#Why Alberta isn’t ready for its population boom

Souleka Mustapha, director of programs and services at Alberta Immigrant Women & Children Centre, says 100 newcomers arrive at her centre every day. (Photography by Amber Bracken)

In 1996, when I was four, my family immigrated from Somalia to Montreal. My father was a French teacher, and my mother took care of me and my six siblings, with the support of the local Somali community. But Montreal was expensive for a family of nine, so we moved to Alberta in 2006. The province was in the middle of an oil boom, and we’d heard there were a lot of jobs and cheaper rent there. I had an aunt who lived in Edmonton, so we stayed with her until we found our own place. 

Edmonton was a big adjustment: the winters were harsher and the Somali community was smaller. We didn’t know any settlement agencies that could help us, so every day after work, my father spent hours trying to find an affordable place big enough for our family. For several months, there were 15 of us, including my aunt’s family, all squeezed into a four-bedroom townhouse. My father spoke English but my mother didn’t, so my siblings and I stepped up as translators for her and helped with paperwork for things like passports and income support. Eventually, we found a home with affordable rent and my mother picked up the language. 

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to give back and make a positive difference for newcomers to Canada. I graduated with a political science degree from MacEwan University with a dream of eventually working in the UN. In 2017, I joined Alberta Immigrant Women and Children Centre, or AIWCC, a non-profit settlement agency in Edmonton that helps women and their families find employment, housing, mental health services, social inclusion and early-childhood care. In 2018, I moved up the ladder and became its director of programs and services.

Our services are crucial in Alberta, which is now Canada’s fastest-growing province. We’re welcoming a massive influx of newcomers: in 2023, Alberta’s population grew by 184,400—by over four per cent—much of which came from immigration. These people arrive from all over the world, with the Philippines, India and Nigeria ranking as the top three countries of origin. Last year alone, AIWCC served 8,500 children, 6,000 adults and 1,400 seniors. We’re well on our way to surpassing those numbers in 2024.

Get our top stories sent directly to your inbox twice a week

Another chief driver of Alberta’s population growth is interprovincial migration: newcomers moving here from other provinces, primarily B.C. and Ontario. Between 2022 and 2023, Alberta had a net gain of 56,245 people from other provinces—the highest annual net increase for any province or territory since data tracking began in the early 1970s. Alberta has become a refuge for migrants seeking a cheaper cost of living and housing than other big provinces: the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,073 in Calgary and $1,617 in Edmonton—considerably less than in Vancouver and Toronto—and the average home price in Alberta is just $476,066. Albertans also generally pay the lowest taxes across the country, with low income taxes and no sales tax.

But with a population boom comes new challenges—for newcomers above all else, but also for AIWCC and the province. Many migrants have to stay in hotels while they figure out their housing and employment. We also serve government-assisted refugees arriving from Ontario and B.C. after their one-year federal support expired. When newcomers come through our doors at AIWCC, they’re often already in distress.

A photo of two women speaking in a grey room with a large window

Youth program coordinator Shukri Othman and women and family empowerment coordinator Sarah Yassin are two of the centre’s 40 staffers. Many of them are on the brink of burnout.

We can only do so much to help. There’s a four-year wait list for social housing in Edmonton, and it will only get longer. We can’t do much to help newcomers secure a home beyond helping them with their applications or referring them to organizations that provide homes for low-income families. When those pathways don’t work out, people have to settle for rundown homes or units that are too small for their families. Employment poses another hurdle. Newcomers are not picky about what jobs they get; they just want stable, decent-paying work so they can support their families. Employers often require Canadian work experience in their hires. However, if immigrants don’t have Canadian work experience, then it’s much more difficult for them to get a job. They’re trapped in a catch-22.

These obstacles perpetuate a sense of frustration and stagnation among those striving to build a new life here. They’ve sacrificed so much and taken big risks to move to Canada—like my family did—and no one is giving them the most basic tools to succeed here.

A photo of a group of senior seated at a table with water bottles in front of them

The centre has programming like a gardening workshop (above), offered in Afghani, Arabic and Eritrean

Last November, a Somali woman arrived from B.C. She’d spent all her savings on a flight to Edmonton and a hotel room she shared with her two young children. She struggled to find housing and work because she didn’t speak any English. Over the next few weeks, we helped her file applications for social housing and income support, found schools for her children, enrolled her in our ESL classes and set her up with the food program we run in partnership with Edmonton’s Food Bank. Within a few months, she’d found a home and her children were going to school. I saw her again recently and her transformation was incredible: she was excited for the future and focused on boosting her English so that she can get a better job to support her family.

We wish every story turned out like hers, but we’re struggling to handle the rapidly increasing demand for our services. Newcomers often struggle to find work because they can’t speak English or lack sufficient Canadian work experience. Without jobs, they also need help finding affordable housing. More people are coming to Edmonton, which means more are turning to AIWCC for help. About 100 people come through our doors every day, and we often go into overtime to see as many of them as possible. For months, many of our staff have been at the brink of burnout. Even still, we’re routinely forced to reschedule appointments for several weeks down the road or refer people to other agencies so they can get help more quickly.

Not every case is as simple as the Somali family’s: some people have more complex needs. For example, in the early days of the pandemic, one man with serious mental health issues ran afoul of the law and risked losing his permanent residence. One of our case workers worked around the clock to find him affordable legal representation because he didn’t qualify for legal aid. The case worker scheduled appointments with nine lawyers before he found the best one. In the end, the man was able to keep his permanent residence, and he’s still living in Edmonton today. I worry that we might not be able to provide that same level of support for other clients because we’re stretched so thin. We have 40 staffers, but we need at least double that number right now.

A photo of three people's hands as they scoop dirt into small plastic pots

Seniors take turns filling plastic pots with dirt during the gardening workshop

Funding is a lifeline for AIWCC, and while the federal, provincial and municipal governments supported us with a $2 million budget last year, the funding has to increase with growing demand. In Canada, the federal funding to support settlement agencies is determined by the province where migrants initially arrive. That’s why B.C., Ontario and Quebec get more than Alberta. But this funding system overlooks interprovincial migration. It is crucial for federal funding to align with these evolving realities.

In the meantime, we’re creating initiatives on our own, too. To help satisfy the work-experience requirement for new Canadians, we partner with local retail stores and restaurants. They provide newcomers with job opportunities and skills training while fulfilling their workforce needs—a win-win.

Most importantly, governments must invest in affordable housing and social infrastructure. Alberta’s population is projected to hit five million as early as 2025, and I doubt the province is ready to handle the influx in terms of health care, education and other public services. At AIWCC, we’re committed to supporting as many newcomers as possible. We assisted more than 15,000 people last year, but we need help. My family was fortunate enough to succeed in Canada, but sometimes it feels like the system is set up for immigrants to fail. Newcomers bring so much to this country, so the least we can do is give them the basic tools to build a life here. 

I still dream of working for the UN one day, but my work with AIWCC is my priority right now. It is my deep hope that, through collaborative efforts and increased funding, we can bridge the gap between the dreams of immigrants and the reality of thriving in Alberta.

 —As told to Ali Amad

If you liked the article, do not forget to share it with your friends. Follow us on Google News too, click on the star and choose us from your favorites.

If you want to read more News articles, you can visit our General category.


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button

Please allow ads on our site

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker!