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Lawyers and Newcomers in Conversation

Annual meeting discusses issues of settlement and integration in Nova Scotia

by Ryan Lum

A visual representation of some of the conversations at the meeting. Photo by Ryan Lum.
A visual representation of some of the conversations at the meeting. Photo by Ryan Lum.

HALIFAX - On May 28, nearly 100 people filled the St. Andrew’s Community Centre Gymnasium to take part in the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society’s (NSBS) annual public forum, called “Council in the Community,” on timely issues impacting Nova Scotians. This year’s meeting, jointly hosted with Halifax-based Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services (ISIS), was on the theme of access to the legal system in Nova Scotia for immigrants and refugees.

“It’s a two-way street,” when it comes to newcomer interactions with the law, says Sherry Jackson-Smith, who works with immigrants involved with the prison system. “Immigrants have to have a grasp of the Canadian legal system, but legal workers need to understand where they are coming from.”

About half the participants were newcomers to the province - some recently arrived, some more seasoned - who lent their experiences as immigrants or refugees trying to access the legal system or other forms of government service.

This meeting was the first of its kind for the province as far as the organizers are aware, and many were grateful for the conversations.

“Newcomers and legal workers rarely interact outside of a formal setting,” said Mirjana Musanovic, a crisis councilor with ISIS, “so this kind of a meeting stirs up thoughts and ideas that hardly get touched on elsewhere.”

Many newcomers cited difficulties with Canadian legal culture, whether it was through a court, or something like trying to find housing.

“Buying property in my country is easy,” says Linda, an immigrant from China. “Here, you need a lawyer, you need insurance.”

Another man, who preferred not to be named, arrived from Iran 10 months ago under the Nominee Program, and has been unable to get recertified in his profession. “I was a dentist for 16 years. Here, I cannot get my license unless I spend 5 years and pay $100,000”.

For newcomers, language can also be a significant barrier to accessing the proper legal outlets.

“When you don’t speak [one of the official] languages, getting proper legal representation becomes very difficult. Poor translation leads to misinformation, and there is huge waste of the system’s resources because of it,” says Claudine Bertin, who runs Access Language Services, a legal interpretation business. She says that while there is a huge demand for legal interpreters, Nova Scotia Legal Aid has no budget to meet the demand. Most of the newcomers participating in the conference were invited through English classes they are currently enrolled in.

Strategies for supporting newcomers are becoming increasingly important in Nova Scotia. During last summer’s election campaign, Premier Darrell Dexter said that he plans to double the number of immigrants to Nova Scotia in the next 10 years to make up for a widening demand gap in skilled workers.

“To double the number of immigrants, you need to double the capacity of programs that promote access,” said Jack Potter, Diversity and Leadership Outreach coordinator at ISIS, “Ultimately, access to the legal system enhances access to all the other elements of our social support network.”

Jane Kirby, a member of No One Is Illegal Halifax (NOII-Halifax) adds that current immigration policies that restrict immigration status to certain classes of skilled workers, including high application fees and bureaucratic restrictions, bar many people currently living in Canada from accessing legal immigration status. She also says that skilled workers are not the only newcomers filling economic needs.

“An estimated 200 000 to 500 000 people are living without status in Canada, often working in precarious, low-wage jobs,” says Kirby. “These people are filling labour market needs, but because of their economic status are barred from obtaining status in Canada via the immigration system.”

Potter thinks a shift in thinking about immigration is required. “Traditionally, bringing immigrants to Canada has been about fulfilling the needs of the country, which have been mostly economic. What we want to see is a system that considers the needs of immigrants as well.”

Kirby agrees that a shift in thinking is necessary.

“What is needed at the most basic level is an immigration system that looks at migrants as people, not as commodities to fill economic needs,” she says.

Kirby says Canada’s immigration system is currently moving in the opposite direction: late last year, Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney cut the number of refugees accepted in Canada from 29,000 to 12,000, according to NOII-Halifax. Earlier this month, members of NOII dropped a banner in Halifax to draw attention to reforms Minister Kenney is proposing that would make it more difficult for people to seek asylum in Canada.

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Topics: Migration
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