COVID-19 has amplified the inequity, precarity and vulnerability many newcomers, migrant workers, and immigrants experience in rural Canada, and a “place-based approach” is what’s needed to improve this situation, according to a new University of Guelph study. 

U of G researchers analyzed data from government organizations and settlement service organizations and found that pre-pandemic, rural economic sectors such as agriculture and agri-food struggled with employment retention and recruitment, and the situation worsened during the pandemic. 

Not all rural areas have been impacted in the same way, say the researchers, who suggest that new approaches to rural immigration need to be adapted to communities’ locations and environments.   

“The pandemic really illustrated both existing challenges that are there but also created a whole series of new challenges for newcomers that are moving into small towns,” said Dr. Ryan Gibson, study co-author and a rural development researcher at the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development in U of G’s Ontario Agricultural College (OAC). “We wanted to better understand what those challenges are, and how communities, businesses and newcomers might overcome those challenges.” 

Gibson worked on the study, published recently in the Journal of Rural and Community Development, with Louis Helps, a PhD candidate studying rural immigration and migrant labour in the agri-food sector at the OAC, and Dr. Ray Silvius, a political science professor at the University of Winnipeg. 

Social isolation and economic marginalization 

headshot of Prof. Ryan Gibson
Dr. Ryan Gibson

Pre-pandemic, some rural communities and businesses had “vibrant, welcoming strategies” to greet newcomers in person.  

“It was community dinners. It was children joining teams, whether it’s a soccer team or a baseball team. And all those activities were based on people being able to come together,” said Gibson. 

But as the pandemic wore on, those activities were suspended, and communities had to change strategies to attract newcomers, the researchers found. Lack of access to the internet or community spaces made it harder for newcomers to maintain connections with families and friends and cultural organizations. 

“Especially if the services were in a neighbouring community,” said Gibson. “As travel was restricted and as everything migrated to online platforms, those services became challenging and difficult to access, particularly in these areas where internet services aren’t high speed or reliable.”  

The researchers found many businesses reduced their hours and employment opportunities or discontinued them altogether. That was especially the case for industries reliant on foreign workers, who saw their contracts cancelled or shortened.  

During COVID-19 outbreaks, workers in agriculture and agri-food were not always able to maintain physical distancing because of the nature of the work environment, said Gibson.  

Some workers experienced precarity with health and safety conditions but feared speaking out because their employment contract could have been terminated, “which has implications for themselves and their families in their home countries,” said Gibson.  

“That disproportionately affected newcomers compared to most other Canadians that were working,” he added, noting that recruitment numbers of foreign workers returning to Canada have largely bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. 

‘We need to acknowledge that the pandemic has changed’ 

Louis Helps
Rural immigration and migrant labour PhD candidate Louis Helps.

To successfully reduce the impacts of the pandemic on newcomers, migrant workers and immigrants in rural Canada, solutions must include the perspectives of rural communities, said Gibson. 

How people perceive rural immigration needs to change as well, added Helps. There’s a misconception that immigrants to Canada end up only in cities, which is “an issue not just because it creates a distorted image of rural places but also because it reduces awareness of the unique needs of rural newcomers.” 

What’s needed are multifaceted approaches that adapt to address the vulnerabilities, inequities and precarities faced by newcomers, and the inclusion of rural perspectives on immigration in policy-making and public discussion, he said. 

All of that would come together as a place-based approach, which would ensure appropriate rural support, and further the research and data required for evidence-based decisions, all while complementing existing calls to action.  

“One helpful way to think of a place-based approach to immigration is through ‘welcoming communities’-type initiatives” like the community dinners and sports events Gibson mentioned, said Silvius. “These tend to draw on the strengths, resources and knowledge of people in a given location to best tackle matters pertaining to immigration and settlement in ways that make sense for a community.” 

Ray Silvius
University of Winnipeg political scientist Dr. Ray Silvius.

Gibson pointed to the Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron, which provides settlement assistance to immigrants, newcomers, and isolated foreign and Canadian migrants.  

The association’s services include aiding in completing asylum applications, providing settlement workers in schools, orienting newcomers to the area, and offering social and networking support.  

“Every community is incredibly unique with a different history and different economic composition and a different experience with immigration. It’s no single cookie-cutter approach for addressing immigration into rural communities and small towns across Canada,” said Gibson.  

A place-based approach would allow for rural communities and small towns to address the influx of newcomers while considering their different skill sets, aspirations and motivations.  

“We need to ensure that we’re building the right strategies for everybody,” said Gibson.  

Dr. Ryan Gibson