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Important Context for Counselling Newcomers

Counsellors working to help newcomers may face trouble if they do not understand clients’ beliefs and values. Newcomers to Canada are adapting to life in a new environment. They are also adjusting their career goals to unfamiliar cultural, economic, and political situations.

Terms and definitions

Immigrants or refugees?

“It is important to understand the situation where newcomers are coming from—are they independent immigrants or refugees? Some may have been in camps for years living through horrific circumstances. It’s important to consider how we can best work with people who are trying to adjust to our society and our workplaces.”

—Karol Adamowicz, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers

Newcomers are persons who are new to living in Alberta. This broad definition can include migrants from other provinces, immigrants, refugees, international students, and those with temporary visas or work permits. Refugees and immigrants are discussed here as newcomer subgroups that often require specialized career and employment counselling.

Refugees are persons who need protection from persecution or whose removal from Canada would subject them to a danger of torture, a risk to their life, or a risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. Most often they have fled their countries involuntarily, and they have had little time to prepare for moving to Canada. Refugees may travel directly to Canada, but they may also spent time in temporary camps.

Family class immigrants are sponsored relatives who join family members who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Canada. The relative who is the original immigrant is financially responsible for family class immigrants.

Economic class immigrants include those who are skilled workers, provincial or territorial nominees, or business immigrants who have demonstrated their capacity for financial independence. Business immigrants are investors, entrepreneurs, or self-employed people who plan to make substantial investments or to own and manage businesses in Canada. Economic class immigrants may be accompanied by their spouses and dependants.

In general, immigrants to Canada:

  • Choose to leave their birth country
  • Have consciously chosen Canada as their destination
  • Have time to prepare for their departure, bringing relevant documents
  • Have high levels of health, education, and self-sufficiency
  • May have been chosen on a points system, where points are given for educational level, training, work experience, and knowledge of French or English
  • Are given immigrant status upon arrival, meaning they can apply for citizenship in 3 years
  • May be rejoining family members already in Canada who may be legally responsible for them for a certain number of years

Special supports for refugees

“It’s important to know about the various referral agencies that are available to give people further assistance. Many times there is emotional trauma. We need to be aware of what our clients can do to deal with torture, abuse, or other problems so that they can move forward and get into the labour market.”

—Dick Bellamy, Career and Employment Consultant, Government of Alberta

In comparison, refugees in Canada:

  • Have fled their homeland for humanitarian or political reasons
  • Have not necessarily made a conscious choice to come to Canada
  • May have left quickly, leaving behind papers, credentials, and other documents
  • May have spent months or years in refugee or detention camps
  • May have left family behind
  • Often arrive in Canada traumatized
  • Tend to have lower levels of education and to depend upon the Canadian social system

It is important to note that both categories of newcomers to Canada experience periods of adjustment.

Cultural transitions

Dimensions of culture may include age, gender, ability, race, religion, language, family values, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and more. Culture is the sum of what people have learned, what they believe, what they value, and what they enjoy.

Hope for a new life

“Sometimes people arrive with false or unrealistic expectations of what they are going to be able to do. This can be a huge issue with teens and young adults. We try to help them to look realistically at where they’re at, help them adjust and be able to take positive steps forward.”

—Frank Bessai, Catholic Social Services

Culture shock

When people enter a culture not their own, they go through an adjustment process. Sometimes, if this adjustment is severe, it is called culture shock. Culture shock occurs for newcomers for several reasons:

  • They no longer get the usual response to their behaviours.
  • They begin to realize they no longer know the cultural rules of the game.
  • They no longer receive credit for their skills, ideas, and accomplishments.

Culture shock does not necessarily happen when people first arrive in a new and different country. It may take some time before newcomers are confronted with the deeper meanings and expectations that are so difficult to identify and understand. When working with newcomers, remember that people have different ways of perceiving everything, from the nuances of language and gestures to different ideas about working.

Time to adjust

“Canada is seen as a land of opportunity and hope. But then reality strikes and newcomers understand the severity of barriers facing them. They can become depressed very quickly. Canada may be a plentiful place, but it could take from 2 to 15 years for newcomers to adjust.”

—Frank Bessai, Catholic Social Services

Culture shock may negatively affect a person’s ability to gather information, make decisions, and solve problems. Adjustment difficulties may cluster around the client’s:

  • Security, comfort, and support
  • Self-worth and self-acceptance
  • Competence and autonomy
  • Identity and belonging
  • Fulfilment and meaning

Inner conflicts and emotional turmoil associated with culture shock and homesickness can scatter energy, reduce motivation, limit risk-taking behaviours, and reduce openness to learning. People may be grieving over the loss of their old sources of support and validation. Family dynamics may be disturbed, which may directly and indirectly affect a client’s behaviour and mental health. Some people have family and psychological issues that require additional, specialized intervention before they secure employment.

Role shock

In many cultures, a major part of one’s identity comes from work. Validation and meaning may depend on work role performance and role-based relationships. Role shock describes the experiences of a person who moves between a more traditional or highly structured culture and one that has more loosely structured roles.

Many newcomers assume that their established role will continue into the new culture. They expect that they will be able to show the same behaviours, get the same kind of satisfaction, and reach the same sort of reward that they are used to. These behaviours and expectations may result in undesirable reactions within the new culture, creating barriers to career exploration.

Career development as a new concept

“Career development may be a familiar concept to people in this part of the world, but in environments where doing whatever you can to survive is a primary objective, the notion of planning a career that suits your skills and talents may seem frivolous or unrealistic.”

—Betty Benson, University of Alberta

Occupational identity

When occupational qualifications from a newcomer’s home country are not recognized in Canada, that person can feel a loss of identity. Loss of a previous identity that used to act as an anchor for self-esteem may result in frustration, hopelessness, and bitterness.

Cultural identity and biculturalism

As newcomers integrate into Canadian society, they face difficult decisions about their previous cultural identity. For example:

  • How much of their previous cultural identity do they want to maintain?
  • How much do they want to interact with people who do not share their cultural heritage?

The results of these decisions range from isolation to assimilation. Many studies show that commitment to both cultures, or biculturalism, is the most positive strategy. It involves integrating home and host cultures in ways that work best for newcomers.

The value of settlement services

“Multicultural orientation sessions try to help people to realize that they will adjust to life in Canada easier if they can leave behind those parts of their former identities based on tribes and status. Group activities, field trips, and other economic and cultural experiences seem to help.”

—Frank Bessai, Catholic Social Services

Employment readiness

As newcomers look for work, that search often brings them face to face with harsh economic realities. These realities may not align with their expectations about Canada’s economic and employment conditions. Many will have a natural emotional reaction to these barriers.

Family and community expectations

In their work search, newcomers are often persistent and willing to take any job. This attitude can be due to a variety of social factors:

  • Financial necessity
  • Pressure of being judged for being out of work
  • Pressure to regain the status and dignity of work they had in their home country
  • Fear about not being able to sponsor other newcomers
  • Fear that their sponsors will not be able to sponsor others if they fail to find work
  • Pressure to send money to family or community in their home country

Employment challenges

Newcomers may face environmental, systemic, social, and personal employability challenges.

Environmental challenges may include living in regions that:

  • Lack support services
  • Lack access to educational programs and training

Systemic challenges may include:

  • Culturally biased counselling
  • Non-recognition of credentials
  • Low-paying, low-skill jobs for newcomers with higher education
  • Lack of promotions or opportunity to build seniority

Obstacles to employment

“I didn’t know about the variety of barriers, including systemic ones. It seems we tend to undervalue their education and experience even though we don’t have a good understanding of it.”

—Don Baergen, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers

Social challenges may include:

  • Dealing with others’ fears that newcomers are taking jobs away from Canadians
  • Stereotypes about traits, qualifications, competence, and motivation
  • Racial discrimination
  • Verbal or physical abuse

Personal challenges may include:

  • Lack of education and training
  • Little or no Canadian work experience
  • Lack of Canadian credentials
  • Low self-awareness
  • Lack of current or correct information
  • Low self-confidence
  • Different physical appearance, dress, or habits

English language skills

Lack of English language proficiency can be a major employability challenge. Learning English or French is a top challenge cited by newcomers, second only to finding an adequate job.

Newcomers who have trouble learning and speaking English may be assigned lower-level tasks, despite technical qualifications and competence. Due to language anxiety, they may avoid situations that could help them progress in their employment and career.

Second-language anxiety can create a vicious cycle where:

  • Clients do not present themselves well
  • Others may respond impatiently or underestimate the client’s abilities
  • Clients may begin to avoid verbal and written interaction
  • Clients seek jobs that require little verbal and written communication

Sometimes newcomers find jobs where others from their homeland are working. They can then speak their own language. Often they will remain in these jobs because they are comfortable and they don’t have to learn English.

Counselling newcomers may also be more difficult when there is a language barrier. It may result in misunderstandings, incorrect information provided by the client, and invalid assessments of people’s goals and abilities

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