Introduction: Working together to navigate the Canadian education system

Courtney Anne Brewer and Michael McCabe

This book is long overdue. Unique in its design, it is a truly collaborative effort of impassioned researchers and frontline workers from across Canada, exploring a plethora of programs aimed at assisting many of our immigrant and refugee families as they attempt to navigate the Canadian educational system. It also examines many of the issues that face this unique population as they begin to settle in Canada. Dewey (1907) considers schools to be “a miniature community, an embryonic society” (p. 32), one that reflects “the life of the larger society, and [is] permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science” (p. 45). Noddings (2007) states that schools are “minisocieties in which children learn through practice how to promote their own growth, that of others, and that of the whole society” (p. 39). The most effective strategies to promote learning are those that recognize differences in student experiences and that fi t learning to individual students. Or, if we put it another way, the experience has to be built on or connected to prior experience. The programs explored here attempt to do exactly that.

This project is grounded in socio-cultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978) with influences from Freire’s (1970/2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. We assume that both culture and context play a major role in the situations that refugee families experience. Refugee families are in unique situations in Canada, and as Lee (1988) suggests, having ties to two places in these situations can result in feeling a lack of place or identity. In each chapter, complex scenarios about how and why participants arrived in Canada exist for all participant groups. It is important to gain perspectives from across Canada, as experiences and interventions vary from region to region (Fantino and Colak, 2001; Pillay & Asadi, 2012). Understanding these contexts is crucial in building an understanding of the immigrant and refugee family experience, particularly as it pertains to adjusting to the Canadian educational system. Because Canada is a geographically large country that offers various approaches and services to immigrant and refugee families (Fantino and Colak, 2001), the socio-cultural lens becomes even more complex, yet more necessary. As Tecle and James explain in their chapter, “Many studies have demonstrated the ways in which racism and colonialism have influenced and informed both historical and contemporary Canadian society. ” The ongoing legacies of colonialism, capitalism, and racism affect individuals’ experiences—particularly those of refugees. We draw on anti-colonial theory to understand colonialism and the indelible influence it has had on geopolitical conflict, forced migration of peoples, and persistent struggles (Dei & Asgharzadeh, 2001). Colonialism has had a role in territorial conflicts, ethnic disagreements, displacement of people, and, as a consequence, the creation of refugees. Colonialism also plays a role in the push and pull factors that make resettlement possible and necessary.

Initially, this book looks at overarching issues related to the lives of immigrants and refugees in Canada, namely school readiness and familiarity, health issues specific to the population we are investigating, and an overview of the types of programs available to this population. Each of these topics is repeated throughout chapters that follow because it is impossible to ignore these issues in a book like this one.

Brewer and McCabe review the literature related to school readiness and how readiness affects students, families, teachers, and schools. This investigation is taken up later with a look at a parent school-readiness program in the Kitchener-Waterloo region of Ontario. Wideman-Johnston looks at health issues specific to immigrants and refugees and relates them to the increasing body of research surrounding overall health and well-being in our student populations and the way they contribute to academic endeavours. Wideman-Johnston points to the need for increased attention in this area, particularly related to the complex discussions integrating physical, mental, and social health as it relates to academic success.

Young and Chan provide a thorough account of the types of programs that promote school-based interventions for refugee students. This chapter acts as an introduction to the remaining chapters of the book. As Young and Chan say, “Given that the majority of refugee children and adolescents attend school, the school setting is an optimal venue for interventions to be developed and implemented to address their psychosocial challenges. From an ecological standpoint, it is crucial that comprehensive school-based interventions include not only the students themselves but also their parents and teachers. ”

The second part of the book provides accounts of various research projects that focus on important issues related to interventions. It is divided into four general sections, namely early years, middle years, secondary education, and post-secondary education, according to the age of the students discussed. The early-years component deals with a broad spectrum of issues related to the process of children’s early education. Using parental involvement and engagement in school as indicators of school readiness, Brewer and McCabe explore the process by which immigrant mothers prepare themselves and their children for school in Ontario. The immigrant mothers who participated in a school-readiness program provide accounts of barriers to and benefits of their participation. Ogilvie, Fleming, Kirova, Ortiz, Rastin, Caufield, Burgess-Pinto, and Dastjerdi use action research to generate policy-relevant data to evaluate the cultural appropriateness of assessment tools and practices used in early childhood development education programs with immigrant and refugee (newcomer) children. In the tradition of humanistic geographers, Kirova, Pente, and Massing explore how immigrant preschool teachers and their immigrant students and families investigate their bicultural identities through aesthetic explorations of sense of place, while recognizing the importance of the emotional realm of our human relationships with place and of the human ability to reflect and interpret such relationships through artistic representations.

Through two ethnographic studies, Massing investigates experiences from professional development sessions on communication and guidance for refugee women employed at an early childhood centre and for women in an early childhood certification program. In this chapter, the author concentrates on the women’s recollections of the ways in which storytelling and songs were used in their families and cultures. In the final chapter in this section, Dachyshyn provides an account of data rooted in research undertaken with refugee families located in Canada, but also includes experiences and research from other locations that now inform the author’s understandings of the complexities involved in refugee resettlement. We believe this perspective will open up opportunities for dialogue about the multifaceted nature of resettlement.

The next section deals with the middle-years school experiences of immigrants and refugees. Building on Sam Tecle’s experiences as a child of Eritrean parents who grew up in a racially diverse, low-income urban neighbourhood, Tecle and James discuss the complexities, tensions, and challenges of students and teachers as they engage in the educational process—a process where students struggle to maintain a dual identity: that of being a Canadian while remaining true to “their” country of origin and by extension their “ethnic culture. ” Asadi reports on the importance of identity, the role of language in identity development and belonging, and the stance of public and educational policies. The focus here is on high dropout rates among students for whom English is a new language and a multitude of other factors such as discrimination, poverty, lack of ability to access resources, peer pressure, and the tendency to engage in criminal behaviour. Hird-Bingeman, McCabe, and Brewer look at the Accelerated Basic Literacy Education (ABLE) program operating in the Waterloo Region District School Board, which is for students ages 9 to 13 who have recently arrived in Ontario schools with limited prior schooling. Students enter the program through a referral process at any point between grades 4 and 8. The ABLE program is intended to help identified ESL/ELD students who have been in Canada for one to three years make significant gains in English-language development, literacy, numeracy, and academic skills and knowledge so they can successfully integrate into regular classroom programs.

Two chapters are dedicated to issues related to students and families in the secondary school years of their education. Sadler and Clark outline a collaborative approach to the integration of refugee youth into Canadian schools. They work with Karen refugee youth, who are one of Canada’s newest and largest groups of government-assisted refugees resettled into a suburban community. Drawing on a strengths-based approach, the authors discuss some stories of success in which several community organizations play a role in supporting youths’ access to education and ongoing resettlement needs. Beauregard, Gauthier, and Rousseau examine three programs of the Transcultural Research and Intervention Team, which focus on creative expression workshops for children and youth in multi-ethnic schools. One common feature of these programs is that they offer a space where fostering solidarity becomes possible through play and creative expression. The authors first discuss the rationale and theoretical framework structuring the workshops, and then describe the three programs using vignettes to illustrate the complexity of the relational dimension of these interventions.

The post-secondary section looks at academic experiences of refugees in Canadian universities, the building of cultural competencies, and the underemployment of immigrant teachers in Canada. Ferede investigates the academic experiences of refugees who were resettled directly into universities through the World University Service of Canada’s Student Refugee Program from 2007 to 2011. Findings show that refugee students face tremendous pedagogical, curricular, and technical challenges that they overcome with institutional, faculty, staff, and peer-to-peer supports. Korn, Manks, and Strecker delve into refugee experiences with pre-departure orientations for university students. Using evidence from the experiences of the World University Service of Canada’s Student Refugee Program, the authors conclude that such orientations are an essential aspect of any refugee-sponsorship program. Cho explores the under employment of immigrant teachers in Ontario. Drawing from a critical ethnographic project with immigrant teacher candidates juxtaposed with an information session at an immigrant counselling service, Cho’s research exposes two challenges with getting hired as a teacher in Ontario: perceptions around language proficiency and the limitations of Canada’s Multiculturalism Act.

The purpose of this book is to highlight services and interventions offered to immigrant and refugee students and families, not only to provide identification of problem areas but to offer meaningful solutions. It is important that Canadian information about immigrants and refugees becomes part of scholarly literature. If they understand these issues in a Canadian context, those in the field of education will be able to approach their practice with a more thoughtful and informed perspective. We hope this book will form the basis for discussion and future studies and courses in teacher education and social foundations programs.

This book will be instrumental in addressing several key themes pertaining to the education of children of immigrant and refugee families:

1. Common challenges faced by immigrant and refugee children and families with regards to the formal education system;
2. Common aspects of intervention that appear to assist immigrant and refugee children and families successfully;
3. What narratives from academics and frontline workers tell us about working with immigrant and refugee families.

We hope our efforts will act as a starting point for future discussion
and a spark for future research.

Table of contents

1. Introduction: Working together to navigate the Canadian education system, Michael McCabe and Courtney Anne Brewer
2. School readiness: A review of literature, Courtney Anne Brewer and Michael McCabe
3. Immigrant students’ health: An overview of the need to improve our awareness and response to the health of immigrant children and their families within the educational context, Taunya Wideman-Johnston
4. School-based interventions for refugee children and youth: Canadian and international perspectives, Marta Young and K. Jacky Chan
5. Immigrant mothers’ use of a discussion group in becoming school ready, Courtney Anne Brewer and Michael McCabe
6. Matching policies to needs in early childhood development programs in newcomer populations, Linda Ogilvie, Darcy Fleming, Anna Kirova, Lucenia Ortiz, Sandra Rastin, Catherine Caufield, Elizabeth Burgess-Pinto, and Mahdieh Dastjerdi
7. Cultural negotiations of sense of place through shared parent-child art-making in a preschool for immigrant children, Anna Kirova, Patti Pente, and Christine Massing
8. African refugee women’s songs and stories: Possibilities for diversifying literacy practices in early childhood education, Christine Massing
9. Refugee families with preschool children: Looking back, Darcey M. Dachyshyn
10. Refugee students in Canadian schools: Educational issues and challenges, Samuel Tecle and Carl E. James
11. The value of language in refugee youth’s construction of identity, Neda Asadi
12. The Accelerated Basic Literacy Education (ABLE) program in the Waterloo Region District School Board, Kimberly Hird-Bingeman, Michael McCabe, and Courtney Anne Brewer
13. Building community capacity to support Karen refugee youth in schools, Lisa Sadler and Nancy Clark
14. Fostering solidarity in the classroom: Creative expression workshops for immigrant and refugee students, Caroline Beauregard, Marie-France Gauthier, and Cécile Rousseau
15. “More than winning the lottery”: The academic experiences of refugee youth in Canadian universities, Martha K. Ferede
16. Managing expectations through building cultural competencies, Ashley Korn, Michelle Manks, and Jacqueline Strecker
17. How do I get in? Exploring the underemployment of immigrant teachers in Canada, Christine L. Cho


Recent immigrants and refugees — both children and their families — often struggle to adapt to Canadian education systems. For their part, educators also face challenges when developing effective strategies to help these students make smooth transitions to their new country. In Immigrant and Refugee Students in Canada, researchers join educators and social workers to provide a thorough and wide-ranging analysis of the issues at the preschool, elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels. This book pursues three lines of inquiry: What are the main challenges that immigrant and refugee children and families face in the Canadian education system? What are the common aspects of successful intervention? What can we learn from the narratives of researchers, educators, social workers, and other frontline workers who work with immigrant and refugee families?