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Spring Issue — April 2006

Canada: the Land of Milk and Honey?

Denise Spitzer does not believe Canadians are inherently racist. We are, by and large, too genuinely polite a people for that. However, in our politeness we have inadvertently created unfair systems that not only determine who gets to succeed, but who stays healthy and who does not.

“I don’t think people get up and say ‘Yes, I think I’m going to go out and oppress a bunch of people today,’” says Spitzer, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in Gender, Migration and Health, who does leading-edge research into recent immigrant and refugee experiences in Canada. “But we are often part of systems that ensure that not everyone has a fair chance.”

Funded by SSHRC, Spitzer has begun a study called “The Land of Milk and Honey?” analyzing what has happened to the thousands of mostly Filipino women who have come to Canada under the auspices of the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP).  Since 1992, the LCP has allowed newcomers to apply for permanent residency after two years of caring for children, the elderly or persons with disabilities while living in the homes of their employers. Many are university-educated nurses, teachers and engineers, who took up work as nannies. Are they happy and healthy in their new lives?

Spitzer, who is working on this project with colleagues at l’Université de Montréal and the University of Alberta, expects not. Her previous studies with Southeast Asian migrants indicated higher levels of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. In addition, an early, small-sample study of women, who completed the LCP, points to the deterioration of their health after living in Canada for10 years.

“When I asked newcomers to do food diaries, they were eating the same food that they were eating back home,” says Spitzer. “Something else is happening. I think — and this is what my issue is — it is chronic stress related to systemic racism.”

The caregivers’ situation is typical of a larger trend for immigrants, says Spitzer. People come to Canada under the point system and are given status for educational and professional credentials. But because of how professional associations and employers adjudicate credentials and previous work experience, many end up in positions not commensurate with their qualifications. “I think it’s those discrepant expectations that create chronic stress and have a significant impact on health,” she says.

Spitzer will put her findings in front of policy makers. She is midway through a two-year project, “Live-In Caregivers in Rural and Small City Alberta,” that is  studying the experiences of former LCP participants, who “landed in the middle of Northern Alberta” without the same support networks as their urban counterparts. The project is funded by SSHRC through Metropolis Canada.

“Some of them were working for single fathers employed in the resource industries who were away at work camps five days a week. That left them basically in charge of the entire household 24 hours a day. It was extremely isolating.”

Canada remains an attractive place for people to come as live-in caregivers, says Spitzer. “It is one of the only places where you can come and become a permanent resident and a citizen.” However, it is not an easy life: “They are under a lot of pressure to get sufficient funds to bring their families over. It’s really hard to do that and go back to school to ‘recredential’ as a teacher or an engineer.”

She is impressed by the resiliency she sees: “People can change their expectations and find other ways to imbue their circumstances with meaning in ways they might not have anticipated.” 

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