waitlists like these are unacceptable,” says Lee Yuen. “We are seeing increased demand across the network.”

“That said,” she adds, “we can all solve this in six months with adequate funding. Waitlists for such important services should not exist. It’s as simple as that.”

Al-Busaidi agrees: “Investment increases capacity. Adding more staffing, classes, and infrastructure to immigrant-serving organizations directly opens up more spaces for newcomers.”

Calgary’s capacity to welcome newcomers—at a time when the world considers our community a beacon of safety and opportunity—is stretched thin during an affordability crisis.

“I’d define affordability as how welcoming we are in Calgary,” says Al-Busaidi, “and we’re failing in that. Affordability is the ability to have access to all the supports and services to make a great life here. Instead, we are forcing newcomers to put a pause on their integration. We are holding them back when they could be working to help their family while contributing to our community.”

“As a society, we are making things worse for us all by not having the resources and integration services available to meet increasing demand,” she adds.

With the increased arrival of vulnerable newcomers, she notes that frontline staff also face an increased risk of mental health challenges, anxiety, and burnout.

“This is not sustainable,” says Al-Busaidi. “We can’t afford to run the way we are right now.”

Sustainability, for many social sector agencies, comes by combining strengths to have greater, more efficient community impact than through independent work.

"In the context of an affordability crisis, we need to find more opportunities to create partnerships that better serve all Calgarians." - Karen Young, President and CEO, United Way of Calgary and Area

One example of this in action is the aforementioned CNC—a formal, cross-sector partnership between newcomer-serving agencies that is the first of its kind in Canada. Together, the collaborators welcome newcomers and support their needs through the group’s collective free services. As part of the Collaborative, each partner serves newcomer clients to the best of their abilities. If they don’t have the capacity – or if another agency has services better tailored to the newcomer’s needs – the partner refers them.

“We have done remarkable work together,” says Lee Yuen. “By collaborating as peers and partners, we are serving newcomers better at a time when we are welcoming even more people to our city.”

The CNC, in turn, is supported by ISC’s Gateway initiative. Developed in collaboration with many sector partners, including United Way, Gateway is designed to be a centralized, one-stop shop for newcomers to help them access services they need. The Gateway system has partners providing over 2,000 programs and services and has facilitated more than 40,000 referrals since it went live in the fall of 2021. United Way also serves as an advisory partner on the project by providing expert input and feedback as Gateway continues to develop.

“CNC and Gateway are excellent examples of how we are working together in new ways to better meet the needs of our fast-growing community,” says Karen Young. “In the context of an affordability crisis, we need to find more opportunities to create partnerships that strive to better serve all Calgarians.”

For Al-Busaidi, partnerships like this create a sense of optimism despite the immense pressures facing organizations like hers.

“I’m absolutely optimistic,” she says. “We are so capable. We are so adaptable. And we, as a community, understand that Calgary is only made better by welcoming newcomers. Investing in the beginning of their journey in Canada brings long-term positive impact to the economy and the social fabric.”

Calgarians can support the urgent work of community agencies like Immigrant Services Calgary and Centre for Newcomers by donating to the Community Impact Fund. This fund is the best way for Calgarians to make an impact in this period of crisis where adaptability and urgent response is critical. Through the Community Impact Fund, United Way is funding agencies and programming in the four focus areas of socioeconomic well-being, mental health, social inclusion, and healthy relationships.

Because a better tomorrow starts with you.

The affordability crisis is causing a ripple throughout our social sector. In part 1, we examined the struggles facing frontline agencies. In part 2, we explored the toll on mental health supports. In the final instalment of Who Helps the Helpers?, we examined the solutions to mitigating Calgary’s affordability crisis.