COVID Stories: An interview with Bow Valley Settlement Services

By: Cheryl

By: Sara Parker-Toulson, Business Development Coordinator

As part of our COVID Series blogs, MCIS recently interviewed Jeanie Godfrey, Settlement Services Supervisor of Bow Valley Settlement Services. Funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and in partnership with Town of Banff and Town of Canmore, Bow Valley Settlement Services provides essential support and information services to newcomers looking to settle in Canada. They connect immigrants and refugees with information about community services, language options, housing information, citizenship and permanent residency, health benefits and financial resources. They provide in-school support for newcomers with school-aged children, including planning before family arrival, school registration and orientation, after-school programming, parent information sessions, and ongoing student, family, and staff support. Settlement Services also provides information and programs for employers and agencies working with immigrants, including cross-cultural training, ongoing information about employer and employee trends and needs, and referrals.

MCIS: Can you give us a general overview of what Bow Valley Settlement Services does?

BVSS: Bow Valley Settlement Services is a one-stop shop for refugees, live-in caregivers and new immigrants transitioning to permanent residency in the Bow Valley area. We also work in the surrounding area of Lake Louise. We are the only ones who provide these types of services in the local area. We provide support with connecting newcomers with jobs, housing, and schooling. We provide services in all aspects of immigration, and provide answers to any questions or support information or orientation they need.

MCIS: What is your role in the organization?

BVSS: I am the Supervisor for Bow Valley Settlement Services, leading a team of eight. We have also hired contract counsellors who work with our clients as well. I began as a cross-cultural trainer; that’s how I got into this line of work. Our team is very diverse and come from lots of different backgrounds and principles. Many are newcomers themselves. We have members on our team from Japan, the Philippines, and from Slovenia.

MCIS: Can you tell us more about the type of services Bow Valley Settlement Services provides?

BVSS: We cover the whole spectrum. Whereas larger population centres organizations like ours would specialize in youth programs or women’s programs or language programs, for us, since we are the only organization available for newcomers, we have to provide a broad range of services. Often, we bring in experts to help in specific areas.

Over the past couple of years in our area, we have been providing services in response to growing employment opportunities, specifically in Lake Louise. We have a lot of secondary migration of refugees. Although we have relatively few refugees who want to settle here, they do make their way here for employment. And so what we’re finding is that we are doing work to support these refugees in ways that we’ve never done before. We aren’t specifically funded or trained to support refugee clients, but we are finding a lot of secondary migration to our area. Most of those are arriving – and this is often surprising to others – with pre-benchmark English skills. This means that their language ability in English is not high enough to take the test in order to get into the free language classes.

You might ask how people are being hired without English language skills. A lot of it happened by accident! Some of it happened through purposeful employment. What I mean is that many of the refugees didn’t know that it was they themselves who needed to do an online or a Zoom interview for the job. And employers didn’t realize that those who were therefore doing the interviews were not those applying for the job! No one had thought about how this is a very new process for many refugees, and that there wasn’t any intent to deceive. But, it was a great learning moment because suddenly, a local employer found themselves with a number of employees who didn’t have language skills but really wanted to continue to work with them. So, we were the organization that would come in and ensure that the refugee employees have all the support to be successful here.

MCIS: Are there any challenges and/or benefits to working with refugees that you can talk about?

BVSS: There are a lot of amazing benefits. We are using their assets in many ways. For example, we have something called a Cultural Lunch ever Thursday in the Town of Banff, and once a month we get to take over and host the event. So the ethno-cultural groups that we work with, we help them to organize and they host the lunches. At these events, the community gets to learn more about their culture and learn a little about the food and the language. Well over 200 people attend these events every time. So that’s a way that we are giving back to the community.

MCIS: How has COVID-19 impacted your organization?

BVSS: Giving back to and supporting our communities has been a challenge during COVID-19. We are working with limited resources and need to support those with very limited English skills. This is where MCIS’ interpretation services have been invaluable to us. Supporting a client whose first language is Macedonian or Amharic is difficult because we don’t often get a chance to plan – clients will call or show up whenever it is convenient or suitable for them. We needed to put these language interpretation sessions in place very quickly, and I cannot sing the praises of MCIS enough for providing those to us free of cost.

When COVID-19 hit, we were really struggling with ensuring that our refugee clients with very low English skills were receiving the information they needed to keep themselves and the community safe. And without the support of MCIS, I think our community would be in a much different situation. We were able to keep a lot of the challenges at bay that other employers have been having in Alberta. There were large outbreaks in the areas that had a high immigrant workforce. In Banff, 85% of our workforce was laid off; it was nearly 100% in Lake Louise.

For many immigrants and refugees, there was very complex information needed in order to navigate the financial supports that were available. MCIS was able to help us with almost every refugee client. The support in their [the refugee client’s first language has been so comforting not only to us, but to our clients and their employers as well. Most refugees and other clients are not used to the social supports that we have. So we needed to explain what EI is and how it operates, and explain that it won’t play against them if they accept the help.

Between 35% and 40% of this community is made up of newcomers, so there is a lot of support that’s needed. Many newcomers arrive without their families, and about 60% of newcomers have been separated from their families for six or seven, even eight years because most of them came through the foreign worker program in Alberta. In this program, you can come to Canada as a dishwasher, food attendant, or as a light duty housekeeper, and you can transition to permanent residency. But you can see that if we worked with every single family on their reunification challenges, we would be extended beyond capacity of our team. So we developed group-based workshops to cover information and orientation. Then from there, we step into one-on-one services.

When COVID-19 hit, everything went out the window! We were able to keep 50% of our group services eventually, but when that number went below 50%, we were very taxed as a team. We became part of the emergency command centre for our community. We had to develop new workshops that covered new needs as they were emerging. We worked very hard to catch up and develop sessions that covered these new systems of financial support the government was providing. Once we did that, we were again able to address both group and individual needs.

MCIS: Were there any other COVID-related challenges that you faced?

BVSS: Another COVID challenge was technology. Every week we were meeting with three different groups that spoke different languages. Many of them did not have computer literacy, and some of those who did have it did not have access to computers or the Internet. It took 17 weeks to get everyone computer literate and equipped, but we were eventually able to get from teleconferencing and phone calls to Zoom meetings, and to set up a computer lending system for our clients.

The computer lending system was necessary because the public places people could go to in order to use computers – libraries, the job resource centre, etc. – they were all shut down because of COVID. The emergency command centre in the Town of Banff ultimately set up a computer station, just to be used by settlement services. Then, we were able to come in with the proper precautions and one by one, we were able to get them [clients] set up on the computers. Once they had that knowledge, they were able to access the information orientation sessions on a weekly basis and were able to move away from the teleconference calls with multiple lines.

Food insecurity can be a large issue here. Banff is different from other communities in the sense that there is a “need to reside” rule, which means that in order to live here, you must have a job. And with that job comes accommodation, and with accommodation comes food. Most people live in staff accommodations here. So you can imagine that when someone loses their job, they lose their accommodation and cheaper access to food. So it is very complicated in our area.

Fortunately, we have many amazing employers here that allowed people to remain in their accommodation during this time, paying a nominal fee so that at the very least, people still had a place to live. They also supported the employees with food. Organizations like the Banff & Lake Louise Hospitality Association, which is a conglomerate of all of the hotels in our area, were exchanging accommodation availability between employees who needed it. Everyone was working collaboratively together to make sure people had what they needed.

MCIS: How can MCIS further support you?

BVSS: The support we have been given by MCIS has been invaluable. In particular, supporting our clients who speak rare languages has been much easier given that we have been able to get an interpreter from MCIS within just a minute and a half in these uncommon languages. Although these services have been excellent for us, we could also use your translation services in some cases.

When COVID-19 hit us, there was some confusion over whether it was the employer or employee’s responsibility to make sure the employees had understandable information and documents with which to navigate the new terrain. Employers were caught off guard when many of their employees who had been functioning well at their jobs with the language skills they had, were unable to understand these complex documents concerning their employment status or new procedures in their work. So, it sort of fell on us to provide the translation service or interpretation services. Going forward, I think translation services would be an ongoing need that MCIS might be able to help us address. However, it’s important to note that this need wasn’t very well understood at the beginning and it was very minor in comparison to the support that we received from MCIS.

MCIS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

BVSS: I think the generosity of MCIS as an organization, the tremendous support you get from your funders, and those that are supporting you in order to support other communities and community members. It really has been one of the best experiences we’ve had as a settlement organization, to work with MCIS. I know we are many thousands of kilometers apart, but somehow you truly understood our situation. I think those who were doing the actual interpretation, they seemed very well trained, very engaged, and really want to do a good job. We have had great success with everyone from MCIS who has been on board with us.

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